The close ties between university officials and big oil companies is a conflict of interest that is hampering research that the industry sees as unfavorable
|Some scientists believe that wastewater injections near faultlines can lead to earthquakes. Photograph: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images|
Many Oklahomans can still vividly recall the day they experienced their first earthquake. Ever since 2009/2010, earthquakes in the state have increased exponentially – leading to what are called “seismic swarms”. In 2000 there was not a single earthquake, but in 2014 we experienced 585 quakes of magnitude three or larger.
Oklahomans want to get to the bottom of this mystery increase of quakes and are turning to state officials for answers. As a state legislator, I am concerned that a conflict of interest in universities could get in the way of finding answers - and implementing solutions.
For some time now, scientists have wondered whether fracking-related activities, such as wastewater injection, might be the source of increased seismic activity in Oklahoma. In May of last year, the Oklahoma Geological Survey, an affiliate entity of the University of Oklahoma, released a statement in conjunction with the United States Geological Survey, saying that wastewater injection was a “likely contributing factor the increase in earthquakes”.
Not long after this statement, David Boren, president of the university, summoned the Oklahoma Geological Survey’s lead seismologist Austin Holland, who was also one of the authors of the statement, to a meeting with Harold Hamm, CEO of Continental Resources, one of Oklahoma’s largest oil and gas exploration and production companies. Boren facilitated the meeting despite the fact that he also serves as a member of the Continental Resources board of directors.
In July 2014, Continental Resources released a presentation positing an alternative theory for the seismic swarms and downplaying the influence of induced seismicity. One can only imagine the pressure this meeting must have brought upon Holland and his team of scientists.
That’s why state policy makers like myself are concerned that industry pressure conveyed through the highest levels of academia could compromise the deliberative and fact-based response by which state officials are attempting to put an end to the seismic swarms.
It has become exceedingly clear that Oklahoma’s particular geology is conducive to induced seismicity from injecting wastewater from the fracking process into the ground near faultlines.
State officials have responded to these findings by attempting to parse the responsible well site operators from the irresponsible ones. In particular, the state is focused on discouraging injections near faultlines, prohibiting injections which are too deep, and collecting real time pressure data from injection sites located near the quakes.
This data and the best practices now being deployed will help energy sector companies to continue their activities while avoiding the creation of seismic swarms - provided they follow them. But if some in the industry continue to undermine scientific findings about injections near faultlines, and well site operators fail to abide by best practices, I fear this could result in a major seismic event. That would be a big cloud over the energy sector and would greatly harm this vital economic sector, which provides jobs to so many Oklahomans.
Conflicts of interest cannot go unchallenged in academia. It is in the interest of the public that the Oklahoma Geological Survey be removed from the university’s governance structure or – more importantly – that high level university officials forgo taking positions outside the university.
For Oklahomans, this drastic increase in earthquakes is disturbing. They have gone from being a novelty to a sometimes daily ordeal which levies a heavy psychological toll on individuals. Those researching the possible causes of this phenomenon must be allowed to work without interference.
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