OKLAHOMA CITY-In the rotunda that towers above lawmakers at the Oklahoma State Capitol, the names of oil and gas companies past and present are inscribed. Conoco. Halliburton. Phillips.
The oil and gas industry is the foundation upon which Oklahoma was built. Drilling started here in the 1800s, well before statehood. In peak years, the industry accounts for almost one-fifth of the state’s overall economy.
Sometimes, that history can affect politics in alarming ways. News reports have long hinted that Oklahoma officials turned a blind eye to the proliferation of earthquake activity in order to protect the oil and gas industry. Likewise, the longstanding ties between industry leaders and former Oklahoma attorney general (now EPA administrator) Scott Pruitt have been well documented. But emails and court documents obtained by Fusion’s The Naked Truth investigative team provide a rare look at how some of the most prominent industry voices responded to the growing earthquake crisis in real time. These documents show how—sometimes with the help of state officials—industry sought to distance oil and gas production from the quakes, despite mounting scientific evidence linking the two.
This story is part of a year-long investigation into EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s environmental legacy in Oklahoma by Fusion’s Naked Truth documentary team. Watch The Naked Truth: Wasteland December 19 at 9 p.m. ET, only on Fusion TV.
It was in late 2011 when the issue of earthquakes became a hot topic in Oklahoma. In many ways, the quake in the town of Prague—a 5.7 magnitude event, the most powerful earthquake on record for the state—was the wake-up call. Sandra Ladra and her son Ryan were sitting in the living room of their home when the ground started to shake.
“There was no warning, there was no rumble, there was no thud, then shaking. It was just instant loud,” Ryan said. “I jumped straight up and ran over to the corner to get out from underneath anything that could fall.”
Ladra was still sitting on the couch when a chunk of her roof broke off and crashed down on her knees. She was rushed to the hospital. Her medical expenses wound up costing tens of thousands of dollars, and the house was left with about $200,000 in damages.
In the immediate wake of the quake, Oklahoma’s governor downplayed the connection to industry-related activities. Months later, the U.S. Geological Survey published preliminary findings for a paper that would link the 2011 Prague earthquake to industry, and in particular, to wastewater injections that often accompany the extraction of oil and gas. But amid early scientific reports saying as much, state officials issued widely-reported statements that the 2011 quake was likely a “result of natural causes.”
What wasn’t reported in the year following the quake was how the oil and gas industry reacted internally to the initial scientific reports. The Oklahoma Energy Resources Board is a quasi-public state agency, voluntarily funded by the industry. Its entire board is made up of industry leaders, appointed by the governor and legislature. It’s also the main group that handles environmental clean-ups related to oil wells in the state. The situation is unusual but not unique: Ohio, Kansas, and Illinois have similar set-ups.
In 2012, the board’s Executive Director, Mindy Stitt, solicited talking points about earthquakes from the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association, according to emails obtained through a public records request. Those talking points were specifically aimed at addressing two pieces of new research on the connection between the tremors and industry-related activities.
Among the 2012 talking points shared between the lobbying group and the agency officials were statements that downplayed the seriousness of the quakes, and their connection to industry. The first suggestion, in extra big font, was that the term “seismic activity” should be used instead of “earthquake.” And, although a marked increase in Oklahoma quakes had accompanied the state’s oil boom in recent years, the talking points said: “The area where the seismic activity was recorded has a history of seismic activity and has been one of the most active areas in the state.”
Prior to the uptick in earthquakes in the early 2010s, the state averaged about two quakes per year that registered over 3.0 on the Richter scale, the point at which a quake is noticeable by humans, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. In 2015, the state averaged that number per day.
The fracking process is often tied to earthquakes, but these are typically microquakes that are rarely felt by humans. Scientists now say wastewater injections, which became more common during the early 2010s oil boom, are relubricating ancient faults, causing seismic activity in areas that have long been dormant.
Other emails and internal documents show how industry figures weren’t happy hearing from constituents concerned about the quakes, and in some cases tried to block their emails or make light of them with the help of state officials.
In 2014, former Petroleum Association president Mike Terry asked an official at the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board for help blocking communications from Oklahoma resident Daryl Rossi, who was sending him reports about the link between oil and gas activity and increased seismicity.
“This week I’ve been receiving multiple emails from this crazy environmental activist about fracing [sic] and earthquakes,” he wrote. “Is there a way to block these emails?” Carla Schaeperkoetter, the director of education for the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board, forwarded instructions on how to block an email address.
“Of course that means that he is avoiding the truth,” Rossi said in an email when we told him Terry blocked his messages. “That is the easiest way to avoid a tough discussion.”
Terry did not respond to multiple requests for comment. After months of trying to speak with staff at the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association by phone and email, our efforts were mostly ignored. One association executive we met at a conference declined to speak to us.
Internal communications from 2015 show that officials at the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board were also poking fun at concerned citizens who were making noise about earthquakes.
The emails we obtained show that staff considered doing a Jimmy Kimmel-style “Mean Tweets” video, consisting of public officials reading angry tweets from residents. Their concept seemed aimed at making light of concerns about human-caused earthquakes. Officials at the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association were copied onto the thread.
“Even though I hate being on camera..I think this could be will be really funny so I’m in!” wrote one Resources Board staffer.
