Oil Billionaire Sought Meeting With OU President Boren on Oklahoma Quake Research as Far Back as 2011

  • Joe Wertz

The November 2013 meeting with University of Oklahoma President David Boren wasn’t oil billionaire Harold Hamm’s first attempt to discuss with university officials and a state seismologists Oklahoma’s earthquake surge and possible links to oil and gas activity, a new EnergyWire story reveals.

Using emails (click here for a .PDF) obtained through the Oklahoma Open Records Act, Mike Sorgahan reports that Continental Resources founder 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, a university employee and state seismologist at the Oklahoma Geological Survey, which is headquartered on campus, didn’t attend the 2011 meeting, EnergyWire reports:

Holland did, however, revise a PowerPoint document that the petroleum association executive had objected to.

Holland sent [OU’s Mewbourne College of Earth & Energy Dean Larry] 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.”

There are questions over whether Holland’s 2013 meeting with Hamm and Boren — Hamm is a major OU donor, and Boren serves on the board of directors at Continental — amounted to intimidation or mere conversation.

Holland has acknowledged receiving pressure from the energy industry in recent years as scores of peer-reviewed studies suggest Oklahoma’s earthquake surge is linked to disposal wells used by the oil and gas industry. That pressure hasn’t altered his research, Holland tells EnergyWire:

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.”

Through spokeswoman Kristin Thomas, Continental Resources declined to discuss the substance of the 2011 meeting, EnergyWire reports:

“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.