Pennsylvania State University is seeking to expand its influence on the burgeoning natural gas industry with the creation of what it is calling the "world's premier academic institute" on the fossil fuel.

The university announced this month the creation of the Institute for Natural Gas Research, which it says will conduct "independent and rigorous scientific research" on the resource at the center of Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale natural gas boom.

But Penn State, which has come under attack for its close ties to the Marcellus Shale industry, is likely to come under increased scrutiny from activists by doubling down on shale gas.

The new institute, dubbed INGaR, is a collaboration of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences and the College of Engineering. It also will be affiliated with faculty in other disciplines.

Already, more than 70 faculty members in various departments are conducting significant research in natural gas and related areas, said Turgay Ertekin, a professor of petroleum and natural gas engineering who will be the institute's codirector during the search for a permanent executive.

"There's a benefit of having multiple faculty with very diverse backgrounds and interests working together on complex problems that cut across disciplines," said Andrew Zydney, a chemical-engineering professor who is the institute's other interim codirector. "And, of course, there's a hope that this enables an opportunity to go after funding sources that an individual faculty member would never be able to do on their own."

The university is facing growing demand for research and teaching related to natural gas. Enrollment in petroleum and natural gas engineering, which bottomed out at 30 students in 1999, now exceeds 500 undergraduates, Ertekin said.

Along with creation of the institute, Penn State is committed to hiring 12 new faculty members over the next four years to expand its research and course offerings on gas.

The university planted the flag early on the Marcellus, when it announced the discovery of the gas reserve in January 2008, focusing public attention on the magnitude of shale for the first time.

As one of only 17 U.S. institutions with accredited petroleum-engineering programs - and one of only two that includes natural gas in the name of its department - Penn State is in a strong position to build on its expertise in the extractive side of gas development.

But the university's close relationship with the industry has placed it at the center of a storm as the Marcellus becomes increasingly politicized. Anti-drilling activists have focused their criticism on reports done by several universities, including Penn State, that reinforce shale development.

Activists are still flogging Penn State for an enthusiastic 2009 report on the economic impact of shale gas that failed to disclose it was funded by a trade group, the Marcellus Shale Coalition. One group, the Responsible Drilling Alliance in Williamsport, last year complained to accreditation agencies that Penn State's industry ties were unethical.

The new institute is unlikely to win over critics, who say Penn State's state-funded research should be focused on the harm caused by hydraulic fracturing, rather than on how to do it better.

"The goals of the institute have little to do with the needs of the state in regards to gas exploration," said Jon Bogle, a retired art professor at Lycoming College who is a cofounder of the Responsible Drilling Alliance.

The institute's leadership said research would focus on resolving environmental concerns, including treatment and disposal of wastes. Beyond exploration and extraction techniques, it also will look at developing new uses for natural gas, including as a replacement for petroleum in chemical and plastics production.

"We really see this institute as targeted toward coming up with technology solutions that address both the needs of industry but also society," Zydney said.

Criticism is inevitable, he said, but it "would just be a terrible mistake" for the university not to be involved with the development of a resource that is seen as transforming the world's energy landscape.

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