Correction: This story originally misstated the date of the Prague earthquakes and the date of a Stanford University study about the quakes. The story has been corrected.
The state’s former top seismologist was reprimanded by a University of Oklahoma official for publishing a study on mitigating induced seismicity and felt pressured not to link Oklahoma’s earthquakes with man-made causes, according to his testimony in a lawsuit.
Austin Holland’s sworn statements from a recent deposition contradict public statements OU President David Boren made to the Tulsa World in 2015. Boren repeatedly stated that the university and its donors never exerted influence or pressure on Oklahoma Geological Survey scientists researching the state’s unprecedented seismicity.
When reached recently by the Tulsa World, Boren and the former dean of the Earth and Energy College disputed Holland’s testimony that the university or its officials applied pressure on or punished him for his research.
Holland’s deposition was taken on Oct. 11 in an ongoing lawsuit filed in 2015 by Jennifer Cooper against New Dominion and Spess Oil Co. for damages sustained in the 2011 Prague earthquakes.
Holland described how he was “disappointed” and “devastated” to receive a reprimand for helping publish a peer-reviewed journal article on how to cope with man-made earthquakes. He said he decided that he “couldn’t take any more” and starting to search for a new position.
The reprimand came during the period before the paper was released to media outlets, Holland stated. The research, on which he is listed as a co-author, was published in February 2015. In July 2015, it became public that Holland was leaving the Oklahoma Geological Survey to pursue a job with the U.S. Geological Survey.
The Oklahoma Geological Survey is a state agency administered by OU.
“And so, you know, it was sort of like realizing that I could no longer be a scientist in an environment that I thought was my perfect job was really disheartening. … But after being reprimanded for publishing a paper, I felt like I had just lost my dream job in one conversation,” Holland testified.
“And the warning signs were there as far as being asked to remove presentations from scientific meetings and other things. It was — having my words edited by the dean was certainly, you know, some warning signs. But that was pretty much the turning point.”
Holland specifically identified Larry Grillot, former dean of the Mewbourne College of Earth and Energy, and Randy Keller, former director of the Oklahoma Geological Survey, as influencing and altering wording in his research or presentations.
Holland responded with both of their names when a plaintiff’s attorney asked who pressured him to avoid linking the Prague-area earthquakes with saltwater injection by the oil and gas industry.
Holland’s testimony also offered details of a meeting that took place with Boren and Harold Hamm, a donor of millions of dollars to OU who founded oil and gas company Continental Resources. Holland said he was called into the president’s office after he wrote a paper discussing hydraulic fracturing as a trigger for some earthquakes in Oklahoma.
“Well, the president of the university expressed to me that I had complete academic freedom but that as part of being an employee of the state survey, I also have a need to listen to, you know, the people within the oil and gas industry,” Holland said. “And so Harold Hamm expressed to me that I had to be careful of the way in which I say things, that hydraulic fracturing is critical to the state’s economy in Oklahoma, and that me publicly stating that earthquakes can be caused by hydraulic fracturing was — you know, could be misleading, and that he was nervous about the war on fossil fuels at the time.”
Holland’s testimony contradicts what Boren told the Tulsa World in an interview responding to a June 2015 EnergyWire story that reported that the Oklahoma Geological Survey waffled on its findings related to the state’s rapidly growing number of earthquakes.
Boren repeatedly told the Tulsa World that work at the university was never compromised by Hamm or any other donor.
“No researcher at the Oklahoma Geological Survey … has ever received pressure from the university to change their research or to slow their research,” Boren told the World in June 2015. “There has been no pressure about their research in any way.”
In a recent written response to questions posed by the Tulsa World, Boren said he hasn’t seen the full deposition and can’t respond to Holland’s specific comments.
“I was not privy to conversations within the department about the academic merits of particular scientific publications or reports,” Boren wrote. “As I have expressed publicly and to Dr. Holland personally, OGS researchers have full academic freedom.
