How do you fund studies of the environmental impact of the natural gas extraction technique known as hydraulic fracturing? The University of Tennessee has an idea. University officials want to lease more than 8,000 acres of public land in Cumberland Forest to an energy company for fracking and then use the profits from the lease to study fracking's effects.

The idea, which has been met by public protests, got a unanimous okay last week from the Tennessee Building Commission.

The University of Tennessee already operates on the acreage in question as part of its Forest Resources AgResearch and Education Center. The university system has several forest and wildlife management research projects in Cumberland Forest, where researchers study air quality, stream restoration and strip-mine reclamation.

Larry Arrington, chancellor of the university's Institute of Agriculture, told the Associated Press last week that the school's intention "is science-based investigation. We will move forward in a transparent manner, in which we will seek to engage and receive input from all interested parties." Meanwhile Dr. Bill Brown, dean for research and director of the University of Tennessee Agricultural Experiment Station, said "There are questions surrounding natural gas extraction and we have the facilities, and we have the faculty, so have obligation to investigate in an unbiased, scientific way to provide those answers."

A public fact sheet (pdf) put out by the university in relation to the plan said the project "will provide science-based facts for the scientific community, regulatory agencies, environmental groups and citizens, and the industry." Areas the university proposed investigating through the project include water and air quality, micro-seismic activity (fracking has been linked to earthquakes in some regions), the ecological impacts of the natural gas infrastructure, best practices for controlling erosion and community education.

There is a minor precedent for the proposal. The university has leased about 250 acres in Cumberland Forest for oil and gas extraction since 1991. The lease generates $6,700 in annual revenue, which is used to fund "upkeep and protection of the property — for example for land surveys, forest fire protection equipment, construction/improvement of roads, etc," according to an FAQ (pdf) posted by the university.

Critics of the proposal say the university does not have a prediction about how much revenue the fracking lease would generate — although one estimate cited by The Tennessean places it at $1.5 million annually — and that this activity poses a potential conflict of interest. "We have not been able to find any instances of a university drilling on their land and funding their research with revenues from the drilling activities," Gwen Parker, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, told the AP. Other protestors have said Tennessee's regulations may not be sufficient to protect water quality and Cumberland Forest, one of the region's last mature forests, should not be placed at risk.

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