Wednesday, December 18, 2013

CADAVER COSMETICS: Penn State's "Marcellus by Design," MCOR, and the Edu-Green-Washing of Big Gas

Penn State just doesn't seem to be able to figure out how to be a university--as opposed to a corporate-sponsored research hub, job training program center, and now green-washing "reclamation" aesthetics authority--for the natural gas industry.

It's old news that Penn State epitomizes Frackademia. As reported by Reid R. Frazier of The Allegheny Front and Olivia Garber of PublicSource in 2011, "the school does not give out the information because companies do not want their competitors to know what research they’re doing — or that they’re sponsoring university research at all." Moreover, "[i]n 2007, Penn State President Graham Spanier lobbied the state legislature to not include {Penn State] under the state’s revamped "Right-to-Know" law... Mr. Spanier said the schools should not have to disclose donor gifts, vendor contracts, intellectual property licensing agreements or the source of the university’s $100 million in corporate sponsored research..."Making details of contracts publicly available will threaten our competitive position with universities outside of Pennsylvania, as well as with private universities within Pennsylvania," Mr. Spanier said." (

No doubt that dollar amount as increased since 2007, and with it the prerogative and influence of the corporations upon whose fortunes Penn State depends. And no doubt that funding will remain as undisclosed as Penn State can make it.

Hence it's just astonishing that since the well-deserved public flogging Penn State suffered over its industry front-group funded 2009 study was exposed as in the tank for the gas--right along with its lead researcher--Tim Considine ( the university has sought to shore up its compromised reputation through the creation of its own industry-sponsored front group, the Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research (MCOR--

University officials say confidentiality makes universities more attractive partners to corporations and, furthermore, the agreements help to educate students. Gas companies fund the research of Dan Kohl, 23, a master’s student in Penn State’s Department of Geosciences. Kohl has a job lined up after he graduates working in Marcellus shale for Chevron. "Who are our main customers? They’re the students," said Mike Arthur, a Penn State geologist and co-director of the school’s Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research. "Students expect an education that will get them a job." Mr. Arthur helps run a shale gas research group funded by a consortium of a dozen gas companies. The companies pay $40,000 each to fund graduate student projects regarding the geology of the hydrocarbon-rich Marcellus Shale. Funders include large shale gas players such as Chesapeake Energy, Shell and Statoil. A spokesman for Statoil said in an email that the state-owned Norwegian oil company was "interested in collaborating with key North American research institutions" to better understand shale gas formations such as the Marcellus. "Penn State is one of those leading institutions and has a great deal of experience in studying and interpreting the Marcellus Shale," he said. Mr. Arthur says the consortium, the Appalachian Basin Black Shale Group, gives his students real-world experience, working with industry scientists to study problems the energy industry is interested in. "Part of that means we have to work with industry. We have to know, ‘What techniques are they using? How are those techniques evolving? What are the possible hot topics in the future?’ " Mr. Arthur said. "We’re not going to learn this by sitting and reading books. We have to go to the field and go to their laboratories, their conferences." In an email, a Shell spokeswoman said funding research at universities such as Penn State allowed students "to attain the opportunities and experience they need" (

Let's do an easy-peasy deconstruction:

1. "[C]onfidentiality makes universities more attractive partners to corporations": You bet! That way the gas companies can use the universities to (a) externalize the cost of doing research at least partly onto the public, (b) fund "research" specifically tailored to advance their profit-motives, and (c) conceal and/or kill research that does not support (b).

2. "[t]he agreements help to educate students": You bet! At least if what we mean by "educate" is job-training that saves the industry the trouble and expense of having to conduct searches for qualified job candidates, or go to the trouble of training the hires themselves. That Mike Arthur--MCOR director ( refers to students as "customers" really tells the whole story of MCOR's mission--an employment office and public relations firm for the natural gas industry safely edu-washed behind the doors of academia.

3. "The companies pay $40,000 each to fund graduate student projects regarding the geology of the hydrocarbon-rich Marcellus Shale. Funders include large shale gas players such as Chesapeake Energy, Shell and Statoil": You bet they do! $40,000 is a hell-of-a good deal in exchange for a well--trained, fully indoctrinated, uncritical workforce for the gas.

