Former Okla. seismologist confirms pressure, conflicts of interest in TV interview by Mike Soraghan, December 9, 2015, E&E News
In a soon-to-be-televised interview, former Oklahoma state seismologist Austin Holland confirmed industry pressure and conflicts of interest by state officials handling the swarms of quakes that have rattled the state.
Talking with Al-Jazeera last summer on his last day working for the Oklahoma Geological Survey (OGS), Holland gave some of his most expansive comments about the difficulties involved in linking earthquakes to the state’s most powerful industry.
The interview is part of a story on Oklahoma’s man-made earthquake swarms for the network’s “Fault Lines” newsmagazine airing Sunday evening at 9 EST.
In the interview, Holland said oil titan Harold Hamm told him to “watch how you say things” in a now-notorious “coffee” meeting in the office of University of Oklahoma President David Boren. He also said a position paper released in 2014, deeming the earthquakes to be natural, contradicted OGS’s scientific understanding.
“This was to slow things down, to give the deniers more time to deny,” Holland said. OGS is part of the university, which at the time was seeking a $25 million donation from Hamm for a new building (EnergyWire, June 23).
Holland also talked about the resources the state has put toward figuring out what is causing the earthquakes.
“I spoke to a homeowner in Oklahoma, and he said, ‘You know, I think the amount of resources you’re getting is a clear conspiracy to keep you from doing the work you need to do,'” Holland recalled. “I don’t have any way to refute that.”
Holland was at the center of the state’s earthquake debate for most of the time he worked at the Oklahoma Geological Survey, which is housed at the University of Oklahoma. Scientists generally date the uptick in quakes to 2009, before Holland started working there in 2010.
OGS lagged behind federal and academic scientists in finding that the swarms of quakes were related to wastewater disposal from oil and gas operations. Holland said it was clear to him and others at OGS by 2013, but OGS didn’t formally acknowledge it until April of this year (EnergyWire, April 20).
“Fault Lines” correspondent Josh Rushing said he and his crew spent hours with Holland on his last day as he packed up boxes in his small basement office on the OU campus. Holland seemed “beleaguered,” he said, after years of dealing with the earthquake swarms with little support.
“He was giving his whole life to this, and no one appreciated it,” Rushing said.
Rushing asked Holland if it was appropriate for Hamm, founder and CEO of Continental Resources Inc., to tell him to mind his words. The meeting in Boren’s office was first reported by EnergyWire in March (EnergyWire, March 3).
“Well, there are a lot of people that were telling me I need to be careful how I say things,” Holland said.
Hamm has said he wasn’t trying to bully Holland but simply to learn what proof he had (EnergyWire, May 11).
Holland seemed more concerned about the 2014 statement, which was drafted at the suggestion of Larry Grillot, a university dean who oversaw OGS. Grillot was helping solicit the $25 million contribution from Hamm and also served on the board of Pioneer Natural Resources Co. (EnergyWire, June 23). Pioneer owns coalbed methane wells in a part of Colorado where federal scientists say oil and gas activities are causing earthquakes. He’s been paid at least $600,000 by Pioneer since 2013.
“The dean of the college that directly oversees the OGS being a board member on an energy company,” Holland said. “I see that as probably a clear conflict of interest.”
Rushing reached Grillot by phone, and he declined to comment.
Scientists say the unprecedented swarms of man-made quakes in the state since 2009 can be attributed to favorably aligned faults and production methods that create uniquely large volumes of wastewater. This year, Oklahoma has had more than 800 quakes of magnitude 3 or greater, a substantial increase over the 585 in 2014.
Oklahoma officials say producers from CBS’s “60 Minutes” newsmagazine have also been preparing a story on the state’s earthquake situation.
Rushing tracked down Gov. Mary Fallin (R), who told him the state waited to acknowledge the cause of the quake swarms. “We wanted to wait and have scientific information based on facts,” she said, “not just on hearsay.” Documents obtained by EnergyWire show Fallin and her staff moved slowly on the earthquake issue even as the state was rattled more and more frequently (EnergyWire, July 8).
Rushing also talked to activists, experts, rattled residents, state officials and industry representatives. Kim Hatfield of the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association acknowledged that industry activity is linked to the quakes.
But Hatfield said smaller quakes, such as those that register around magnitude 3, are less of a concern than larger ones.
“Having a 3 is kind of a ‘So what,'” Hatfield told Rushing. “If I was sure there was never going to be anything bigger than a 3 that wasn’t naturally occurring, my blood pressure would probably go down a lot.”
[Frac Quake Hazard Check:
One of Canada’s foremost experts on earthquake hazards recently told an audience of Calgary engineers that earthquakes triggered by hydraulic fracturing can exceed “what the natural hazard was in the first place” and pose risks to infrastructure only built to withstand natural earthquake hazards.
As well, earthquakes induced by fracking can produce more damaging ground motion at lower magnitudes than natural quakes due to their shallowness, said Gail Atkinson, the NSERC/TransAlta/Nanometrics Industrial Research Chair in Hazards from Induced Seismicity at Ontario’s Western University.
Natural earthquakes have an average depth of 10 kilometres, whereas industry-made tremors are much shallower and closer to the ground surface where people can feel them more strongly.
Natural earthquakes typically cause structural damage in buildings at a magnitude of 5.0, Atkinson said. But earthquakes triggered by fracking could possibly cause damaging ground motions at magnitudes as low as 3.5 to 4.0, due to their shallowness.
Hydraulic fracturing intentionally creates hundreds of microseismic events by cracking deep or shallow hydrocarbon formations with high-fluid injections of water, sand and chemicals. But the technology, which can’t yet model where all the fractures will go, has activated faults and slips in Ohio, Oklahoma, England, British Columbia and Alberta, creating headline-making earthquakes in the last three years.
“In low seismic environments like Fox Creek where the natural earthquakes are infrequent, the hazards from an induced seismic event can exceed the hazards from a natural source,” warned Atkinson. [Emphasis added]
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