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Oklahoma earthquakes are uncovering an academic conflict of interest

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Oklahoma policy makers must come to terms with an evolving conflict of interest. This conflict has been exposed by events that just a few years ago simply could not have been imagined in Oklahoma.

State Rep.  Jason Murphey

State Rep. Jason Murphey

Many Oklahomans can still vividly recall the day we experienced our first earthquake. Previously the concern of far away venues such as California, the Oklahoma earthquake experience would quickly evolve from a novelty into a sometimes daily ordeal which levies a heavy psychological toll on the individual as he sees the value of his property steadily deteriorating in a process we call “death by a thousand cuts”.

Understandably, those Oklahomans who are subjected to the seismic swarms are demanding answers from state officials. They need to understand the cause of the quakes and most importantly they must be able to have confidence in the integrity of the process and the entities that are endowed with the important responsibility of providing this information.

As state officials work to provide answers, it has become exceedingly clear that Oklahoma’s particular geology is conducive to induced seismicity from those well sites which attempt to inject waste products into and sometimes below what is known as the Arbuckle Formation. State officials have responded to these findings by taking responsible and deliberative action to parse the responsible well site operators from the irresponsible ones with a special focus on discouraging injections near fault lines, preventing injections from taking place in the basement of the Arbuckle where the earth isn’t naturally receptive to incoming wastewater, and collecting real time pressure data from injection sites located near the quakes.

This data and the best practices now being deployed will create the road map of the future by which energy sector companies may continue their activities while avoiding the creation of seismic swarms which now haunt thousands of Oklahomans.

This vital process became potentially compromised when one of the state’s leading energy sector interests made the unfortunate choice to produce a report which downplayed induced seismicity as an issue of concern. This report potentially gave license to those who would ignore best practices and correlations between injections and seismic swarms. Should a well site operator take that license too far and fail to abide by best practices, thus triggering a major seismic event, it will be a major cloud over the energy sector for the rest of our lives and will greatly harm this vital economic sector which provides jobs to so many Oklahomans.

It is with understandable concern that state policy makers recently became aware of the significant conflict of interest which could have compromised the deliberative and fact based response by which state officials are attempting to put an end to the seismic swarms.

This response greatly depends on the services of the Oklahoma Geological Survey and Seismologist Austin Holland. Created by the Oklahoma Constitution, the Survey holds an affiliation with the University of Oklahoma. When the voters of Oklahoma approved the constitutional provision, they likely had no concept of the impending seismic swarms and little idea of the potential conflict of interest which has become apparent in recent weeks.

Holland, in coordination with the members of the United States Geological Survey, has released a paper which demonstrated the fact that Oklahoma now experiences many more earthquakes than California and illustrated the need for the development of a hazard model to determine and mitigate the effects of quakes which are induced by industrial activities.

The Oklahoma Geological Survey also released a statement in conjunction with the United States Geological Survey in which the organizations spoke to the potential connection of the injection activities and the quakes.

Shortly after this statement, Holland was summoned to a meeting with the president of the University of Oklahoma and the CEO of the energy sector company that released the report positing the alternative theory for the seismic swarms. Notably, the president also serves as a corporate board member for that same company.

One can only imagine the pressure placed on Holland and other scientists in the Oklahoma Geological Survey whose university president is also a member of the board for the very company which seeks to fight the correlation between injection activity and seismic swarms.

It is incumbent upon those who chose to serve the public interests at institutions of higher learning to avoid this appearance of conflict. Should they fail to use good judgment, it then becomes an imperative for policy makers and members of the public to insist that policy be presented to prevent the conflict. In our specific case, this entails either removing the Oklahoma Geological Survey from the university’s governance structure or — more importantly — requiring high level university officials to forego taking positions outside their university responsibilities.

I would suggest the latter is the best practice and one which should be standard operating procedure at all higher education institutions.

Thank you for reading this article. Your interest and input are much appreciated. Please do not hesitate to email Jason.Murphey@hd31.org with your thoughts and suggestions.

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