Frackademia: Investigation Reveals Colorado University Involved in Pro-Fracking PR Scheme

University of Colorado Boulder was co-opted by fracking industry PR Firms and the Koch brothers to create studies in line with the industry's political agenda

by Jesse Coleman

September 17, 2015

An investigation by Greenpeace and the Boulder Weekly has found troubling ties between the University of Colorado Boulder and Colorado public relations firms working on behalf of the fracking industry and the Koch brothers.

© Greenpeace / Robert Meyers

An investigation by Greenpeace and the Boulder Weekly has found troubling ties between the University of Colorado Boulder and Colorado public relations firms working on behalf of the fracking industry and the Koch brothers.

The controversy centers on the partnership between the University of Colorado Leeds School of Business and the Common Sense Policy Roundtable (CSPR), a front group funded by the oil and gas industry.

This partnership was formed to produce economic studies that benefit the fracking industry’s PR strategy. CSPR paid the university to host the studies and fully controlled the priorities of the researchers.

Documents obtained by Greenpeace reveal that the studies were conceived of, edited and strategically used by PR firms to influence fracking policy in Colorado, yet CSPR’s financial ties to the oil and gas industry were not disclosed to the media or in the published studies. The studies provided seemingly third-party validation for the oil industry’s attack on environmental regulations. 


The shale drilling and fracking industry has a record of secretly funding seemingly “independent” research that supports their agenda. This report by the Public Accountability Initiative charts examples of industry funding questionable academic papers and projects. This has been dubbed “frackademia.”

Claims that fracking has few environmental or human health impacts have largely drowned out actual scientific proof that fracking can cause serious pollution issues. The claims of fracking’s necessity and safety have been buoyed by studies secretly funded by the industry.

CSPR Uses University of Colorado Research in Pro-Fracking Campaign

Internal documents from the University of Colorado reveal a coordinated plan to use UC branded papers in a PR campaign designed to promote and defend the oil and gas industry.

CSPR set priorities for the researchers, prioritizing oil and gas work. The studies were aimed at politically contentious topics, like local regulation over fracking wells.

Case Study: Standing in the Way of Fracking Bans

One such study was the 2014 Fracking Ban Report. The report, published during a major political storm regarding local control over fracking, found that allowing affected communities to hold some regulatory power over fracking would hurt Colorado’s economy — a position favored by the industry. The report, which was paid for by CSPR, did not mention the group’s financial ties to the fracking industry. 

The study’s release was strategically planned by Starboard Group and EIS Solutions, two influential PR firms with oil and gas clients. The firms used the report as a mobilization tool for Vital for Colorado, CRED, and other anti-regulatory front groups, which share board members and staff with CSPR. Kristin Strohm, managing partner of Starboard Group, coordinated fracking industry PR and media departments to promote the study

Highlights from the study were used to influence a task force on fracking set up by Governor Hickenlooper. The task force was appointed to study the impacts of fracking after massive public outcry against oil and gas industry pollution.

CSRP’s own literature claims the study had a profound impact, boasting that the report was “cited in all debates” on fracking ballot initiatives.

Case Study: In Bed With the American Petroleum Institute

The documents also reveal a troubling willingness on the part of the university to sell its researchers to the highest bidder.

In one example, a study was conceived, funded and edited by the American Petroleum Institute (API), the largest oil industry lobby group in the U.S. The report charted the positive economic impact from fracking on a county by county basis. It did not factor in the negative economic consequences of pollution.

API initially proposed the study in 2013, during an intense political fight in Colorado over the ability of communities impacted by shale drilling and fracking pollution to impose regulations on the industry.

The degree of control API had over the study is telling.

Emails and internal documents obtained by Greenpeace show that API edited the study long before it was published. At one point, Brian Lewandowski — the university researcher responsible for the project —revised the report at API’s behest, writing to API’s Marcus Koblitz, “I hope this new version is in line with what you envisioned.”

API even wrote media-ready quotes for Brian Lewandowski once the study was released.

API has a long history of secretly funding research that benefits its oil industry funders, including funding researcher Willie Soon’s discredited climate research for years.

Common Sense Policy Roundtable’s Deep Ties to the Fracking Industry and the Koch Brothers

view this map on LittleSis

The Common Sense Policy Roundtable is a non-profit created by Starboard Group and EIS Solutions to control and fund the research conducted by the University of Colorado Boulder.

Lem Smith is a funder and board member for CSPR. He is also the Director for U.S. Government and Regulatory Affairs for Encana, one of the largest fracking corporations in Colorado. In CSPR pamphlets from 2011, Encana is listed as a “partner.” Smith is also on the board of Western Energy Alliance, an oil and gas front group known for its aggressive tactics. Smith is also chairman of the Colorado Petroleum Association.

In addition to Encana, CSPR pamphlets list multiple other oil and gas companies as “partners.”

Scott Martin is chairman and CEO of EE3, an oil and gas company based in Colorado. He also sits on the board and funds CSPR. 

CSPR was created by the Starboard Group and staffed in part by EIS Solutions – two PR firms with close ties to the oil and gas industry, including the billionaire Koch brothers. Earlier this year, the two firms were revealed to be behind a web of front groups in Colorado that oppose regulations on fracking.

Starboard Group was founded by Kristin Strohm, the firm’s managing partner. Strohm, a top republican political operative in Colorado, also serves as chair of CSPR.

As a political fundraiser, Kristin Strohm has successfully solicited major funding from the Koch brothers. While Strohm was the finance director for Mike Coffman’s congressional campaign, in which Coffman benefited from ads run by Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brother’s flagship political group. Through Strohm, Coffman also received the maximum possible donation allowed by law from David Koch

Starboard Group lists Americans for Prosperity Foundation as a former client. American for Prosperity is also a member of Vital for Colorado, a front group that shares an address with CSPR and counts Kristin Strohm in their leadership.

Starboard Group also works for the Western Energy Alliance.

With Strohm at the helm, CSPR works hand in glove with the Koch political apparatus. CSPR lists “finalizing plans for 2014” with Americans for Prosperity Foundation as a “Strategic Objective.” 

EIS Solutions, where Kristin Strohm’s husband Josh Penry is Vice President, has staffed CSPR since its inception. Dustin Zvonek, a former EIS Solutions employee, served as the original media officer for CSPR. He is now the head of Americans for Prosperity Colorado. EIS has worked for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA), the top oil and gas lobbying organization in Colorado, and Vital for Colorado. EIS was caught faking signatures for a COGA petition in 2013.

Earl Wright, a member of CSPR’s board of directors, attended the secretive Koch brothers strategy meeting in Aspen in 2010. Former Board Member of CSPR Kaye Fote did as well. Earl Wright is president of the AGM Charitable Gift Foundation, which has significant oil and gas holdings and finds CSPR.

See this relational map of CU Boulder’s ties to the fracking industry and the Koch brothers. 

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