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.
The admission by Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s office that it made an error in a U.S. Supreme Court case over some intricacies of the death penalty is another example of the agency’s sloppy legal work.
Or was it intentional deceit?
We’ve been here before when a New York Times article outlined how Pruitt had signed a letter under his own name written by corporate staff at Devon Energy. The letter sent to the Environmental Protection Agency was critical of the EPA for “overestimating” air pollution.
The article pointed out how Pruitt and several other attorneys general have cozy relationships with energy companies, but it and the ensuing fallout didn’t focus much on the plagiaristic aspects of the letter or its overall legal integrity.
This time around, Pruitt’s office submitted legal information to the high court that was erroneous. The information in question was a letter sent to Texas by a pharmaceutical company. Pruitt’s office, according to BuzzFeed, argued the letter was sent to Oklahoma. Pruitt’s office has now admitted it made an error.
The issue centered on the drug pentobarbital used in the lethal injection process in executions. Pruitt’s office had argued that a pharmaceutical company had written a letter to Oklahoma that it had come “under intense pressure” by anti-death penalty advocates to stop dispensing pentobarbital. The letter was actually sent to Texas. Pruitt’s office apparently redacted the Texas references. Oklahoma replaced pentobarbital with midazolam, which critics argue is not an effective sedative. This is one of the main issues of the case.
Although the “spirit” of the issue in the overall case determining the legality of Oklahoma’s current lethal injection process might well have been represented by the legal information presented by Oklahoma, Pruitt’s office should have been forthcoming that the letter wasn’t sent to the state but to Texas.
As I pointed out earlier, the question is whether this was just sloppy legal work or deliberate deception. Either way, it tells the story of Pruitt’s tenure as attorney general, which has been based on conservative ideological extremism and suing the federal government over the Affordable Care Act.
It remains to be seen if the admission of error will affect the case. It should. At the very least, all of the information submitted to the court by Oklahoma should be carefully vetted. Unfortunately, the court is not considering the overall legality of the death penalty, which is outlawed in many industrial countries and a growing number of states here in this country.
I think many people consider a state attorney general’s main duty is to legally protect the citizenry from crime and consumer fraud. Sometimes, these worthy pursuits lack political glamour. Pruitt spends too much time trying to score political points and gain attention. This is twice now since December that Pruitt’s legal wrangling has come under severe criticism on a national level. It’s not good for the state’s image.
The fact that state revenues in April were down more than 11 percent than projected is one more reason to stop the income tax cut scheduled to take effect this coming January.
State officials recently announced revenues for April dropped by $87 million or 11.4 percent below the projection and $17.2 million below last year’s collections. Overall, revenues were at $673.3 million.
The worldwide oil and natural gas glut, which has reduced production and drilling in Oklahoma and thus lowered gross production tax collections, was blamed for the steep drop.
Meanwhile, the state faces a $611 million budget shortfall for this coming fiscal year, which begins in July.
Given the bleak scene the state currently faces, it only makes sense to stop the income tax cut from 5.25 to 5 percent, which was triggered by a rosier revenue forecast in December 2014. The legislature must pass legislation to stop the tax cut, but the Republican-dominated Oklahoma House, along partisan lines, already voted against a proposal to halt it. That was before this latest information surfaced, however.
No cuts are expected this fiscal year because of a budget cushion, but that could change. What’s less sure is what this new information means for budget forecasts for next fiscal year. Oil prices have begun to rise to around $60 a barrel after dropping to below $50 a barrel. That’s down from more than $100 a barrel last summer. But some analysts still believe oil will eventually drop again to the $40 a barrel range.
Oklahoma’s state budget is always affected by the collection of gross production taxes and part of the state’s boom-and-bust cycle, but that’s not the only pressure on the budget. Tax cuts in recent years, combined with dedicated funding in certain areas, have left the state scrambling to fund core services. Even when oil prices were high last year, the state still found it difficult to balance the budget, according to the Oklahoma Policy Institute.
As I mentioned in my last post and in several posts over the last two years or so, Oklahoma has cut education funding more than any other state since the Great Recession began in 2007. From fiscal years 2008 to 2015, the state cut education 23.6 percent, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The tax cut scheduled to take place in January will deplete the budget by $50 million and then $100 million annually after that. It is estimated by OK Policy that the average tax cut will be $31 for middle-class households. Only the wealthiest Oklahomans will truly benefit from it.
This latest news about April revenues shows again that the prudent action would be to stop the tax cut.