by Walter Brasch
Dr. Geoffrey Thyne, a hydrogeologist, didn’t plan to be an expert witness for law firms. But, that’s the way it turned out shortly before he planned to retire.
He had spent most of his career working in the oil/gas industry and then in academics. He didn’t have problems when he worked for ARCO for seven years after getting an M.S. in oceanography from the University of South Florida. However, he did have problems in academics when he tried to tell the truth.
After five years as an assistant professor at California State University at Bakersfield, in the heart of the state’s rich oil industry, he left to become associate professor/researcher at the Colorado School of Mines (CSM), a public university with a strong reputation in engineering and applied sciences. For 10 years, he taught and did research. But in 2006, as horizontal fracking began to be the way the industry was headed, he learned that research is compromised by politics.
That’s the year he was asked by the Oil and Gas Accountability Project (OGAP) to evaluate an EPA study about horizontal fracking. The EPA study, conducted during the Bush–Cheney administration, had claimed there were no problems with horizontal fracking, one that used millions of gallons of water, dozens of toxic chemicals, and a new procedure to extract trapped gas in narrow shales.
“I wasn’t aware of the study, or much about fracking,” says Dr. Thyne, “but I looked at the document and said it appeared to be political.” He did say there was no data to lead to the EPA conclusions, which would eventually be used to help justify the Halliburton Loophole, which exempted the industry from numerous environmental laws. But, it was Dr. Thyne’s observation about the validity of the EPA report that upset the university’s administration.
Research about fracking apparently upset some in the administration, one of whom was Dr. Myles W. Scoggins who had worked for Mobil and ExxonMobil for more than three decades, eventually becoming president of the International Exploration & Production and Global Exploration division and then executive vice president of ExxonMobil Production Co. before becoming CSM president in 2006. In 2014, the last year of his presidency, Dr. Scoggins received $380,000 in salary and, according to the Public Affairs Institute, about $800,000 from being on the boards of three oil and energy companies.
A meeting with a low-level administrator resulted in an agreement that Dr. Thyne should not say that there was insufficient data in the EPA study and that he could not identify himself as from CSM in public and written statements.
But, there was more. Dr. Thyne soon began advocating for more university research about fracking and its effects.
This time, instead of a department head telling him never to use his university affiliation in his research and public statements, it was a university vice-president. Dr. Nigel T. Middleton, vice-president of academic affairs, told Dr. Thyne the university was dropping him to half-time employment and ordered him not to discuss fracking. Dr. Middleton also has a long history of work with the oil and gas industry.
Dr. Thyne believes the initial protest this time came from the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA). The university president for four years (2007–2011) was on the board of directors of COGA.
In an official public relations statement, CSM denied terminating Dr. Thyne’s employment. The university claimed Dr. Thyne left CSM solely because he had another job. However, that was a carefully-couched distortion of truth. CSM did not renew his contract after he did an interview with National Public Radio, and reiterated his position that there was insufficient data to justify EPA conclusions.
The American Association of University Professors had wanted to take up Dr. Thyne’s case as a violation of academic freedom—“but I declined because by that time, it really seemed to be a no-win situation.”
The next year, he became a researcher at the University of Wyoming, from where he received a Ph.D. in geology in 1991. This time, six years after he began working at the university, a comment made to a local newspaper led to his termination. The Cheyenne Tribune–Eagle had published a five-part series about fracking and water usage. He says he had told the reporter each well could use two to ten million gallons of water, but for certain wells the water used could be 350,000 to one million gallons per stage, and that there could be as many as 40 stages of drilling. The reporter took the maximum per stage, and the maximum number of stages, and noted there could be more than 40 million gallons of water used. The source of the highest possible number of gallons was unattributed. However, representatives of the industry demanded to know the source, which the newspaper’s editor revealed.
That eventually led to Dr. Thyne being called before the university’s vice-president of government affairs and a representative from Noble Energy, who demanded he retract the highest number, a number Dr. Thyne had never given the newspaper. Like CSM, the University of Wyoming also demanded that Dr. Thyne deny that any of his comments represented the views of the University of Wyoming. Shortly after that meeting, Dr. Thyne was told, “Your services are no longer needed.” He was never told why his employment was terminated. Because Wyoming is a “right-to-work” state, there was no grievance procedure. The university could easily claim, without having to prove the truth, that there were no more research funds to justify Dr Thyne’s continued employment. David Mohrbacher, director of the university’s Enhanced Oil Recovery Institute, told the Boulder (Colo.) Weekly
the reason for not renewing Dr. Thyne’s was because, “We chose a different way to go, and really that’s all I can say.”
Dr. Thyne’s last academic employment was in 2012. “With fracking booming, I thought there would be a lot of jobs,” he says but no one in academia had wanted him. A couple of years later, he found out why. “A friend told me to check out YouTube.” On that social network, he found a one-minute video, which he recorded in 2011, that stated human error in the fracking process can cause water pollution.
“I’m not naive, I understand politics,” says Dr. Thyne, who acknowledges, “It’s been a difficult transition,” but one he accepts because he will not sacrifice his academic integrity for political convenience.