Big Oil Pressured Scientists Over Fracking Wastewater's Link to Quakes

Energy firms tried to slow science inquiries blaming them for earthquakes in Oklahoma

How Big Oil Leaned on Scientists Over Fracking Quakes

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.

Harold Hamm, the founder of Continental Resources, one of Oklahoma’s largest oil and gas operators.
Harold Hamm, the founder of Continental Resources, one of Oklahoma’s largest oil and gas operators.
Photographer: Andrew Harrer

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.

The Hamm and Boren meeting wasn’t the only such informational session. In an e-mail from October 2013, Holland updated his superiors on a meeting he had in the office of Patrice Douglas, then one of the three elected members of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which regulates that state’s oil and gas companies. Also at the meeting was Jack Stark, then-senior vice president for exploration at Continental and now its president. “The basic jist [sic] of the meeting is that Continental does not feel induced seismicity is an issue and they are nervous about any dialog about the subject,” wrote Holland. He also wrote that Continental and Douglas were concerned about his participation in a joint statement he’d recently signed with the U.S. Geological Survey suggesting a link between quakes and the oil industry.

As Oklahoma has become the capital of American seismic activity, scientists, citizens, and some state lawmakers have been critical of state officials for their perceived slowness in drawing a connection between earthquakes and oil and gas activities, which account for 1 in 5 jobs in the state. Over the past couple years, as research began to get published and many seismologists became convinced that earthquakes were being induced by wastewater disposal, the OGS remained on the fence. In early 2013 the academic journal Geology accepted a paper attributing a 5.6 magnitude quake that hit Oklahoma in 2011 to underground changes resulting from wastewater disposal wells. In March 2013, OGS put out its own statement, attributing the quake to “natural causes.” And in February 2014, three months after Holland’s meeting with Hamm, the agency released a statement playing down the role of industry, saying the “majority, but not all, of the recent earthquakes appear to be the result of natural stresses.”

“This is a conflict of interest that we never before could’ve imagined,” says Jason Murphey, a Republican state representative from Logan County, which has been one of the most seismically active areas in the state over the past year. “When Boren facilitates that meeting, it sends a message to Austin Holland.”

Even when earthquakes appeared strongly correlated to wastewater injection, OGS has been reluctant to discuss a connection. In September 2013 a new disposal well was turned on in Love County in southern Oklahoma. Soon, quakes began to jolt the area, sometimes several a day.  

The well reached its peak daily injection of more than 9,000 barrels of wastewater on Sept. 20, 2013. Three days later the area experienced a magnitude 3.4 quake, moving furniture inside homes and knocking down a chimney. Injection at the well was curtailed, then stopped altogether. The seismic activity dipped almost immediately.

Still, the OGS hesitated to link the two. “We cannot rule out that this observation could be simply a coincidence,” Holland wrote in a report a week later. In early October, Holland spoke at a town hall meeting in Love County, where he again said no conclusions could be drawn about the cause of the quakes.

Many residents were frustrated by the lack of answers. But ExxonMobil geologist Michael Sweatt wrote in an e-mail to Holland: “I would like to congratulate you on a job well done at the Town Hall meeting in Love County. I believe you delivered an unbiased report on the recent earthquake activity and answered the residents’ questions the best you could.”

Today, as the number of earthquakes continues to soar, Holland has evolved in his position. He recently told Bloomberg that the vast majority of the increase in earthquakes is due to the injection of oil and gas wastewater. Yet he bristles at any suggestion that industry pressure slowed him from reaching that conclusion. Oklahoma has naturally occurring earthquakes, he says, and there have been large spikes of natural earthquakes in the past where no oil and gas development was occurring. It was proper, Holland says, to start with the hypothesis that the quakes were not man-made. “Science doesn’t operate in beliefs,” he says. “It operates in demonstrable facts.”

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