As Oklahoma Agency Pointed to Natural Causes, Staff Suspected Quakes Were Linked to Oil

  • Joe Wertz

The Oklahoma Geological Survey on April 21 acknowledged Oklahoma’s ongoing earthquake surge is “very likely” triggered by wastewater disposal wells used by the oil and gas industry, a formal recognition that comes after years of scientific research that reached similar conclusions.

For years, the OGS’s formal public position was that Oklahoma’s earthquakes were likely natural. At the same time, scientists at the agency suspected as early as 2007 that oil and gas activity was triggering quakes, new email records obtained by EnergyWire’s Mike Sorgahan show:

Survey leaders, though, decided against going public with a theory that might be viewed as hostile to the state’s most prominent industry, according to interviews and agency emails obtained by EnergyWire under Oklahoma’s Open Records Act.

Instead, the agency, commonly called by its initials, OGS, accepted thousands of dollars’ worth of seismic equipment from the company that scientists suspected of causing the quakes, Tulsa-based New Dominion LLC. And for years, they told the public the quakes were natural.

“The survey is currently dismissing such events as being naturally-occurring,” OGS geologist Richard Andrews, now the interim director, wrote in an email to a family member last year. “Sooner or later, the media will pick up on the real cause and create a genuine ruckus.”

The first OGS scientist to sound alarms was Dan Boyd, a petroleum geologist who now works in the energy industry in Qatar, EnergyWire reports. Boyd’s suspicions stem from a 3.0-magnitude quake that shook near Tinker Air Force Base in February 2007.

Boyd said he urged survey Director Randy Keller and state seismologist Austin Holland to acknowledge the link.

“The petroleum guys, myself included, thought it was an open-and-shut case,” Boyd said. “I voiced my opinion numerous times in numerous meetings.”

But he said he understands that going public would have been tough in a state as oil-dependent as Oklahoma.

“You’re talking about the major job creator, income generator for the state,” he said. “Everyone is very concerned that they don’t want anything that would derail that.”

State seismologist Austin Holland of the OGS has acknowledged industry pressure, including a 2013 meeting with University of Oklahoma President David Boren — OGS offices at OU, and Holland is a university employee — and Continental Resources’ billionaire founder and major university donor Harold Hamm. Holland says the pressure hasn’t influenced OGS’ science, and he’s he’s “critical of Boyd’s assertion that the cause of the quakes was clear in 2007,” EnergyWire reports:

“Dan Boyd clearly has some strong beliefs on the matter,” Holland said in an interview earlier this month. “He can believe all he wants, but until he contributes in the scientific discussion, it’s not helpful.”