In November 2013, Austin Holland, Oklahoma’s state seismologist, got a request that made him nervous. It was from David Boren, president of the University of Oklahoma, which houses the Oklahoma Geological Survey where Holland works. Boren, a former U.S. senator, asked Holland to his office for coffee with Harold Hamm, the billionaire founder of Continental Resources, one of Oklahoma’s largest oil and gas operators. Boren sits on the board of Continental, and Hamm is a big donor to the university, giving $20 million in 2011 for a new diabetes center. Says Holland: “It was just a little bit intimidating.”
Holland had been studying possible links between a rise in seismic activity in Oklahoma and the rapid increase in oil and gas production, the state’s largest industry. During the meeting, Hamm requested that Holland be careful when publicly discussing the possible connection between oil and gas operations and a big jump in the number of earthquakes, which geological researchers were increasingly tying to the underground disposal of oil and gas wastewater, a byproduct of the fracking boom that Continental has helped pioneer. “It was an expression of concern,” Holland recalls.
Details surrounding that meeting and others have emerged in recent weeks as e-mails from the Oklahoma Geological Survey have been released through public records requests filed by Bloomberg and other media outlets, including EnergyWire, which first reported the Hamm meeting.
The e-mails suggest a steady stream of industry pressure on scientists at the state office. But oil companies say there’s nothing wrong with contact between executives and scientists. “The insinuation that there was something untoward that occurred in those meetings is both offensive and inaccurate,” says Continental Resources spokeswoman Kristin Thomas. “Upon its founding, the Oklahoma Geological Survey had a solid reputation of an agency that was accessible and of service to the community and industry in Oklahoma. We hope that the agency can continue the legacy to provide this service.”
Likewise, Boren says such conversations are harmless. “The meeting with Harold Hamm was purely informational,” the university president said in a statement on March 27. “Mr. Hamm is a very reputable producer and wanted to know if Mr. Holland had found any information which might be helpful to producers in adopting best practices that would help prevent any possible connection between drilling and seismic events. In addition, he wanted to make sure that the Survey (OGS) had the benefit of research by Continental geologists.” Boren is on the board of The Bloomberg Family Foundation, founded by Michael Bloomberg, the owner of Bloomberg LP.
Before Holland became the state seismologist in 2010, there wasn’t much for Big Oil and state researchers to argue about. Over the previous 30 years, Oklahoma had averaged fewer than two earthquakes a year of at least 3.0 in magnitude. In 2015 the state is on pace for 875, according to Holland. Oklahoma passed California last year as the most seismically active state in the continental U.S.
One significant change in drilling practices is contemporaneous with the increase in seismic activity: horizontal hydraulic fracturing. Fracking has been around for decades, but technological advances have allowed companies to drill sideways, injecting a high-pressure mix of water, mud, and sand into shale formations deep underground, creating access to previously unreachable pockets of oil and gas. Oil production in Oklahoma has more than doubled over the past decade, creating new wealth for the state as well as an unwanted surplus. Horizontal wells can produce as much as nine or 10 barrels of salty, toxin-laced water for every barrel of oil. Much of that fluid is injected back underground into wastewater disposal wells. It’s this water, injected near faults, that many seismologists—including those at the U.S. Geological Survey—say has caused the spike in earthquakes.