The University of Tennessee wants to allow hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas on a state-owned tract of rolling woodland and use the revenue to fund research into the environmental impact of such drilling — a proposal that environmentalists condemn as a conflict of interest.
The unique proposal is being considered as national debate continues over "fracking." Energy companies use the procedure to remove gas or oil from rock formations by forcing liquids underground at high pressure. Many universities say they lack the money to properly study its environmental implications.
Gwen Parker, a Nashville-based staff attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said her group is taking a lead in trying to block the move. She called the university's proposal a "fundamental conflict of interest."
"We have not been able to find any instances of a university drilling on their land and funding their research with revenues from the drilling activities," Parker said.
Without an appraisal, it was unclear how much revenue such drilling could yield, though some said it could be in the range of millions of dollars annually.
The university wants state permission to allow an outside company to drill on about 8,000 acres of mature woodlands it maintains as an outdoor laboratory in the Cumberland Plateau — all while performing research on the effects on water quality, air quality and ground impacts.
University officials argue that because the property is state-owned, they can maintain control over the drilling project and provide independent scientific results in an area of the industry where many environmental questions remain.
On Friday, the university presented its proposal to a subcommittee of the State Building Commission, which voted unanimously to allow the university to seek bids from companies.
"Our intention is science-based investigation," said Larry Arrington, chancellor of the UT Institute of Agriculture. "We will move forward in a transparent manner, in which we will seek to engage and receive input from all interested parties."
Before the meeting, about 50 people against fracking held a rally across the street from the state Capitol.
"We should not be allowing fracking in the state of Tennessee until we are absolutely certain that we have regulations ... in place that are going to guarantee the protection of water quality," said Scott Banbury, one of the organizers.
Environmentalists also argue that preservation of the forest tract in question is critical because it is one of the few mature forests still intact in the state's Cumberland Mountains region.
Gov. Bill Haslam is supportive of the university's proposal.
Shale formations undergird a wide swath of Appalachia. Hydraulic fracturing has touched off a boom, making enormous reserves of natural gas accessible where previous methods could not. Natural gas is extracted using large volumes of water, plus sand and chemicals, injected deep underground to break rock apart, freeing the gas. But environmentalists say the fluids could pollute water sources and methane leaks could cause air pollution.
"There are questions surrounding natural gas extraction and we have the facilities, and we have the faculty, so have obligation to investigate in an unbiased, scientific way to provide those answers," said Dr. Bill Brown, dean for research and director of the University of Tennessee Agricultural Experiment Station.
Other universities that have studied fracking have faced criticism about their scientific findings after it became known that researchers had ties to the energy industry.
The University of Texas at Austin recently said it would appoint outside experts to review that school's Energy Institute, which issued a report on environmental effects from gas without disclosing that the lead researcher was also being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by an energy company.
And in May, a report from New York's University at Buffalo generated similar controversy because of a researcher's ties to the gas industry.
Brown said the faculty who would work on the Tennessee project would be screened for outside relationships with industry contacts. He said other funding sources, such as federal or state grants, would be sought. He also rejected the suggestion that possible involvement by an energy company in the project would affect research findings.
"We need to get past this notion that if the university works with an industry, that somehow we are compromised or tainted," Brown said. "Ultimately, many of the technologies that our faculty develops are going to be delivered to the market through the industry."
Parker said the university has attempted to push this proposal through the approval process without getting an independent appraisal of property value or the natural gas below ground. She also said there hasn't been enough time to get details about the project.
Pittsburgh-based Consol Energy Inc. hired Bryan Kaegi, a fundraiser for Haslam and other prominent Tennessee Republicans, to help shepherd the proposal through the approval process.
Kaegi, who has not registered as a lobbyist, said in the correspondence with school officials that he had met with the governor and environmental officials to make the case for the program. Kaegi did not return messages seeking comment.
Brown said if the subcommittee approves the university's request to seek bids, they will have to evaluate those and go back to the State Building Commission for final approval.
On the Web:
University of Tennessee's proposal to allow drilling: https://ag.tennessee.edu/Pages/Gas-and-Oil.aspx
Associated Press writers Erik Schelzig and Lucas L. Johnson II in Nashville contributed to this report.