Continental Resources Inc. founder Harold Hamm sought as far back as 2011 to manage Oklahoma’s state-funded research into the links among hydraulic fracturing, oil production and earthquakes.
Hamm sought a meeting with University of Oklahoma President David Boren in September 2011 after state seismologist Austin Holland, a university employee, wrote a report linking small earthquakes in south-central Oklahoma to fracking. According to emails obtained by EnergyWire through open records requests, Hamm wanted to discuss how Holland’s research on fracking might be perceived by the public.
"He just wants to make sure that everyone concerned understands the potential public relations repercussions if we don’t handle this issue correctly," Mike Terry, president of the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association (OIPA), explained to a university dean.
Holland told EnergyWire that he did not attend the meeting, although Terry had asked that he be present. Instead, he said it was attended by the dean, Larry Grillot, who said he did not remember the meeting. Holland did, however, revise a PowerPoint document that the petroleum association executive had objected to.
Holland did attend two years later when he was invited to "coffee" with Boren and Hamm, a billionaire who has donated more than $30 million to the university. Holland was summoned after he and his agency, the Oklahoma Geological Survey (OGS), cautiously endorsed a connection between earthquakes and oil and gas wastewater disposal (EnergyWire, March 3). Hamm and Boren have said the 2013 meeting was purely informational.
Holland said the intense interest shown by powerful figures has not affected his scientific findings.
"I’m aware that there’s plenty of politics behind all this," Holland said, "but we’re just trying to do the science part of this."
Hamm is the richest oilman in the state, and much of his fortune derives from hydraulic fracturing. He’s considered a founding father of the Bakken Shale, where fracking and horizontal drilling have opened vast reserves of crude oil for Continental Resources.
Boren, a former U.S. senator, serves on the board of directors at Continental. He’s been paid more than $1.6 million in cash and stock by Continental, including $306,000 in 2011. Last year, his compensation from Continental was about $15,000 less than his $364,900 state salary.
State Rep. Jason Murphey, whose Guthrie-based district has been repeatedly shaken by earthquakes, said the 2011 and 2013 meetings show that Boren has a conflict of interest.
"It’s quite understandable that Oklahomans are concerned," said Murphey, who has suggested splitting OGS from the university.
Boren, like Grillot, said he does not remember the 2011 meeting.
"I don’t recall it, because if it did take place it was not a major meeting," Boren said in a statement to EnergyWire. "I believe very strongly in freedom for research and that is why I was present in the meeting in 2013. I do not recall this meeting in 2011. I do recall at no time has he (Mr. Holland) been pressured by me to alter the findings of his research and at no time has he been asked to pull back on his research."
Continental spokeswoman Kristin Thomas declined to discuss the substance of the 2011 meeting.
"It is what it is," Thomas said. "OGS is a public agency, paid for by taxpayers. They have hundreds of meetings. It is not a conspiracy."
OIPA officials released a statement saying that the agency has never tried to suppress or influence scientific findings by researchers. It also said Terry did not initiate the meeting.
"Communication between Mike Terry and Dean Grillot was intended to ensure scientific findings on a complex issue were easily understood by the Oklahoma public," the OIPA statement said.
The 2011 meeting occurred six weeks before Oklahoma’s largest-ever earthquake, a magnitude 5.7 that injured two people, destroyed 14 homes and damaged hundreds of buildings. The U.S. Geological Survey and academic seismologists have linked the November 2011 quake to oil and gas activity, but Holland and OGS have not.
Since then, the shaking has become more frequent.
In 2009, there were 20 earthquakes of magnitude 3 or greater in Oklahoma. Before that, from 1975 to 2008, the state averaged one to three such quakes a year. By 2011, there were 63, in addition to many more smaller quakes. In 2012, the number went over 100.
Last year, it had 585, an average of 1.6 a day. That was three times as many as California. This year, it has already had more than 200.
The cause of the earthquakes is a vexing scientific and political question in Oklahoma, where an estimated one in six jobs is tied to the oil and gas business.
USGS and most outside seismologists say the surge has been caused by deep injection of wastewater from oil and gas production. They suspect that some of the billions of gallons of wastewater disposed of in the state each year are lubricating faults, making them slip and cause earthquakes.
