Ground-Shaking Discoveries: In recent years, studies of swarms of small earthquakes in normally quake-free states such as Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Ohio (as well as internationally) have indicated there is a connection between wastewater injections from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and induced seismicity. Those reports were followed by similar results from the U.S. Geological Survey, which released Induced Seismicity Potential in Energy Technologies in 2013.
The report looked at the connection between disposal wells and earthquakes in the Raton Basin of Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico. Authors found that from 1970 to July 2001, the region recorded just five magnitude-3 or higher earthquakes. Between August 2001 and December 2011, that number jumped to 95.
While some states and local governments took the connection to heart, banning fracking and wastewater disposal or shutting down wastewater wells, others have been more cautious in recognizing a connection, citing the need for further data to make a more definitive connection.
University Shake Down?: Last month, however, at least one state began to question whether or not the wait-and-see approach by state geologists had anything to do with research funding supported by the oil and gas industry.
In an April 3 editorial in The Guardian, Oklahoma State Representative Jason Murphey (R), recounted an instance in which the Austin Holland, lead seismologist at the Oklahoma Geological Survey was summoned to meeting with University of Oklahoma President David Boren and Harold Hamm, the CEO of one of the state’s largest oil an gas companies.
According to Murphey (and other accounts), the meeting stemmed from industry concerns about an official OGS statement that wastewater injection was a “likely contributing factor the increase in earthquakes.”
Holland has since told multiple news outlets that the meeting had no bearing on how OGS, which is an affiliate of the university, conducts business and that researchers had the “academic freedoms necessary for university employees doing research."
That was contradicted, however, by an EnergyWire report based on emails obtained through open record requests and the accounts of past OU researchers. Casting further doubt in the matter is the fact that Boren sits on the board of directors of Hamm’s company, Continental Resources.
What Could Shake Out: Among the energy sector’s concerns about the statements made by the OGS and the most recent USGS claim that the “rise in seismic activity, especially in the central United States, is not the result of natural processes,” is that strong linkages between fracking and earthquakes could leave them open to litigation (subscription may be required) by homeowners affected by quakes.
That’s already being played out in Oklahoma, where several suits have been filed. And in a state where one in every six jobs is estimated to be related to gas and oil, the impacts for the economy could be far reaching if wells are forced to shutdown.
Still, Murphey said, a climate where big business is allowed to impede state rulemaking and academic research cannot be allowed to continue.
“Conflicts of interest cannot go unchallenged in academia,” he wrote in The Guardian. “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.”