A state-sponsored workshop on earthquakes closed to the public last week featured panels moderated by energy industry executives and a welcome by a University of Oklahoma dean serving on SandRidge Energy’s board, records show.
Those attending and presenting at the workshop included executives employed by companies named in earthquake-related lawsuits and operating injection wells identified by scientists as potential causes. Four of nine panel discussions were led by executives from energy-industry companies, according to the program.
The workshop came days after the largest earthquake in state history, a 5.8 quake that struck Pawnee Sept. 3 and was felt by people in several surrounding states. It was also held days before state and federal regulators rolled back the number of wastewater injection wells ordered closed in response to the earthquake.
Out of 54 injection wells ordered shut down by state and federal officials last week, about half are being allowed to resume operating at a reduced rate, an analysis by The Frontier has found. The Oklahoma Corporation Commission announced the new measures Monday in what was billed as an expansion of its earthquake response.
(Here’s a map of the state’s new restrictions, announced Monday. And here’s a map of the previous restrictions, minus the EPA’s actions.)
Though the land area covered by the OCC’s new order is larger and new wells are being included, the number of wells ordered to shut down is lower. OCC’s order allowed at least 10 wells near the earthquake’s epicenter to resume operating at a reduced rate. The figure may be as high as 14, as OCC’s maps and lists have several inconsistencies.
Four of the 11 wells the Environmental Protection Agency has allowed to resume operations are permitted to inject more than half a million barrels of wastewater into the ground per month, records show. The EPA’s order allows the wells to resume injecting wastewater at a 25 percent reduced rate.
The workshop on Seismicity in Oklahoma was sponsored by the Oklahoma Geological Survey, a state agency responsible for earthquake monitoring and research based at the University of Oklahoma. It was held Wednesday and Thursday at the Moore-Norman Technology Center in Norman, a public facility in the state career tech school system.
Reporters for The Frontier and for NPR were told to leave the workshop before it began. OGS Director Jeremy Boak later spoke to reporters outside the workshop.
Boak said the science is clear: Oklahoma is more likely to have big earthquakes now because oil industry operations have set them in motion. A massive increase in injection wells, sunk during the energy boom in recent years, created a “pulse” of pressure that is moving under the state, causing earthquakes, he said.
The state has about 3,200 operating wells, where naturally occurring but toxic wastewater is injected deep underground. Scientific studies stretching back to the 1960s have linked such wells to “induced seismicity,” or earthquakes triggered by fluid injection.
The workshop began with a welcome by J. Mike Stice, dean of OU’s Mewbourne College of Earth and Energy. Stice told The Frontier Tuesday that the workshop had been in the works for some time and was not planned in response to the Pawnee earthquake.
“As a part of our ongoing operation of OGS we have a commitment to take on technical conferences and it comes in part with some of our grants,” he said.
Ben Fenwick, a reporter on assignment for The Frontier, and Joe Wertz, a reporter for NPR’s State Impact, were both asked to leave the workshop, held in a public building and sponsored by a state agency.
The decision to close the workshop was made by OGS, not OU, Stice said. (However OGS is housed within OU’s Mewbourne College and OGS employees work for OU.)
Stice said participants in the workshop “were looking to have an open and transparent exchange. That decision was made well in advance so that it could be constructive … and not distracted by any media hoopla.”
“Obviously with the (earthquake) event the Saturday before, it became much more prominent but … it was always a closed meeting.”
Stice is a former executive with Chesapeake Midstream Partners and was elected to the board of SandRidge Energy last year. SandRidge’s directors are paid approximately $250,000 per year in cash and stock options, according to the company’s SEC filings.
SandRidge Energy Inc. filed for bankruptcy in May under Chapter 11, announcing it planned to restructure $4 billion in debt. SandRidge was also named as a defendant in the Sierra Club’s lawsuit, though action against the company was stayed while it is in bankruptcy. (Chesapeake Energy Corp., the parent company of Stice’s former employer, is also a defendant in that suit.)
When asked whether his service on SandRidge’s board presented a conflict of interest, Stice said: “I think the possible appearance is clearly there.”
“I was on the board of SandRidge prior to my joining the University of Oklahoma or this role. When I joined OU. … I removed myself from all discussions within SandRidge around the subject matter” of induced seismicity liability, he said.
Stice said he will no longer be on the board as of Oct. 1 and that his departure from the board was delayed due to the company’s reorganization.
“It took longer than we thought, so there’s been this overlap in my role,” he said.