OGS has been the voice of skepticism about such a link. It has rejected many of the findings of outside scientists. Holland now says "it’s very unlikely" the earthquakes buffeting north and north-central Oklahoma are natural. But the "Position Statement on Induced Seismicity" on the OGS website still stresses that "it is unlikely that all of the earthquakes can be attributed to human activity."
‘It looked like it was a correlation’
The exception has been the question of hydraulic fracturing and seismicity. While USGS has focused on disposal as a cause of the quakes, Holland has focused much of his research on links between quakes and the specific process of fracking (EnergyWire, Oct. 31, 2014). In fracking, chemical-laced water and sand are injected into the well at high pressure to break apart rock and release oil and gas.
Holland doubted any connection between fracking and earthquakes in January 2011 when a person who lived near Elmore City, Okla., reported small quakes to the geological survey. The resident mentioned that fracking had begun the day before the shaking.
He told the resident "these were just normal naturally occurring earthquakes" (EnergyWire, Nov. 2, 2011).
But out of due diligence, Holland began examining the suite of almost 50 seismic events that followed the magnitude-2.8 quake. The majority of the microquakes struck within about 2 miles of the well. The quakes were shallow and fit well in time and space with the start of fracturing in the nearby well.
"The more and more we looked at it, it looked like it was a correlation," Holland said in 2011.
In September 2011, university records show, Holland sent his report to Grillot, dean of the college at OU that includes OGS. Within minutes, Grillot, who’d worked for Phillips Petroleum Co. for 30 years before entering academia, forwarded the findings to executives at Chesapeake Energy Corp., Pioneer Energy Inc. and Devon Energy Corp.
He also sent it to Michael Ming, secretary of energy in the Cabinet of Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R), and Terry, president of OIPA.
The next morning, Terry emailed Grillot about the report.
"Are you available this morning to discuss this??" Terry wrote.
Around lunchtime, Terry sent Grillot another email about the report and a PowerPoint presentation that Holland had prepared on man-made earthquakes and oil and gas production. Terry said he had "concerns" that the presentation could be misinterpreted.
"I think we may need to sit down with Austin and explain," Terry said.
He also gave Grillot a "heads up" that Hamm was setting up a meeting with Boren.
"Harold’s agenda is in no way meant to be unconstructive," Terry said, explaining the "public relations" issues.
"You and Austin will need to be present if possible," he added.
Grillot thanked him for the heads-up but didn’t sound happy.
"I guess I’ll just wait for my marching orders," Grillot wrote, "and it looks like this is starting to fall into the category of ‘no good deed goes unpunished.’"
‘A PR nightmare’
Though Holland did not attend the meeting, Grillot sent him some of Terry’s emails. Holland sent Grillot a revised copy of the PowerPoint that deleted the words "disposal, recovery or fracturing" from a slide on earthquakes.
Holland also changed a slide to gloss over specifics about the correlation he’d found between fracturing and the shaking near Elmore City. He told Grillot that the changes had been recommended by people at the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, the agency that regulates oil and gas in the state, but suggested that the changes might "help Mike feel better about the presentation."
Asked about the Sept. 20, 2011, meeting this week, Holland said Grillot went and he didn’t hear any more about it.
"I didn’t ever get any feedback," he said.
About six weeks later, a series of earthquakes centered east of Oklahoma City near Prague, Okla., rocked the state, topping out at magnitude 5.7. Holland rushed to Prague with other researchers, including OU professor Katie Keranen, to set up seismic monitors.
Keranen’s research would later prompt her and USGS to link the Prague quakes to deep disposal of wastewater from oil production. Keranen is now a professor at Cornell University.
They have not linked the quake to fracking. An oil production method called "dewatering" was widely used in the Prague area by a company called New Dominion. It creates many times more wastewater than conventional drilling, and the company has a disposal well near the fault that ruptured. Seismologists at USGS have linked the Prague quake and many others closer to Oklahoma City to dewatering.
OGS rejected that in a 2013 position paper stating the best explanation for the quake is "natural causes." Holland said he might have worded it differently.
"We don’t have enough information to say one way or another," Holland said this week. "I haven’t seen any data that would change my mind on that."
Holland’s paper on fracking and earthquakes made the news for the first time three days before the Nov. 5, 2011, Prague earthquake. When the story came out, Andrew Silvestri, then a top aide to Fallin, emailed it to a couple of people in industry. One replied that he’d already seen the story.
"I’ve seen a few of these flying around now," the executive wrote. "I expect this to become a PR nightmare."
Click here to read the emails.