In my 2011 exchange with Penn State Geoscience Professor and self-professed "father" of the Pennsylvania natural gas boom, Terry Engelder, I warned of the "unholy alliance" between the state, the fossil fuel industry, and the university:

Penn State has effectively forfeited its responsibility to act as an independent agent for the public good, and uses the professorial status of one of its celebrity own—Terry Engelder—to legitimate it. Engelder’s “letter to Colleagues” makes marketing look like education—great for Penn State, Inc. Professor Engelder is beholden not to Penn State (other than to legitimate his status), but to those corporations who fund his research into the Marcellus Shale, who fund his graduate student’s future careers, who donate enormous sums to his university—and to his place in history (

Precisely the same can be said about MCOR. Hence it's particularly disturbing that MCOR has been able to secure a 2.5 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant: "“Marcellus Matters: Engaging Adults in Science and Energy” aims to enhance the general public’s understanding of science, engineering and energy through community-based activities that promote “doing” science, develop local expertise on energy issues and draw on residents’ knowledge of their environment" ( And who is the "principal investigator"? Mike Arthur: "The need for science-based information is critical as discussion about drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale is increasingly contentious, with opponents and advocates claiming "facts" in support of their polarized positions. Without sufficient knowledge to evaluate those "facts," the public is left uncertain about what to believe and who to trust."

Needless to say, we have no more reason to trust Mike Arthur than we do Tim Considine or Terry Engelder, and much remains to be said about the capacity of a big name university to secure NSF funding for projects whose thinly concealed aims are to benefit industry.

But what makes MCOR different are the lengths to which it is willing to put its NSF funding to edu-wash, green-wash--and now aesthetics-wash--an industry whose record of environmental devastation and health hazard are now as well-established as climate change, evolution, and the age of the earth. Indeed, naysayers who decry the ecological damage wrought by hydraulic fracturing and its massive infrastructure are akin, for example, to the manifest frauds perpetrated by The Creation Science Research Institute ( and climate change deniers (

Enter: Marcellus by Design, whose job is not to outrightly deny frack-damage, but rather to call into question whether it's really irremediable. After all, if a dab of green paint, some picnic tablets, and a hedge will make a stretch of pipeline appear visually acceptable, how bad can it all be, right?

Setting aside the fact that the recent (12.4.13) Sullivan County Courthouse workshop sponsored MCOR presentations that "were about cosmetic fixes, and simply disguising industrial infrastructure," that these were the work of primarily undergraduates who clearly had no idea the real issues concerning hydraulic fracturing, and even that these "fixes" were literally as thin as paint--what's astonishing about Marcellus by Design is that Penn State is now conducting outreach, into departments outside geoscience--but inside Penn State, in this case, Interdisciplinary Programs( Brian Orland), and Landscape Architecture (Timothy Murtha). Besides insuring complicity in Penn State's shale aspirations, Marcellus by Design provides another avenue for its claim to "educate." Undergraduates who are not geoscience majors destined to become roustabouts, geo-engineers, or Big Energy execs can now get in on the frack-action by participating in an NSF-sponsored program that takes advantage of their major.

It's difficult to exaggerate the perversity of the MCOR strategy. But the questions left utterly unanswered by the Sullivan County workshop offer a clue. As Shale Justice ( executive board members, John Trallo and Kevin Heatley put just a few of these:

- How the hell are you going to assure desirable forest regeneration when you are creating edge habitat EVERYWHERE!!!!! (all trees are not created equal).

- How are you going to correct the problem with nutrient loading of streams after you cut down "only 2%" of the forest? We are not talking about sediment and erosion - we are talking about changes in stream chemistry when they change deep forest into open field.

- How are you going to maintain viable populations of interior forest dwelling critters like neotropical migrants and amphibians?

- How are you going to prevent population isolation and genetic inbreeding from critters that avoid road and ROW crossings due to predation threat and moisture gradients?

- How are you going to provide for viable corridors for wildlife migration when you are creating a grid of pads, roads, and pipeline ROW's?

- Why are you trying to convince us that ubiquitous species - species that exist everywhere due to human disturbance (deer, raccoons, groundhogs) are a fair exchange for deep forest species?

-What is your restoration plan for interior forest, what is the timeframe and where is the funding source?

- Never mind "beautification" - How the HELL are you going to assure the forest structure and function - the very ecosystem services that drive our economy are going to remain viable!!!

- Is Penn State, the DCNR, or the gas industry going to control invasive species along all this new edge habitat for the LIFE of the OPENING???

- Who is going to pay me to control the invasive species on my property when it migrates off your damn pipeline ROW???

- Mr. Penn State LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT - how are you qualified to address forest sustainability issues? Or is your job just to "greenwash" i.e. throw green paint on a building riddled with termites?

- What about the impact on climate change/climate instability that increased methane leakage and our continued use of fossil fuels?

While these questions indicate the extent to which Marcellus by Design is a green-washing strategy consistent with the industry sponsorship of MCOR, what they don't address is the appropriation of other programs and departments by the industry, particularly programs from which we might reasonably expect criticism of the fossil fuel industry: the arts and the humanities.

Indeed, the very idea that landscape architecture (arguably an oxymoron on its face) can be put to the service of concealing frack-infrastructure behind a facade of green paint, bush plantings, and picnic tables amounts to the substitution of a diorama--a dead museum display--for a living ecosystem. The very idea that we can substitute some lines read by theater professors and their students for the real and heart-wrenching exchanges people are having at their kitchen tables over fracking is, if not simply insulting, absurd.

