The UT Institute of Agriculture has garnered recent criticism for plans to lease all the land in the 8,600-acre Cumberland Forest to an oil and gas company, but UTIA stands firm on claims that the project has important research implications.
In 2001, an energy company named New River Energy, LLC, a partner of CONSOL Energy, reached out to UT for the purpose of leasing the Cumberland Forest from the school for the drilling of oil and gas.
The University was interested, as the royalties would have provided a new source of revenue for the school. However, when the state moved to open the plan for public debate in 2009, UT quickly removed the proposal and shelved the project.
This year, the issue of leasing out the Cumberland Forest for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, once again came under scrutiny. The proposal remains the same, but a short, four-page statement that claims a to-be-determined research initiative is the justification for the drilling.
In a letter sent to the State Building Commission in March 2013, the Southern Environmental Law Center claimed that the promised research proposal is an attempt to mask UT's financial incentive to begin the project.
By relying on internal UT documents, the SELC pointed out that the Institute of Agriculture has a significant financial stake in the project; according to 2009 notes that the SELC discovered, the land could yield anywhere from $3 million to $5 million dollars a year.
"There will be a stream of millions of dollars of income that will continue if the University's study finds no problem with hydraulic fracturing," the letter states. "No amount of disclosure or other safeguards can eliminate the bias inherent
in the proposed lease agreement."
Kevin Hoyt, the director of the Forest Resources Research & Education Center within the UT Institute of Agriculture, said that the reason UT does not have any actual research proposals going into the project is that they are waiting to get the approval from the state.
UT has already gained approval from the State Building Commission, and the Board of Trustees is expected to make a final vote on the proposal in October.
Many individuals have raised alarm, claiming that the proposed fracking is nothing more than an attempt to raise money for the university at the expense of the home of Tennessee's last redwoods.
One of the environmental groups on campus, Students Promoting Environmental Action in Knoxville, is particularly concerned.
"So far, students at the University of Tennessee have been working with environmentalists across the state to ... try and get UT to stop this issue of fracking," said David Hayes, a SPEAK member and junior in supply chain management and sustainability. "At first this was just from an environmental point of view... but then we started learning about other issues, started realizing that UT has been trying to do this since 2001 [or] 2003 and now they're trying to tag on research.
"They've been... kinda sneaky."
While the land being leased will only gain the University funds estimated at six figures, the real money is in the royalties of the natural gas and other resources that will be sold from the land UT owns. The royalties will change according to the market, but UT will receive somewhere between 12 and 17 percent of the proceeds from the wells.
Gary McCracken, a professor and the head of the Department of Ecology and
Evolutionary Biology, said the concern lies in the lack of transparency.
"It is very clear from everything that they've said leading into it that it's a revenue-generating project," McCracken said.
Members within the UTIA, however, defend the process. As director of the Tennessee Agricultural Experiment Station, Bill Brown said that UT and its research areas, such as the Cumberland Forest, work to provide information and products for the state and citizens of Tennessee. Brown also said that UTIA's financial stake will be around $900,000 a year, which will go back into the project, contrary to what the SELC has found in other UT documents.
Noting the efforts at other research stations involving better crops and livestock, Brown sees no difference between the proposed fracking and other agriculturally related projects.
"We are very mission-oriented... we react to the needs of the clientele," he said. "So based on what we have been hearing relative to public concerns over gas and oil extraction in the state ... we began hearing more and more input, desire [for] the need for additional research in this area.
"In this project, we're really looking at the research side of this...So the difference is that with this RFP we are articulating a research program to address the questions and concerns we are hearing."
The request for proposal he referenced for the Cumberland Forest project contains the aforementioned four-page letter detailing which areas will be studied.
Despite being approved by the State Building Commission, the RFP does not articulate a single scientific study for the land.
"This has been a decision that I have made, and I will take full responsibility, full criticism," Brown said. "I believe it is the right approach. It would be irresponsible for me to ask the faculty to develop detailed research plans, to put together detailed grant proposals to federal agencies...to articulate specific research plans...without the knowledge we can move forward."
Dr. McCracken disagrees and believes other motives are at play in the process.
"They started the project under the pretense this will be an experimental research based project... they are going forward with this under the pretense of it being a research project, without having a research program, and that's not the way we do research," McCracken said. McCracken also added that a Freedom of Information Act request by the SELC made it clear that there are ulterior motives for this project.
He said that there is a series of emails between administrators and other high-ranking officials at the UTIA about how clever it was to reconfigure this as a research project. The emails also contain economic estimates about how much money the University might yield from fracking, a fact that the UTIA has publicly downplayed.
"There are now public statements that are underestimating these findings," McCracken said.
The proposal awaits Board approval in October, and if passed, could lead to drilling as early as 2015.
"The Tennessee Department of Environmental Conservation– who has established the regulations for oil and gas drilling in Tennessee – has set standards that are far lower than the industry standards," McCracken said.