Despite a $1 million transfer from the state’s emergency fund to the Oklahoma Geological Survey, the agency still has not replaced its top seismologist.
Austin Holland worked for OGS for years, often working 80-hour weeks investigating causes of an unprecedented increase in Oklahoma’s earthquakes.
But he left the agency last year, taking a job in New Mexico, a state that shakes far less frequently than Oklahoma. Not long after Holland left OGS, so did Amberlee Darold, the agency’s only other full-time seismologist.
The number of earthquakes in Oklahoma jumped from 50 in 2009 to more than 5,800 last year, making the state the most seismically active in the lower 48 states, according to NPR’s State Impact.
Records indicate the heavy workload may not have been the sole reason the two left. As reported by EnergyWire, Bloomberg and other media outlets, OGS and its scientists were pressured to downplay connections between the state’s earthquakes and oil and gas activity.
The agency and state officials, once reluctant to connect earthquakes with the energy industry, have since acknowledged most of the quakes are “very likely” caused by injection wells, as years of studies have concluded.
In response to growing alarm over the rise in earthquakes, Gov. Mary Fallin announced last month that OGS and the Oklahoma Corporation Commission would receive nearly $1.4 million in emergency funds.
The $1 million headed to OGS is planned for the following:
Install additional permanent seismic monitoring stations;
Update seismic monitoring network and software;
Analyze the impact of regulations placed on injection wells;
Study the state’s Arbuckle geological formation and the impact of fluid injection;
Hold workshops to share research and define needs for additional studies.
So while OGS director Jeremy Boak is happy about the additional funding, he said the process of filling Holland’s position has been more difficult than he anticipated.
“That position has a significant research component to it,” Boak said. “It’s more of an academic thing. So it will proceed like an academic search. Actually it has proceeded more like an academic search than I thought it would.”
Boak said OGS had done multiple interviews and started to narrow its list of candidates, before deciding to reopen the process.
“We’d made some selections, then we got nervous wondering about if we had seen everyone we needed to,” he said. “And then it was holiday time, and that slowed us down. So it’s gotten delayed a little more than I like.”
Meanwhile the state has continued to rumble. Though Boak said overall earthquake totals have begun to drop, the number of earthquakes magnitude 3.0 or greater has continued to rise. Boak attributes the decrease to either a random lull, the state’s orders halting or decreasing some wastewater injection, or decreased oil and gas drilling.
The map depicts all earthquakes registered in Oklahoma in the last 30 days. As in previous years, the temblors tend to congregate in the upper central part of the state. Courtesy United States Geological Survey.
In 2015, which obliterated the previous state record for earthquakes in a year, Oklahoma registered 907 temblors 3.0 or stronger. So far this year the state is on pace for more than 1100 such quakes.
“The frequency of earthquakes is just part of the story,” Boak said. “We’re distinctly more on top of that than before, thought they did extremely good work in the past. It was just all so new at the time.”
Darold’s spot has been filled on a tentative basis since her departure. Boak said research associate Jefferson Chang has acted as a seismologist, essentially filling the role Darold had at OGS.
“He’s sort of a jack of all trades in that regard,” Boak said.
Boak said the empty lead seismologist is “not as critical as ones we did fill, like seismic technician, or lead analyst.”
He said a seismic technician repairs monitoring stations across the state, crucial with the increasing number of quakes. The lead analyst works with two other analysts to determine earthquake magnitude, location, and depth.
In December, a spokesman for the OCC said the seismologist vacancies were complicating the agency’s ability to respond to earthquakes.
“The fact that we don’t have the resources we used to have over there is a very big problem for us,” Matt Skinner told The Frontier.
Boak said no firm timetable for replacing Holland or Darold exists, though he would like to have a hire in place by the spring.
“Can I wrap it up before April? I’d love to, but realistically it might go longer than that,” he said.