The website text promoting Marcellus by Design says it all: "We strive to provide a balanced approach to integrating environmental, economic, sociological, and aesthetic dimensions of landscape through strategic research and design. Accepting that Marcellus Shale gas will continue to be a driving force behind economic development in many Pennsylvania communities, we are committed to expanding the breadth and accessibility of knowledge about alternative approaches to landscape planning under current and future gas development scenarios" (

Let's do another easy-peasy bit of deconstruction:

1. "We strive to provide a balanced approach to integrating environmental, economic, sociological, and aesthetic dimensions of landscape through strategic research and design": we are being sponsored by the edu-green-washed MCOR to provide strategies for concealing the real scale of the damage to the environment, community and the possibility of aesthetic and recreational experience wrought by fracking.

2. "Accepting that Marcellus Shale gas will continue to be a driving force behind economic development in many Pennsylvania communities": we are entirely in the tank for the gas.

3. "[W]e are committed to expanding the breadth and accessibility of knowledge about alternative approaches to landscape planning under current and future gas development scenarios": we are committed to insuring the most convenient possible access for the gas companies to the shale fields all the while working to guarantee the least possible outcry from the affected public. And if we can use "landscape planning" as frack-speak for slapping some green paint on some pipeline, we're happy to do it.

What's perhaps the most laughably stunning aspect of Marcellus by Design is that while none of Trallo and Heatley's questions were addressed at the Sullivan County workshop at all, the appeal to "best practices" receives specific attention as justification for landscape design: "Best Management Practices (BMPs) are methods and processes that have consistently shown or produced effective results where they are applied, and serve as a benchmark for making decisions. Over time, BMPs may evolve and develop as better improvements are discovered" ( This is not only demonstrably false, it shows just how naive are the architects of the Marcellus by Design program. And--to be very clear--naive without a shred of excuse.

These are my fellow humanities academics--and it is simply painful to witness their being suckered by so transparently charlatan an objective, especially when it involves the additional suckering of students into the bargain.

Our jobs as academics is not to indoctrinate our students; it is to equip them with the critical thinking skills to evaluate for themselves the relevant evidence and arguments for a claim. To the extent that Marcellus by Design accepts without question that fracking will continue, that it can be done safely, and that there are benefits that exceed the costs to ecosystem and health, and that its students are implicitly encouraged to do the same, Marcellus by Design, MCOR, Penn State act inconsistently with that mission.

Here's my question: What is Marcellus by Design going to do for Jerry Skinner? What are Brian Orland and Timothy Murtha prepared to do to fix the "muddy brown strip of earth [that's] the telltale sign of a buried pipeline" right through his land, or the forest fragmentation that has disrupted and destroyed Pennsylvania's forests? What are they going to do about the 61,000 forest acres in Pennsylvania [that] will be cleared by 2030," or the "additional 91,000 to 220,000 acres of interior forestland near the developed areas" estimated to be affected by pipeline construction?

"Pipelines are going in and dissecting forest habitats and creating corridors within (them)," said Margaret Brittingham, an ecologist at Penn State University who has been studying the impact of gas drilling on forest habitats, concentrating on songbirds in Pennsylvania.

She and others have discovered that right-of-ways enable larger animals to move into parts of the interior forest they had not explored. As a result, interior species become exposed to new predators.

Brittingham and her colleagues predict that as more forest territory is chopped up into smaller pieces, habitat for specialists—species that require a specific set of conditions for survival—will decrease, which may in turn lead to their extinction. Those include the scarlet tanager, the blue-headed vireo and the hooded warbler.

In contrast, animals that tend to do well around people will likely increase in number. Raccoons, deer, crows and blue jays are among them.

"It's a shift in the competitive advantages that you give species," Brittingham said. "It's biotic homogenization."

Yeah for Penn State's Brittingham--she's up against a university whose value for her work pales in comparison the shills of MCOR.

Here are the facts: Marcellus by Design can't do a goddamn thing for Jerry Skinner. And they can't do a goddamn thing for the species of wildlife and other biota destroyed by forest fragmentation.

The only appropriate name for such a project is fraud: the pretense to a benefit where there is none, the fakery of a fix where there is naught but erosion and potential extinction.

It's an easy thing to point out that you can't restore 100 year old trees. And that's true. But it's another thing to try to appropriate university faculty and their students to a project aimed at convincing the public that a pipeline painted green where a forest of 100 year old trees used to be is a fair swap.

It ain't.

Instead, it's the industry's latest advertising campaign--brought to you by Penn State.

"Marcellus by Design": cadaver cosmetics.

Wendy Lynne Lee
Professor, Bloomsburg University
The Shale Justice Coalition

All photographs, Wendy Lynne Lee

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