Climate

This Billionaire Tried To Get University Scientists Fired For Doing Their Job

CREDIT: AP Photo/Kevin Cederstrom

Continental Resources CEO Harold Hamm.

Despite a growing body of scientific research connecting oil and gas activity to a dramatic spike in earthquakes across several U.S. states, some industry leaders are fighting this characterization. Harold Hamm, billionaire CEO of Oklahoma City-based Continental Resources, told a dean at the University of Oklahoma last year that he was so displeased by the university’s research on the topic that he wanted certain scientists dismissed, Bloomberg News reported.

In an email to colleagues dated July 16, 2014 and obtained by Bloomberg, Larry Grillot, the dean of the university’s Mewbourne College of Earth and Energy, said that he had met with Hamm, a major donor to the university, to discuss his concerns about earthquake reporting by the Oklahoma Geological Survey (OGS), which is housed in the university. “Mr. Hamm is very upset at some of the earthquake reporting to the point that he would like to see select OGS staff dismissed,” Grillot wrote, adding that Hamm indicated he would be meeting with Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) to discuss moving the OGS out of the university.

OGS seismologist Austin Holland was summoned to meet with Hamm and university president David Boren in late 2013 to discuss some of his findings linking fracking activity to earthquakes. In an interview with EnergyWire published earlier this week, Hamm denied any attempt to bully the scientist: “We care about the industry,” he said. “When people disparage parts of it, I want to know why. I want to know what basis they have for doing that.”

According to state officials, the average rate of earthquakes in Oklahoma is now 600 times higher than historical averages. An unprecedented 20 small quakes were recorded in one day alone last year. Multiple scientific studies have pointed to a specific aspect of oil and gas extraction as the likely cause for the uptick in seismic activity: wastewater injection. As ThinkProgress’ Emily Atkin explained, “scientists increasingly believe that the large amount of water that is injected into the ground after a well is fracked can change the state of stress on existing fault lines to the point of failure, causing earthquakes.”

While Oklahoma officials had been reluctant to acknowledge the growing body of research connecting oil and gas activity with fracking, the state changed course in April, launching a website detailing what state officials know about the rise in earthquakes and what measures are being taken to address it. “We know that the recent rise in earthquakes cannot be entirely attributed to natural causes,” the site states. “The Oklahoma Geological Survey has determined that the majority of recent earthquakes in central and north-central Oklahoma are very likely triggered by the injection of produced water in disposal wells.”

Immediately after the site was launched, however, the state legislature passed two bills that would preemptively prohibit cities and counties from banning oil and gas extraction.

Regardless of Hamm’s intent, university officials told Bloomberg that his pressure had no impact on the research being done by the OGS. “I didn’t want it to impact their day-to-day work,” Grillot said of the OGS staff. “Foremost for us is academic freedom.”

Hamm has frequently dismissed the risks associated with the industry that has made him billions of dollars. Continental ships 90 percent of its oil by railroad, a method Hamm referred to as an “effective” and flexible means of transport, ignoring the rise in damaging and deadly oil by rail accidents. He has defended continued government subsidies for the oil and gas industry while denouncing those for renewable energy sources, saying of wind turbines, “once they’re there, they haunt you.”

When asked about the threat of climate change, the damaging impacts of which are accelerated by the burning of fossil fuels, Hamm, a top energy adviser to 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, has frequently pointed to global population trends rather than the role of the oil and gas industry. “Overpopulation — that probably hurts the environment more than anything,” he said in a 2013 interview with National Journal.