I want to thank the reader who put me on to This American Life’s “Game Changer” episode, about the Marcellus Shale and the state of Pennsylvania. It’s an amazing story — at least part of it — about money, power, and how the possibility of untold riches affects social psychology. I downloaded it for 99 cents at iTunes, but if you want, you can read the transcript here (advice: go ahead and pay for the downloand; it’s the right thing to do, and besides, it’s prepared for the ear, not the eye).

A major element of the story is the connection between Penn State University and the lucrative Marcellus Shale gas drilling business in PA. It was a Penn State scientist, Terry Engelder, who first discovered the potential of the Marcellus Shale in this state, and the university has been jealous of its own role in the whole business. There has been a lot of concern that the university’s research cannot be trusted, that it long ago crossed the line into advocacy. For example:

Besides Engelder’s announcement, the other piece of Penn State research that got a lot of attention was an economics report put out by the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences in 2009. It concluded that gas production could be generating $13.5 billion in value added, and almost 175,000 jobs by 2020. Later that was revised upward to 212,000 jobs, vastly higher than what the State Department of Labor and Industry was estimating.

Furthermore, the study said, taxing natural gas production would be a bad idea. Keep in mind, whether to impose a tax was and is a big debate in Pennsylvania. It’s the only state that doesn’t tax gas production, and companies would like to keep it that way. So, no, don’t tax it, the Penn State report said. And not only that, don’t regulate it either. Quote, “proposals to regulate hydraulic fracturing under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act pose yet another serious threat to the development of the Marcellus shale.

Industry couldn’t have paid for better advertising. And it turned out when an activist made a stink about this, industry had paid for it. A group of gas and energy companies had sponsored the thing, had asked Penn State to create it using data the industry provided. But the numbers did as numbers do, they took on a life of their own, as evidence in the case for drilling.

Tom Ridge: Literally thousands and thousands of jobs out there. I’ve seen some estimates that go as high as 200,000 jobs over the next 10 years. So obviously, there’s a lot of potential there.

[Host] Sarah Koenig: That’s former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, who’s now working for the industry’s Marcellus Shale Coalition, talking to small business owners in April. And here’s Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma at a committee hearing, citing Penn State, to support the idea that there should be no federal regulation of fracking.

James Inhofe: I’d also like to submit for the record two studies from Penn State University. The studies found that Marcellus activity– I’m quoting now, this is Penn State University. “By 2020, employment would expand by 200,000 jobs. Additionally, Penn State University– I’m still quoting– also concluded that federal regulation was a serious threat to Marcellus development.”

See how that works, the manipulation of the authority of science by a university and in turn by politicians to serve a particular goal? Koenig talks about how the faucet of money opened up for Dr. Engelder, the Penn State geologist who promotes Marcellus Shale drilling — and who, Koenig takes pains to say, does not seem cynical at all about his advocacy, but rather is a true believer — but things shut down for Dan Volz, an environmental scientist at the University of Pittsburgh whose results indicated that Marcellus activity was poisoning the Monongahela River. (For some reason in this transcript, they’ve attributed Volz’s remarks to “Conrad”):

Sarah Koenig: Volz was also warning community groups about all the compressor stations and refineries that would inevitably follow the drilling in Pennsylvania, and about evidence of cancer clusters among people who live near these operations in Texas and Louisiana. He says he was specifically told not to talk about that, to cool it.

Conrad: I certainly have had conversations with researchers here who were direct with me and said, you know, you’re going to ruin our chances to get funding from the industry. You’ve got to not talk about this anymore. We’re not going to get any funding from the drillers, from Chesapeake, or Range Resources, or any of these companies.

Sarah Koenig: And these conversations were not like razzing you around the coffee maker, like people were actually coming to you seriously and saying–?

Conrad: These were department heads and these are people with power in the university. It was all administrators.

Sarah Koenig: Can you please–?

Conrad: No, you need to keep your mouth shut. You’re on this team.

The strong impression you get is of an overwhelmingly powerful state-university-industry alliance that is going to produce the rationale it needs to get what it wants, and roll over anybody who objects to the narrative necessary to justify their actions. In the second part of the show, Koenig goes to a small town that’s been torn apart by drilling. The company moves in with bags of cash and massive legal firepower, and tries to dictate to the town how it’s going to be. Not only are the townspeople outmatched — Koenig reports that it’s not that they were against drilling, they just wanted to have some say-so over how their town was going to be transformed by the industry — but they use the power of the purse to split residents. It became a fight between people who stood to make money off the drilling, versus those who did not. Any objection to what the company was doing immediately was dismissed as sour grapes from people who missed out on a lease. And now, it seems, the money and the strife that followed has poisoned the town. Read the whole thing here. 

Anybody ever see the wonderful 1983 movie “Local Hero”? Only in the movies, folks. Only in the movies.