A sample tweet, according to internal emails, read: “Don’t ever live in Oklahoma. Fracking causes earthquakes and contaminated water. Ain’t ever gonna stop. Might as well change @OKCThunder to OKC earthquakes,” referencing Oklahoma City’s basketball team.
A spokesperson for the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board said the video was never produced after the group’s ad agency “decided it wasn’t a direction they wanted to go.”
Mickey Thompson, a former top oil and gas lobbyist who helped found the board, was by this point worried about what he saw as a lack of response to the quakes. He’d broached the subject with industry officials, but said he saw little interest in seriously addressing the issue.
“I was consulting for two different companies here in town in Oklahoma City, trying to talk about that internally, in meetings related to the projects I was working on,” recalled Thompson. “And it was almost, I call it, a gag order. Not from the government but from the legal departments in oil companies.”
One of the industry figures he urged to speak up more was Kim Hatfield, the president of Crawley Petroleum, and an Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association board member. In an email to us, Hatfield pushed back on Thompson’s assertion that he had not done enough to publicly address the connection between earthquake activity and industry. “I have given countless interviews, spoken at numerous public gatherings, headed up a research project with the [Oklahoma Geological Survey],” he said.
But Hatfield also warned his colleagues to speak with caution about the connections between industry-related activities and earthquakes. In a 2015 email we obtained, part of a thread among lobbyists and top industry figures after a scientific report was released, Hatfield stressed that top researchers were not in agreement with every point on the topic, and that, “We have to be careful about how we discuss this issue to make sure we don’t get beat to death with our own words.”
Hatfield told us in an email that he was simply trying to ensure good intentions didn’t go awry. “It was my concern that an overly broad generalization or inadvertent mistatement [sic] would be seized upon and used to characterize the speaker and the industry as being duplicitous,” he wrote.
Around that time, Oklahoma oil baron Harold Hamm, who would go on to advise presidential candidate Donald Trump on energy, became part of the story.
In 2015, Bloomberg reported on internal emails from the University of Oklahoma that suggested Hamm was trying to get scientists at the Geological Survey who were linking earthquakes to oil and gas activity dismissed.
In a recent deposition from former Oklahoma Geological Survey state geologist Austin Holland, Holland said he felt pressured in meetings with people like Hamm and state officials to alter his research on human-induced earthquakes. The deposition was taken for an ongoing case brought against companies by homeowners whose properties were damaged in the 2011 quake.
Holland put most of the blame on state officials. He left the state when he felt his scientific integrity was being compromised.
“I wasn’t being coerced by industry, I was being coerced by my superiors. I did have people in the industry say, ‘Well, you can’t say that’ or ‘You can’t say this,’” Holland testified in the recent deposition. “But the ones that actually write the paycheck control what I say in the public eye, and what I don’t.”
In a statement to The Naked Truth, Holland’s boss, University of Oklahoma president David Boren, whom Holland named in his deposition, said he made it clear to the scientist that “our commitment to academic freedom is paramount.”
Boren noted that much of the initial research linking earthquakes to industry activity came from the university, where the Oklahoma Geological Survey operates. A representative from Hamm’s company, Continental Resources, called Holland’s comments about Hamm “untrue. Unequivocally.”
Industry wasn’t just looking to sway the minds of the state’s voters. Email exchanges show staff of the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board were thinking of using a public education program to steer children toward information that seemed to downplay scientific conclusions on the links between earthquakes and industry activity.
The educational branch of the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board provides public school teachers with training and materials to teach children about the energy industry.
In a 2011 email to colleagues, Terry happily described watching hundreds of schoolchildren learning about oil and gas activity, and said he hoped to reach 20,000 students per year through the program.
“Guys, I’m telling you this student ed program is a well oiled machine,” he wrote to other lobbyists and top industry figures. “We are slowly but surely winning the war; at least in Oklahoma!”
But an email exchange from 2016 between members of the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board and the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association shows that the information war was not over. Jeremy Fitzpatrick, a board member of the lobbying group, was alarmed that his six-year-old daughter came back from school talking about the link between industrial activity and earthquakes.
“We need to deploy our troops,” he wrote.
In response, Resources Board head Mindy Stitt wrote that she would try to mobilize the educational program used in nearly all of the state’s districts, to try to get alternative information to schoolchildren.
“We have a scholastic outreach committee meeting coming soon,” Stitt wrote, adding she would bring it up to see if they could revamp the classroom curriculum “to add some factual information about seismicity.”
Former Petroleum Association President Terry also chimed in, complaining “the problem is not the students, it’s the parents and the teachers. We also need something for teachers so they won’t just regurgitate what they read and see in the media.”
In an email, Stitt told The Naked Truth: “The [Resources Board] has not ever and does not include anything regarding earthquakes” in its classroom curriculum. She said her response was regarding information campaigns for the broader public about what the industry is doing to respond to earthquakes, found on the agency’s website.
Officials and industry leaders have recently begun to acknowledge links between earthquakes and industry. Oklahoma now has a council on seismic activity, aimed at expanding research on the issue. Once again, though, the group consists of state agencies and industry lobbying groups, including the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association. A Resources Board video describing the council notes: “Industry has been a fantastic partner in this thing,” adding, “No one’s trying to cover it up.”
In 2015, the state commission that handles oil and gas regulations created a Department of Induced Seismicity. It received funding for one year.
The Naked Truth producers Connie Fossi and Kristofer Ríos and correspondent Natasha Del Toro contributed to this story.