As a prominent retired anti-fracking academic prepares to take legal action against his former employer Glasgow University, new emails uncovered by Spinwatch raise doubts over the university’s close relationship with the shale gas industry.
Professor David Smythe last week crowd-funded more than £11,600 to challenge the university’s right to terminate his lifelong online research access after he published an article critical of the shale gas industry.
The move by the university came just three days after the discussion article was published in late January this year by Smythe in the respectable European journal, Solid Earth.
His article concluded that: ‘the complex faulted geology of the UK shale basins does not favour exploitation by unconventional means ... If fracking of shale is ever to proceed in the UK on a safe environmental basis, far more rigorous regulation of the operators is also required than is current practice’.
The university abruptly terminated Smythe’s online access to scientific journals and his email account without warning or explanation. This was despite the fact that when he took early retirement in 1998, he was made an emeritus professor of geophysics and an honorary senior research fellow and is therefore entitled to lifelong academic access.
Smythe, who currently lives in the south of France, believes the university is trying to silence him. ‘In my research I depend completely upon having access to the online academic database via a link to the University of Glasgow, my former employer.’
He claims his access was cut off because one of the university’s senior staff, engineering professor and member of the university court, Professor Paul Younger, ‘disagrees with my views on fracking; he and many other UK earth science academics depend upon industry and government for research grants.’
A former adviser to the Scottish Government’s expert panel on unconventional gas, Younger has accused Smythe of ‘pseudo-scientific scaremongering’ over fracking.
Younger has also received funding and was a non-executive director of the company Five Quarter which was involved in exploring for gas from underground offshore coal deposits, until it collapsed in March this year.
Smythe, who has represented many community groups opposed to shale gas, argues that wider issues are afoot too: 'The companies that I have criticised technically include Cuadrilla Resources, Dart Energy, IGas, and Celtique Energie. The common theme in my work is the risk of contamination of groundwater resources due to the complex faulted geology of the UK.'
He believes Glasgow University is worried because it is trying to ‘develop close links’ with Cuadrilla, one of the UK’s leading shale companies.
Emails obtained by Smythe through a ‘subject access request’ and published by The Ferret and DesmogBlogUk reveal that the university terminated the geophysics professor’s email account and access to scientific papers, in part, because his anti-fracking views were upsetting these ‘industrial research partners’.
However, the university claims that the termination was part of a ‘routine review’.
Now information by Spinwatch, via a freedom of information request, reveals communication between staff and Cuadrilla over the Smythe article.
Emails in the FOI response also reveal that a university colleague of Younger, Dr Rob Westaway, twice contacted Cuadrilla immediately after Smythe’s article was published in late January.
‘You might be interested in this article by David Smythe’, read one email. ‘As part of its review procedure, this particular journal invites comments from anyone, not just the appointed reviewers, before making a decision whether to publish a definitive paper, rather than just the present “discussion” version. If you wish to post a commentary you have roughly four weeks to do so’.
The email suggests that the university was encouraging Cuadrilla to reply to an article calling for stricter regulation of the industry.
Both Younger and Westaway submitted highly critical responses to Smythe’s article.
So did Cuadrilla. On 2 March, the journal published in its discussion forum a response from Huw Clarke at Cuadrilla, the company’s senior well site geologist for its Bowland shale operations.
Clarke defended the UK’s regulatory regime: ‘The opinion Smythe states on the regulatory system in the UK is also counter to that which is widely held; that UK oil and gas regulation is viewed as a global exempla’.
This is not the first time that Younger, Westaway and Cuadrilla have communicated over rebutting a scientific paper. Back in October 2014, the two academics contacted Cuadrilla to rebut a paper from Manchester University ‘claiming amongst other things that UK shale gas might well be “sour” and may thus cause significant levels of air pollution’.
Emails show that the Glasgow academics had been communicating with the fracking firm since at least 2014. In May 2015, one executive from Cuadrilla wrote requesting a meeting: ‘Your scientific contribution to the often over-heated UK shale gas debate is very much appreciated’, wrote Cuadrilla. A company representative flew to Glasgow to meet them in June 2015, the same month Lancashire Country Council was considering Cuadrilla’s applications to drill for shale gas at two sites.
Such closeness between academics and a controversial company such as Cuadrilla could be seen as damaging to the university and its academic independence, especially as Westaway and Younger have been previously quoted in the press as saying that the current rules governing fracking in Britain are ‘too strict’.
Smythe is looking forward to his legal challenge. ‘We need to demonstrate that Glasgow University cannot suppress views simply because certain of their current employees happen to disagree with these views’, he says.
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