The potential dangers of fracking have slowly crept into the public consciousness in recent years, marked by infamous videos of people igniting water coming out of their faucets due to the flammable gases released by the controversial process.
But what yet remains truly hidden from awareness is the growing body of evidence linking fracking to earthquakes—that the method of extraction itself can trigger them.
It’s a revelation that could spell disaster for an industry that has relied so heavily on silence to continue operating with impunity, and expectedly, one scientist—a leading seismologist for the state of Oklahoma—has blown the whistle, claiming that officials at the University of Oklahoma ordered him to cover up his scientific findings.
“…I was pressured by staff,” says seismologist Austin Holland, “But the ones that actually write the paycheck control what I say in the public eye and what I don’t.”
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Holland is referring to the President of the university, who explicitly informed him that he has to “listen to the people within the oil and gas industry” and that he had to “be careful of the way in which[he] said things” because “hydraulic fracturing is critical to the state’s economy in Oklahoma.”
In an article he authored examining the possible links between fracking and earthquakes—while Oklahoma in 2016 saw 639 quakes—Holland says the following passage was particularly concerning to OU staff members Larry Grillot and Randy Keller, who pressured him to downplay his findings:
“Even if a network is owned and operated by industry, regulators must ensure that seismic data are not withheld from the public.
“Similarly, making injection data, such as daily injection rates, wellhead pressures, depth of the injection interval, and properties of the target formation, publicly accessible can be invaluable for attaining a better understanding of fluid-induced earthquakes.
(Photo: Austin Holland)
“Open sharing of data can benefit all stakeholders, including industry, by enabling the research needed to develop more effective techniques for reducing the seismic hazard.”
In an age where integrity seems to be on the decline, Holland decided to publish the article anyways, much to the dismay of colleagues, describing the immediate backlash he faced:
“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 the people within the oil and gas industry.
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 — could be misleading, and that he was nervous about the war on fossil fuels at the time.”
Although he describes being contacted by both fracking interests and environmentalists hoping to recruit his help, Holland is convinced the pressure from the university interests was the most imposing.
“I was navigating a difficult landscape, but I was not pressured by industry to change what I’m doing, I was pressured by staff.
“Now, I did — was pressured by Harold Hamm to change the way I spoke about [fracking] in public.
“And I did have people in the industry say, ‘Well, you can’t say that’ or ‘You can’t say this.’ But the ones that actually write the paycheck control what I say in the public eye and what I don’t.”