Okla. lawmaker questions timing of quake observatory closure

By Mike Soraghan | 05/20/2015 09:00 AM EDT

The University of Oklahoma is closing an earthquake monitoring facility amid unprecedented swarms of earthquakes in the state that have been linked to oil and gas activity.

The University of Oklahoma is closing an earthquake monitoring facility amid unprecedented swarms of earthquakes in the state that have been linked to oil and gas activity.

The closure, which according to published reports will likely lead to the departure of two staffers, comes in the wake of reported attempts by Continental Resources Inc. founder Harold Hamm to get university employees fired. Bloomberg News reported last week that Hamm wanted "certain scientists" at the Oklahoma Geological Survey (OGS) "dismissed" for their reporting on earthquakes.

University President David Boren and other school officials have said in response that no OGS employees have been "dismissed." But their statements might not cover the closure of a facility that caused employees to resign.


University officials say the closure is simply a cost-cutting move.

"By relocating staff to Norman, and monitoring the seismic readings centrally, the OGS can realize real cost savings and perform its functions more efficiently," said university spokeswoman Catherine Bishop. "This was a difficult decision due to the long history of the observatory, but one that will result in improved monitoring and reporting of Oklahoma earthquake activity."

But a state legislator whose constituents are tired of the shaking says closing the facility raises serious questions.

"The timing is absolutely terrible," Rep. Jason Murphey (R-Guthrie) told EnergyWire in a phone interview. "These types of decisions need to be made in an atmosphere where there isn’t any question about the motives of those making them."

Murphey has suggested splitting OGS from the university because of the conflict of interest he sees with Boren serving on Continental’s board of directors.

What’s on the chopping block

OGS is part of the university, and its offices are at the school’s main campus in Norman, Okla. But for years it has run the Leonard Geophysical Observatory outside Tulsa. It was built in the 1960s. In the 1990s, OGS hosted Soviet officials there who were monitoring U.S. nuclear testing as part of an arms treaty.

Two staffers work there now, research scientist Amie Gibson and lab technician Jake Nance.

Of late, Gibson’s main task has been to analyze as many as possible of the state’s hundreds of earthquakes. Using readings from numerous seismic monitors, she assigns precise locations and depths to the quakes, then posts them to the agency website. Delays in posting details of the quakes on nights and weekends have led to complaints from people who felt them.

Last year, OGS "located" 5,417 earthquakes, an average of 15 a day. Of those, 585 were magnitude 3 or greater.

In a letter in mid-April, OGS employees were told, "After an ongoing evaluation of operations at the Geophysical Laboratory in Leonard, Okla., the decision has been made to close that facility, effective July 15, 2015."

A recent story about the closure in The New Yorker said that "Gibson and Nance … will no longer work for the OGS, as no effort has been made to allow them to work close to their families and homes in the Leonard area."

OGS and the observatory are part of the Mewbourne College of Earth and Energy, which has been overseen by Dean Larry Grillot. Grillot is retiring this year.

Last July, Grillot met with Hamm, who reportedly sought the dismissal of some OGS scientists because of their handling of the earthquake issue. Hamm is a major donor to the school, and Boren sits on Continental’s board of directors.

"Mr. Hamm is very upset at some of the earthquake reporting to the point that he would like to see select OGS staff dismissed," Grillot wrote in a July 16, 2014, email to colleagues at the university, according to Bloomberg.

Hamm also expressed an interest in joining a search committee charged with finding a new director for the geological survey, according to Grillot’s email. And, the dean wrote, Hamm indicated that he would be "visiting with Governor [Mary] Fallin on the topic of moving the OGS out of the University of Oklahoma."

On the same day, Hamm met with Boren and discussed the committee that had been selected to pick a new OGS director. Then-OGS Director Randy Keller was in the process of retiring.

A Continental spokeswoman told Bloomberg the company had no comment and did not respond to a follow-up request from EnergyWire.

Grillot told Bloomberg that no one was dismissed from OGS and he never discussed Hamm’s displeasure with OGS staffers.

Bloomberg also reported that a new director for OGS, Jeremy Boak, will start work in July. Boak has been working as director of the Center for Oil Shale Technology and Research at the Colorado School of Mines.

It was not the first time that Hamm had weighed in about OGS’s handling of earthquake issues. In September 2011, an oil and gas industry official told Grillot that Hamm was seeking a meeting with Boren to discuss the "public relations" effects of research linking quakes to hydraulic fracturing. In 2013, state seismologist Austin Holland was summoned to Boren’s office for "coffee" with Boren and Hamm after OGS joined in a statement blaming wastewater injection for the surge in earthquakes in the state (EnergyWire, April 9).

Hamm has said he wasn’t trying to bully Holland when he sought the meeting in 2013, but was simply trying to learn what proof the scientist had for saying hydraulic fracturing was causing earthquakes (EnergyWire, May 11).