By JOSHUA KLINE
For The Frontier
OKLAHOMA CITY — In the face of volumes of contrary evidence, billionaire oilman T. Boone Pickens said Friday that Oklahoma’s increase in earthquakes isn’t due to the energy industry, just to better monitoring.
“Wastewater wells and fracking have nothing to do with — they’re not even earthquakes,” he told KFOR news anchor Kevin Ogle, who interviewed the oilman from Holdenville before a crowd of 300 guests at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference.
Pickens’ statements came during a special limited seating luncheon, billed as the “T. Boone Pickens Birthday Bash” to celebrate Pickens’ 87th birthday.
The majority of the interview involved Pickens riffing on old stories from his childhood and early days as an oilman. Pickens talked about meeting with then-Senator Obama in a Reno hotel shortly before the 2008 election to “explain energy.”
He harshly criticized Obama as a know-nothing: “People say he’s a great orator; he’s a great reader.” However, Pickens tempered his criticisms with a good-natured humor that softened the edge.
Ogle, for his part, gently pushed back, citing factcheck.org as evidence that the energy economy has largely improved under Obama’s watch.
“Since he became president, oil production is up 70 percent, oil dependence is down 50 percent. Does he get any credit for that?” Ogle asked.
“You know, he would if he knew how to explain it,” Pickens fired back, to laughs and applause.
Despite (or perhaps due to) domestic energy policy being a favored talking point at this year’s SRLC, not a peep had been uttered about the connection between fracking, wastewater disposal and earthquakes. The issue is a major concern for Oklahoma citizens as the state has quickly eclipsed California over the past two years as the most earthquake-prone state in the continental U.S.
So it was a relief when the issue was finally addressed Friday — the day after the Oklahoma Senate passed a bill that would prohibit communities from banning local drilling — by a legendary energy elder no less, with Gov. Mary Fallin in the audience.
That relief quickly morphed into one of the more controversial claims of the weekend so far.
“This is a little sensitive and a little uncomfortable for folks in this room, and it’s really a double-edged sword for Oklahoma,” Ogle prefaced. “I’m going to ask you about wastewater injection wells and the rise of earthquakes in Oklahoma. Because we depend so much on energy in Oklahoma — jobs, economy, private economy, state economy — how do we walk this tightrope?”
Pickens scoffed at Ogle: “All these earthquakes, huh?”
“Oklahoma’s the earthquake capital of America right now!” Ogle replied. “What do we do to make sure … ”
Pickens dismissively waved his hand. He joked that he evidently still has work to do in educating the public.
“I need to come up here and do some work,” he said. The audience, many of them in the energy industry themselves, roared.
“What’s happened is that we’re monitoring (seismic activity) closer,” Pickens said. “Until a few years ago, we were monitored out of St. Louis, Missouri. And that’s where we got the triggers. Now we come in with the monitors and low and behold we have got all of these ‘Oh my God; we’re having another earthquake’ — the earth is moving all the time, that’s not unusual.”
(While Oklahoma has increased the number of seismic monitors in recent years, it has maintained its own system since at least 1978, according to the Oklahoma Geological Survey.)
Pickens claimed that the epicenters of the state’s earthquakes are 25,000 feet down. (The average depth is about 17,000 feet.)
“You’re injecting water in those wells at something like four or five thousand feet. And you’re fracking at about 10,000 feet. Now Texas has decided that they have a problem. Most of their tremors are coming from Denton.”
He said Oklahomans should “relax you cousins.”
“We are not going to have some huge earthquake that displaces us and everything else like they have in California. That’s why we’re here!”
Pickens then rambled and stuttered his way through a half-joke about making sure not to build nuclear reactors on fault lines.
It was a disconnected answer from a man who clearly loves his state and has built an empire from oil and natural gas excavation.
For decades, scientific studies by the U.S. Geological Survey and others have shown that wastewater disposal wells, and sometimes fracking, can trigger earthquakes.
From 1978 to 2008, the state averaged two or three earthquakes of 3.0 or higher each year. Since then, as new drilling techniques brought a huge increase in wastewater, the number of 3.0 earthquakes has skyrocketed.
The USGS recorded 109 earthquakes of 3.0 or higher in 2013. That number rose to 584 in 2014 and is projected to reach 941 by the end of this year.
Two years ago, the federal agency began warning Oklahoma about the increased risk of damaging earthquakes, as large or larger than the 5.6 quake that struck Prague, Okla. in 2011.
Even the Oklahoma Geological Survey has openly acknowledged the connection between wastewater injection wells and earthquakes. For the past several years, the OGS has been reluctant to make the connection, while scientists at the United States Geological Survey and elsewhere produced numerous studies that reaffirmed previous findings of the relationship.
In recent months, media outlets including Energy Wire have unearthed emails showing how scientists at OGS were pressured by oilman and University of Oklahoma benefactor Harold Hamm.
In a release late last month, the OGS stated: “The OGS considers it very likely that the majority of recent earthquakes, particularly those in central and north-central Oklahoma, are triggered by the injection of produced water in disposal.”
With Ogle at a loss to respond to Pickens’ assertions about earthquakes, Pickens awkwardly pivoted away from the controversial subject with a philanthropic gesture. “What you’re paying me today, I want it contributed to Oklahoma State.”
And the audience applauded once more.
Christie, Bush tout policies
Earlier Friday, several of the GOP heavyweights and presidential hopefuls took the stage.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie began with an anecdote about his family as a way of explaining his brash, tell-it-like-it-is style that has made him famous in some circles and infamous in others.
“I’m the son of an Irish father and a Sicilian mother,” Christie told the chuckling crowd. “So, you can imagine, very early on I became an expert in dispute resolution.”
Christie largely followed the template of Thursday’s presidential hopefuls: opening with easy, self-deprecating humor, then seguing into broad criticism of President Obama before selling himself as a suitable presidential candidate by elaborating on his resume.
Christie eventually honed in on entitlements, explaining that “71 percent of government spending is on entitlements.”
“We need entitlement reform,” he told a cheering crowd.
Echoing the 12-point plan he unveiled last month, Christie proposed that retirement age be raised by two years and phased in over the next 25 years. He also said he wants to phase out Social Security for those who collect more than $200,000 a year in retirement.
Christie moved on to national security and criticized those who would question renewing the Patriot Act.
“I’m the only person in this national conversation who has used the Patriot Act, signed off on it and convicted terrorists because of it. And I am telling you there is a responsible way for us to oversee this and make sure civil liberties are not violated.”
After Christie, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush took his turn on stage, acknowledging his family name, sharing his personal biography and then launching into his professional accomplishments as Governor of Florida.
“The legislature called me ‘Veto Corleone,'” Bush said, because of his ruthless use of the line item veto on anything that had the potential to hurt Florida’s economy. Florida’s credit rating is higher than the Federal government because conservative principles work!”
On foreign policy and national security, Bush was typically critical of President Obama.
“With all due respect Mr. President, leading from behind is not a policy.”
“Our enemies need to twitch a little bit,” he continued. “They need to fear us a little bit. That’s how you bring peace and security to the world. Peace through strength is not a cliche, it’s an effective foreign policy.”
The Southern Republican Leadership Conference concludes Saturday with speeches from presidential hopefuls Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson, along with the announcement of the OKGOP straw poll results.