Oil baron Harold Hamm’s apparent zealous meddling at the University of Oklahoma over the state’s major earthquake problem is a threat to academic freedom and shows an obvious pitfall of the corporate model of education.
On Friday, Bloomberg reported that Hamm, the billionaire chief executive officer of Oklahoma City-based energy company Continental Resources, apparently told an OU dean he “would like to see select OGS staff dismissed.” OGS stands for Oklahoma Geological Survey, which is located at the university and is affiliated with the Mewbourne College of Earth and Energy.
The OGS, among other projects, has been studying the state’s dramatic surge in earthquakes, a surge it and other scientists believe has been caused by wastewater disposal wells used in the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, process.
The information about Hamm comes from an email written by Larry Grillot, dean of the Mewbourne College of Earth and Energy, which was obtained through a public records request by Bloomberg News. The email outlines a “visit” between Grillot and Hamm “to discuss [Hamm’s] concerns about reporting of earthquake activity by select OGS staff.” Hamm requested the meeting.
Along with referring to how Hamm wanted specific staff dismissed, the July 16, 2014 email reveals Hamm planned to meet with Gov. Mary Fallin about moving the OGS out of OU. The email also reveals Hamm wanted to serve on a job search committee for OGS Director.
You can read the full email here. It was earlier reported in widespread coverage that in late 2013, Hamm and OU President David Boren met with Austin Holland, an OGS seismologist and discussed the earthquake issue. Hamm is a major financial donor to the university. Boren made nearly $350,00 serving on Continental Resources Board of Directors in 2014, according to The Oklahoma Daily.
No one has been dismissed from the university over the issue, Hamm didn’t serve on the search committee and Fallin’s office has issued a statement that the governor doesn’t have the authority to take over the OGS and has no plans to try to do so.
A university spokesperson also did say OU “will not tolerate any possible interference with academic freedom and scientific inquiry,” but Grillot’s email and the earlier meeting with Holland seem, at the very least, to bring that into question.
I will state the obvious. The oil and gas industry has a vested interest in escaping responsibility for the hundreds of earthquakes Oklahoma now experiences each year, and it’s also in the industry’s interest to continue to use wastewater disposal wells in the fracking process. Hamm’s statements, as presented in Grillot’s email, collectively are as about a direct assault on academic freedom and academic integrity as you can get. Trying to get people fired for speaking the truth and doing their jobs is an ugly business. Is the OGS only supposed to report information that is beneficial to the bottom line of oil and gas companies?
In recent decades, many, if not most, public universities have adopted some form of what has been referred to as the corporate model of education, which emphasizes business-like models in managing institutions. With decreasing support from taxpayers and operating under a business philosophy, universities have also turned to rich donors to help support their missions. These donors have their own various agendas and beliefs that don’t always coincide with intellectual integrity.
Yet if a university ceases to honor academic freedom, it also really ceases to exist as a place of true learning and intellectual discovery.
The oil and gas industry is a vital part of the Oklahoma economy and will remain so, but right now the state faces an earthquake emergency. Daily earthquakes of 3.0 magnitude or higher are not uncommon here now, something unimaginable just a few years ago. Some scientists claim the state is destined to get hit by a major quake. A 2011 quake near Prague registered at a 5.6 magnitude. In 2014, there were 585 earthquakes 3.0 or higher, the most in the lower 48 states, including California.
In the wastewater disposal process, water laced with chemicals used to frack for oil and gas is injected into underground rock formations and stored there. It’s believed by scientists that it’s this process that causes instability along fault lines and triggers the earthquakes.
The prudent action would be to issue a moratorium on wastewater disposal wells for now, but that, of course, could disrupt oil and gas drilling activities. A sudden moratorium could also, at this point, trigger even more earthquakes, according to seismologist Holland.
Meanwhile, rich and powerful oil and gas executives such as Hamm are probably going to try to influence how the state addresses the issue, and they will be worried mostly about their companies’ bottom lines. But at this point, given the mounting scientific evidence, a major quake that hits a highly populated area in Oklahoma would raise questions about the industry’s liability on both a moral and financial level.