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Former OU researcher, state seismologist felt pressured to suppress fracking research

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Okla. state seismologist Austin Holland

Dr Austin Holland gives a presentation on earthquakes at the Oklahoma Corperation Commisions.

A former OU researcher and state seismologist testified under oath he was pressured by members of the OU administration to suppress research on the connection between wastewater injection and recent earthquakes in Oklahoma.

Austin Holland, who published research implicating wastewater injection wells in recent earthquakes throughout the state of Oklahoma, testified under oath during an Oct. 11 deposition that OU President David Boren and Larry Grillot, former dean of Mewbourne College of Earth and Energy, among others, pressured him to suppress scientific research.

Holland, who left the Oklahoma Geological Survey in 2015, testified that he was called into a meeting with Boren and Harold Hamm, chairman and CEO of Continental Resources, a top oil-producing company, in which both advised him to be aware of the needs of the oil and gas industry.

While Boren previously sat on the board of Continental Resources, OU Press Secretary Matt Epting said Boren left that position "earlier this year." A report from Bloomberg Business news revealed Hamm emailed Grillot telling him he wanted faculty researching the connection between wastewater and earthquakes "dismissed from the university."

“The president of the university expressed to me that it 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 during the deposition. “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.”

The meeting came after OGS released a statement in 2015 saying it is likely that the vast majority of earthquakes within Oklahoma are triggered by wastewater disposal.

In a statement sent to The Daily by Epting via email, Boren said he "made it clear to (Holland) that our commitment to academic freedom is paramount." 

“I was not privy to conversations within the department about the academic merits of particular scientific publications or reports," Boren said in the statement. "I expressed publicly and privately to Dr. Holland that OGS researchers have full academic freedom and a duty to pursue the truth in their research wherever it leads them."

Boren also said in the statement that he was proud of the work conducted by OGS.

"We have learned wastewater disposal has contributed to increased seismicity specifically based on the pioneering research provided by the Oklahoma Geological Survey," Boren said in the statement. 

Holland said Grillot also interfered in his research publications, sometimes changing the wording or editing his presentations, and at one point withdrawing the abstract from a scientific meeting in Arkansas because the topic was earthquakes triggered by hydraulic fracture.

“They helped me with presentations. They'd take a look and change — for the public — change wording and that sort of thing,” Holland said in the deposition. “They would tell me that they had gotten a bunch of calls, complaints, after I'd give a news conference about some earthquake or something, and they'd say they had gotten a lot of complaints and that we need to really watch how we say things and that, you know, we have to make sure that we're accurate.”

Holland testified that Grillot called one of his publications “unacceptable,” after which he left his position at OU.

“After being reprimanded for publishing a paper, I felt like I had just lost my dream job in one conversation,” Holland said.

Neil Suneson, an adjunct professor of geology who worked with Holland as a member of the Oklahoma Geological Survey, said he felt as though Holland left the university because politics impeded his ability to pursue his research.

“What’s interesting is when you have good scientists, good scientists that meet head-to-head with politics," Suneson said. “Who always wins? It’s the politics that wins. We would like to get some honest answers, but money talks.”

Holland said in the deposition he was disappointed by the reaction of administrators to his research.

“So I was just disappointed and devastated and, you know, it was one of those moments in life, you don't have many, where you wish you would have recorded a conversation, because I did not expect the conversation to go where it went, and it was just really disappointing,” Holland said.

Correction: The first paragraph of this article was updated at 12:25 p.m. to clarify that Holland's testimony referred to wastewater injection, not fracking. Wastewater injection is a process commonly associated with hydraulic fracturing.

Correction: This article was updated at 1:45 p.m. Nov. 17 with the proper name of the Oklahoma Geological Survey, which was misidentified as the Oklahoma Geographical Survey. 

Anna Bauman is an English senior and the Daily's news managing editor who has previously worked as assistant news managing editor, news editor and news reporter.

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