NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Newly obtained emails raise questions about the University of Tennessee's plan to lease thousands of acres of public land to an oil and gas company.
The university claims that it wants to study the environmental effects of natural gas drilling, also known as fracking, on land in Morgan and Scott Counties.
It hopes to lease the 8,000 acres to the highest bidder.
But thousands of internal e-mails and notes obtained by the Southern Environmental Law Center are forcing UT to respond to claims they are more focused on money than research.
The Southern Environmental Law Center released the e-mails days before a state committee will decide if the university can start accepting bids on the project.
At an open house in December, UT's director of forest resources, Kevin Hoyt, told NewsChannel 5 Investigates that research was the main reason the school wanted to get into the fracking business.
"We owe it to the state of Tennessee to investigate, and put good research on the ground," Dr. Hoyt said.
But some of UT's internal e-mails and notes paint a different picture.
"My congratulations to the person who came up with the creative idea for a fracking research project as a means for gaining approval to lease petroleum reserves under the Cumberland Forest. I hope the leases yield much money for the Experiment Station." wrote Professor and Associate Dean Emeritus Roland Mote in an e-mail to Richard Evans days before the open house.
Mote and Evans worked together on getting an oil and gas lease in the Cumberland Forest dating back to 2001.
The Southern Environmental Law Center says that e-mail and many others show that UT publicly sold the project as "research" to give state officials "cover" to approve the controversial deal.
In a 2008 e-mail about the oil and gas lease, Joseph DiPietro, who is now the UT president wrote, "Given budgetary concerns we face it's more important than ever."
Notes show the university expected to get $3-5 million a year -- plus free natural gas, to cut utility costs.
But then-Gov. Phil Bredesen stopped a deal the university had with CNX Energy in 2009, because of environmental concerns.
"What has come out from these documents in the public records request doesn't jive with what's in the public relations campaign," said Gwen Parker with the Southern Environmental Law Center.
The e-mails show in 2012, the university launched a public relations campaign, giving UT officials "talking points" saying "this is first and foremost a research initiative."
The university promised much needed, independent, research on the environmental impact of fracking.
But the e-mails also raise questions about the independence of research.
UT's chancellor of agriculture tells one oil company representative we will "need help getting industry feedback on the research questions."
He then received list of "research options" from the company.
"I don't see how you get good research results out of that," said Parker.
Consol Energy even hired a political consultant who worked on Governor Bill Haslam's campaign.
Bryan Kaegi told university officials that he has spoken with the Governor's administration and state officials.
He said the oil company's research and development would be willing to "review plans."
"The University of Tennessee is our state university. Is this transaction and research something that's going to reflect well on the university?" Parker asked.
The e-mails show that while Gov. Bredesen had concerns about the project, Gov. Haslam apparently does not.
Notes from one meeting indicate "Haslam will not stop us!!"
Other notes from a meeting with state officials from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation in October 2012 state, "Be prepared for the worse (sic) from the environmental community -- but their actions will not sway the governor's office resolve/support."
Gwen Parker worries the state has already decided to move forward before hearing from the public.
"It looks like the decision has already been made and the public hasn't had a chance to weigh in," Parker said.
The University of Tennessee did not deny that the e-mails were authentic.
UT sent the following statement:
"The RFP being brought before the executive subcommittee of the State Building Commission on Friday is a research-driven proposal. It is being put forth to answer science-based questions relating to the extraction of gas and oil at UT's Cumberland Forest laboratory.
"The University respectfully disagrees with characterizations of the proposed RFP as primarily a source of revenue generation. Any revenue generated from the project will be used to fund research at the UT Forest Resources AgResearch and Education Center."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked the governor's office about Gov. Haslam's stance on fracking in the Cumberland Forest. The governor's office sent this statement:
"The need for good research on hydraulic fracturing specifically in Tennessee is something the governor supports and thinks the University of Tennessee has a role in. He believes we have to be very cautious about the practice's potential impact on the environment and that UT can help in that process."
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