Bob Jackman, a Tulsa-based petroleum geologist, called Stice’s service on SandRidge’s board “a blatant conflict of interest.”
“He’s with a company that has holdings in the earthquake fairway and he’s advising them on how to survive out of their bankruptcy, which is to dig in and drill more wells. He’s giving solutions to SandRidge on how to get out of a bankruptcy that are in direct conflict with the solutions on how to eliminate earthquakes here in Oklahoma.”
SandRidge along with three other Oklahoma energy companies — Devon Energy Corp., Chesapeake and New Dominion LLC — have been named as defendants in the federal suit by the Sierra Club. In court filings, the companies have denied their energy operations are responsible for the earthquakes and have said the state has already taken action to reduce wastewater injection.
Meeting was ‘invite only’
A Devon executive wrote in a Facebook post last week that “the meeting itself was/is invite only. Press conference(s) are (being) given, at a number of times over the event. But it’s not a public meeting.”
Devon’s ability to resume operating several large wells near the earthquake site depends in part upon actions and research by officials speaking and attending last week’s workshop.
Records show Devon operates two wastewater injection wells in the Osage County area bordering the earthquake epicenter that the Environmental Protection Agency has ordered shut down. The EPA initially ordered 17 wells closed but has allowed 11 to resume injection at a 25 percent lower rate, a spokesman said.
During a press conference Monday, an OCC spokesman said EPA officials attended the workshop.
Both Devon wells are permitted to inject 1.5 million barrels of wastewater into the sensitive Arbuckle geologic layer each month, records show. Federal records do not show how many barrels per month are actually being injected.
Speakers at the workshop included officials from the OGS, OU, the United States Geological Survey and the U.S. Department of Energy. Officials from Kansas, Texas and other states reporting induced earthquakes also spoke.
In addition to the welcome from Stice, workshop attendees could attend nine panels about various aspects of induced seismicity. Four of the nine panels were moderated by energy industry executives and included speakers from OU or OGS, which plays a crucial role in regulating the industry.
Steve Tipton, a Tulsa-based energy consultant for ALL Consulting, led a panel on “data acquisition and management,” which included discussion of “correlations between wastewater disposal and seismicity in Oklahoma.”
Hal Macartney, an executive with Pioneer Natural Resources, moderated a panel discussion about “fluids and pressure,” in which a panelist from OGS discussed monitoring the state’s Arbuckle geologic layer.
The Arbuckle is the geologic layer where scientists believe injection is most likely to trigger induced earthquakes. The Corporation Commission has issued numerous restrictions on wells injecting into the Arbuckle. However, the amount of wastewater injected into the Arbuckle has increased 40 percent since 2009.
Injection wells operated by Macartney’s employer were linked in a 2014 study by the USGS to induced earthquakes in Colorado in 2011. In media reports about the study, the company denied its wells were the cause of the Colorado quakes.
Pioneer, based in Irving, Texas, has more than 10,000 producing wells and reported about $14.9 billion in assets at the end of 2014. Macartney is the company’s geoscience manager for sustainable development, according to his LinkedIn profile.
An executive from Exxon-Mobil moderated the final two panels, including a discussion on the safety of buildings and bridges, subjects that clearly impact the public.
Abbie Liel, associate professor of structural engineering and structural mechanics at the University of Colorado, discussed the risk of damage to buildings from induced seismicity.
Liel told The Frontier that having the workshop closed to media encourages free-flow of information from researchers who may not have been ready to announce results of their research to the public.
“I think my primary takeaway is that there are a lot of people working really hard to understand what’s going on,” she said.
Ironically, part of the discussion at the workshop also involved what Stice described as “the obligation to be transparent across agencies” with data and information.
“We were really talking about the cooperation and the logistics .. and all the different data that exists in different pockets and that was the purpose of the meeting.”
He was apparently not aware that sessions during the workshop were moderated by energy industry executives until informed by The Frontier Tuesday.
“It is true industry participants were in the room,” he said. “That’s largely due to the fact that they possessed a lot of data and we’ve been working with industry to get that data.”
The idea that industry executives would pressure state officials over earthquake research is not far fetched. Several news organizations including Bloomberg and EnergyWire have reported that billionaire oilman Harold Hamm, CEO of Continental Resources and a major OU donor, pressured the university to muzzle its researchers at OGS.
“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 former dean OU’s Mewbourne College of Earth and Energy, in a 2014 e-mail to colleagues.