Oklahoma University President David Boren says his 2011 meeting with Continental Resources Inc. founder Harold Hamm was not about earthquake research but financial support for the school's geology programs.
"It was a development meeting, and it was to talk with Mr. Hamm about the needs of the energy college," Boren spokesman Corbin Wallace said in an emailed statement to EnergyWire. "These meetings on September 20, 2011 had nothing whatsoever to do with the OGS [Oklahoma Geological Survey] or with research there."
The "energy college," officially the Mewbourne College of Earth and Energy, consists of the ConocoPhillips School of Geology and Geophysics, the Mewbourne School of Petroleum and Geological Engineering, and the Oklahoma Geological Survey (OGS).
Wallace said he could not comment on whether Hamm contributed to the energy college because "The OU Foundation does not disclose specific donors or donor information."
EnergyWire reported last week that Hamm sought as far back as 2011 to manage OGS research into the links among hydraulic fracturing, oil production and earthquakes. The story was based on emails EnergyWire obtained from the university through open-records requests.
In September 2011, Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association President Mike Terry emailed an OU dean with a "heads up" that Hamm was seeking a meeting with Boren about OGS research linking earthquakes to hydraulic fracturing.
"He just wants to make sure that everyone concerned understands the potential public relations repercussions if we don't handle this issue correctly," Terry wrote to Larry Grillot, dean of the energy college.
Asked about the meeting last week, Wallace relayed that Boren didn't remember the meeting (EnergyWire, April 9). After the story ran, Wallace sent a message saying that Boren had checked his schedule and realized he did meet with Hamm on Sept. 20, 2011.
"President Boren said that he has verified with the dean, Larry Grillot, that it was not about the Geological Survey," Wallace wrote. "After the meeting with Mr. Hamm and Larry Grillot, President Boren had a meeting with an administrator of the Diabetes Center and the Provost of the Health Sciences Center to talk to Mr. Hamm about the needs of the Diabetes Center."
Grillot had told EnergyWire he didn't remember the meeting. Hamm had given more than $30 million to the OU Health Sciences Center for the Harold Hamm Oklahoma Diabetes Center.
The state seismologist who wrote the research paper, Austin Holland, told EnergyWire that he did not attend the meeting, although Terry had asked that he be present. He received forwarded copies of Terry's email setting up the meeting. Holland did, however, revise a PowerPoint document that the petroleum association executive had objected to.
And he did attend two years later when he was invited to "coffee" with Boren and Hamm, after he and OGS cautiously endorsed a connection between earthquakes and oil and gas wastewater disposal (EnergyWire, March 9). Hamm and Boren have said the 2013 meeting was purely informational.
Hamm, chairman and CEO of Continental, is the richest oilman in the state. 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.
Continental spokeswoman Kristin Thomas last week declined to discuss the substance of the 2011 meeting, saying "it is what it is."
"OGS is a public agency, paid for by taxpayers," Thomas said. "They have hundreds of meetings. It is not a conspiracy."
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 conflict of interest shows that OGS should be split from the university.
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. USGS 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 1 in 6 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."