Oil tycoon Harold Hamm wanted earthquake scientists dismissed, dean’s e-mail says

Harold Hamm, Continental Resources CEO (AP PhotoKevin Cederstrom)
Harold Hamm, Continental Resources CEO (AP PhotoKevin Cederstrom)

Oil tycoon Harold Hamm told a University of Oklahoma dean last year that he wanted certain scientists there dismissed who were studying links between oil-and-gas activity and the state’s nearly 400-fold increase in earthquakes, according to the dean’s e-mail recounting the conversation.

Hamm, the billionaire founder and chief executive officer of Oklahoma City-based Continental Resources, is a major donor to the university, which is the home of the Oklahoma Geological Survey. He has vigorously disputed the notion that he tried to pressure the survey’s scientists. “I’m very approachable, and don’t think I’m intimidating,” Hamm was quoted as saying in an interview with EnergyWire, an industry publication, that was published May 11. “I don’t try to push anybody around.”

Yet an e-mail obtained from the university by Bloomberg News via a public records request says Hamm used a blunt approach during a 90-minute meeting last year with the dean whose department includes the geological survey.

“Mr. Hamm is very upset at some of the earthquake reporting to the point that he would like to see select OGS staff dismissed,” wrote Larry Grillot, the dean of the university’s Mewbourne College of Earth and Energy, in a July 16, 2014, e-mail to colleagues at the university. Hamm also expressed an interest in joining a search committee charged with finding a new director for the geological survey, according to Grillot’s e-mail. And, the dean wrote, Hamm indicated that he would be “visiting with Governor [Mary] Fallin on the topic of moving the OGS out of the University of Oklahoma.”
Kristin Thomas, a spokeswoman for Continental, said the company had no comment.

Hamm’s meeting with Grillot resulted in no apparent changes at the university. Reached by telephone, Grillot confirmed his discussion with Hamm. He declined to name any individuals that the oil company CEO wanted to have fired, but said nobody was dismissed from the Oklahoma Geological Survey and that he never discussed Hamm’s displeasure with OGS staffers.

“I didn’t want it to impact their day-to-day work,” he says. “Foremost for us is academic freedom.” Grillot added that Hamm was not added to the search committee for the new OGS director.

Alex Weintz, a spokesman for Governor Fallin, didn’t respond when asked whether Hamm had asked the governor to remove the geological survey from the university, but said the arrangement is set by statute. “The governor does not have the authority to decouple OU and OGS, nor has she proposed doing so,” he said in an e-mailed statement.

Catherine Bishop, the university’s vice president of public affairs and one of the recipients of Grillot’s 2014 e-mail, didn’t respond to requests for an interview, but defended Hamm in an e-mail: “Mr. Hamm absolutely did not ask to be on the search committee or to have anyone from Continental put onto the committee, nor did he ask that anyone from the Oklahoma Geological Survey be dismissed,” she wrote.

Asked about the difference between her statement and Grillot’s 2014 e-mail, Bishop responded: “Please note that the bottom line is that University of Oklahoma will not tolerate any possible interference with academic freedom and scientific inquiry.” She added in a subsequent message: “Neither Mr. Hamm nor anyone from Continental Resources served on the search committee.”

The newly-hired incoming director of the OGS, Jeremy Boak, will start work in July. Boak, who has been working as director of the Center for Oil Shale Technology and Research at the Colorado School of Mines, says that he had no communication with Hamm or Continental Resources during his interview process.

Hamm has been a generous donor to the University of Oklahoma, including a 2011 gift of $20 million for a diabetes research center named after the oilman. University President David Boren, a former U.S. senator, sits on the board of directors of Hamm’s Continental Resources.

In the e-mail he wrote about his meeting with Hamm, Grillot—who himself sits on the board of Pioneer Natural Resources, an Irving, Texas-based oil and gas company—noted that he saw Boren leaving Continental’s corporate offices before he went in to see the CEO.

Boren said in an e-mailed statement that he was unaware the dean was meeting with Hamm and that Grillot never passed along any requests for Hamm to serve on the OGS director search committee, nor any request to “remove a member of the OGS staff.” He also said Hamm never told him of his interest in serving on the search panel, and that the matter was never discussed at any Continental board meetings.

“The facts speak for themselves,” Boren said. “No OGS staff member has been terminated or threatened with termination. No research has been stopped or modified. An independent search for the OGS Director has been conducted, and a distinguished graduate of Harvard has been selected. The University has more than once expressed its total commitment to academic freedom in this matter.”

Scientists overwhelmingly attribute the sharp rise in earthquakes across swaths of the central U.S. to the oil and gas industry, primarily the deep underground disposal of vast amounts of wastewater, which is produced with oil and gas. The injected water can alter underground pore pressures and cause faults to slip, earthquake scientists say.

In Oklahoma, where the number of earthquakes of a magnitude 3.0 or greater increased from an average of 1.6 a year before 2009 to 585 last year, researchers at the OGS have been slower than many others to draw a link between the industry and the earthquakes.

For instance, in early 2013, the scientific journal Geology published a paper that tied Oklahoma’s largest-recorded quake—a 5.7-magnitude temblor in 2011 near the small town of Prague that injured two people and destroyed 14 homes—to oil-and-gas wastewater injection. Around the same time, the OGS put out its own statement to counter the findings, describing the Prague quake as “the result of natural causes.” (The agency has since evolved in its stance; it issued a statement last month that says: “The OGS considers it very likely that the majority of recent earthquakes, particularly those in central and north-central Oklahoma, are triggered by the injection of produced water in disposal wells.”)

In October 2013, the OGS signed a joint statement with the U.S. Geological Survey, saying they were “evaluating possible links between these earthquakes and wastewater disposal related to oil and gas production activities.”

Within days, the state agency’s top seismologist, Austin Holland, had a meeting with Patrice Douglas, then one of three elected members of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which regulates that state’s oil and gas companies. Also present was Jack Stark, then-senior vice president for exploration at Continental and now its president. “The basic jist [sic] of the meeting is that Continental does not feel induced seismicity is an issue and they are nervous about any dialog about the subject,” wrote Holland in an e-mail to his superiors.

A month later, Holland was called into a meeting with Hamm and Boren—a gathering that has received extensive media attention this year, including by Bloomberg Businessweek, after it was revealed through e-mails made public in March. Holland told Bloomberg Businessweek the meeting with Hamm and Boren was “just a little bit intimidating.”

Continental said earlier this year that the late-2013 meeting was focused on earthquakes and fracking, rather than wastewater injection. The conversation was “cordial and an information exchange with Austin,” Thomas, the company’s spokeswoman, said in a March e-mail.

—With Matthew Philips