“Dr. Holland himself stated in a 2015 media report, ‘We have the academic freedoms necessary for university employees doing research.’ Our commitment to academic freedom is paramount.”
Boren’s statement also lauded the research of the OGS.
“We have learned that wastewater disposal has contributed to increased seismicity specifically based on the pioneering research provided by the Oklahoma Geological Survey,” Boren said. “The university stands by OGS researchers and is proud to have played a role in this important scientific finding, which is being used to protect the safety and well-being of Oklahomans.”
Regarding his reprimand from the College of Earth and Energy’s dean, Holland testified that Grillot called him to his office and told him the research paper was “unacceptable.”
Holland said Grillot conveyed several complaints about the study, but he said the dean’s primary unhappiness centered on a policy statement recommending that the industry make its seismic and injection data publicly available.
“As I mentioned, that was one of those conversations where I was not expecting what occurred, and I wish I would have had a recording of it, and I did not have the foresight to go make notes,” Holland said. “I was sort of washing my hands of where I was at and what I was doing at that point.”
Holland noted that Grillot’s reprimand wasn’t put in writing because a “large number of open records requests” prompted internal conversations to primarily take place in person or on a phone line to avoid creating “a searchable record of conversations.”
Grillot responded that “reprimand is a strong word,” adding, “I don’t recall having done that at all. Period.”
The Tulsa World asked him whether he had expressed displeasure or unhappiness with the paper in question, rather than a reprimand.
“No, not from the technical content,” Grillot said.
He then added:
“We were trying to keep a lot of constituents informed,” Grillot said. “Whether it be the sector of energy, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission and the various public and everybody else, we had discussions about how we could communicate all this stuff.”
Holland also testified that Grillot and Keller “helped me with presentations,” changing wording “and that sort of thing” for the public. He said the pair would tell him that they would receive “a bunch of calls, complaints” after Holland would present a news conference about an earthquake.
“But I also had points where the dean of the college asked to see my presentations to scientific meetings and would then wordsmith my presentations for scientific meetings, as well as at one point was asked to withdraw an abstract from a scientific meeting in Arkansas because the topic was earthquakes triggered by hydraulic fracture,” Holland said, noting that he did withdraw his abstract.
Grillot said he would “sometimes suggest changes or edits but usually only when asked.” He also said he doesn’t recall asking Holland to withdraw a scientific abstract.
“If Dr. Holland is asserting that he received pressure from me to alter his research or conclusions, that’s not true,” Grillot said. “That did not happen.”
Several times Grillot referred to the time period as “the early days” in investigating Oklahoma’s surge in earthquakes. He noted that the Prague quakes sparked much debate with many opinions, adding that a Stanford University study as recent as November 2016 still expressed uncertainty as to whether human actions triggered that sequence.
“I believe that both Dr. Holland and Dr. Keller were good scientists,” Grillot said. “I felt we had a good working relationship.”
Attempts by the Tulsa World to reach Keller, as well as Hamm, for comment were unsuccessful.
Holland declined to comment further when reached by the Tulsa World.
After the EnergyWire story was published, the Tulsa World obtained emails that Mike Soraghan used to write his report.
The emails indicate a close relationship between the industry, the OGS and the Mewbourne College of Earth and Energy. They also show that Hamm and others in the energy industry at least tried to limit the public comments of Holland and Keller, his former boss.
The emails reveal that Hamm and others encouraged Boren to leave all public comments related to earthquakes and the OGS to Catherine Bishop, the university’s vice president for public affairs and longtime spokeswoman.
In December 2013, Hamm emailed Boren, “I am glad you put Catherine Bishop in charge. This situation could spiral out of hand easily.”
Boren told the Tulsa World, “I think (Hamm) was saying that … he was frustrated because people were taking quotes from Austin Holland or conclusions about his research out of context.”
Ultimately, Hamm was not satisfied. In July 2014, Grillot wrote to Danny Hilliard, a former legislator who is now a lobbyist for the university, that Hamm was “very upset at some of the earthquake reporting to the point that he would like to see select OGS staff dismissed.”