Anyone who frequents this blobber knows I'm in the tank for the University of Tennessee, regardless of the sport involved. I'm from that area of the state, bleed orange, and have an unhealthy emotional attachment to all things UT (and I'm talking about the real UT, not that abomination from Austin, Texas...)
But this morning I'm more than a little bit ashamed of my university. According to a story in this morning's The Tennessean (motto: "The SEC Basketball Tournament's in town, so real news starts on Page Two this week!") the University of Tennessee's Institute of Agriculture has been working behind the scenes to partner with oil and gas companies to lease drilling sites in an 8,000 acre protected forest the University manages through its Forest Resources and AgResearch Center. The University says it wants to "study" the effects of hydraulic fracturing on the environment, since there's a lack of comprehensive data about the practice.
The University wants nothing of the sort. What the University of Tennessee is interested in is money. The area in question is known as Cumberland Forest, and it sits near an area where oil and gas leases are already in use on private lands. UT has managed the forest since it was established in 1947, and it is the largest area of research land available to the University. It is also the largest tract of mature hardwoods in the Cumberland Mountains and is a vital area in the Cowan Creek watershed.
An editorial in The Tennessean cites information obtained by the Southern Environmental Law Center which suggests UT has been in private consultations with New River Energy and CONSOL Energy to obtain oil and gas leases in exchange for new access roads into the protected forest, and for "resulting benefits of timber harvests."
The University will go before members of the State Building Commission today at the Legislative Plaza in Nashville to seek permission to obtain bids for the proposal, and already there are plans for protests at the state capitol. The fact that this program was completely hidden from the public until exposed by SELC and The Sierra Club ought to be reason enough to warrant public scrutiny.
The University of Tennessee is on the wrong side of history if they think selling out to oil and gas companies for a temporary infusion of cash will be of long term benefit to the environment or to the University itself. Similar fracking studies conducted by universities in Texas and New York were widely criticized due to the conflict of interest created when oil companies partner with the schools doing the research into their practices. When millions of dollars are changing hands, it's hard for a university to remain impartial.
Studying the environmental effects of fracking is valuable work, and we're way behind the curve in that regard. Some areas of the country where the practice is common have reported varying degrees of environmental destruction, and those areas are prime for research of this nature. It's not necessary to take pristine land down the oil companies' rabbit hole in order to study the effects of fracking. It's on display at thousands of sites nationwide. Go there if you need to study the practice, but don't risk spoiling land donated to the University in exchange for a quick infusion of cash to a struggling program.
Protecting that land ought to be the University's number one goal, not making a profit from the extraction industries and calling it "research."