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Quakes And Donation Story: Univ. Disputes It, Reporter Defends It, Oilman Sues Over Facebook Post

Richard Masoner

A story detailing how University of Oklahoma officials sought a $25 million donation from an oil executive while scientists at the school formulated a state agency’s position on oil and gas-triggered earthquakes is under fire from both the university president and the billionaire oilman. 

In a Tulsa World story by Randy Krehbiel, OU President David Boren called a recent piece by EnergyWire’s Mike Sorgahan “a bald-faced lie and some of the most inaccurate reporting I’ve ever seen in my life.”

EnergyWire and Sorgahan, stand by the June 23 story, which reports that scientists at the Oklahoma Geological Survey, which operates out of OU, “came up with a position that squared with Hamm’s, saying most of the hundreds of earthquakes rattling the state are natural and not caused by the oil industry” — a position the agency later reversed.

The EnergyWire story was sourced with records and emails obtained through the Oklahoma Open Records Act. Sorgahan tells the World:

“We sought and received comment from the university spokeswoman before the story ran,” Soraghan wrote. “All of her responses were included in the story. We have not been contacted by the university or the Oklahoma Geological Survey since the story published.”

At least some of the emails referenced in the EnergyWire story were independently verified by the World. Those emails show that OU fundraising officials had developed a proposal, and that Boren and another university official had scheduled a meeting with Continental Resources Chairman and CEO Harold Hamm:

Boren says the pitch was never made. “We circulated a proposal internally for some additional energy facilities. … We made the decision ourselves not to move so quickly on energy-building and also not to seriously present anything to Mr. Hamm,” Boren said by telephone late last week. Boren said the university decided to drop plans for the facility because of a sharp drop in oil and gas prices and a corresponding decline in petroleum engineering students. But he also said he didn’t think it would have been wrong to ask Hamm for the money. “If I were to have a list of those who have given $1 million or more to the University of Oklahoma, I would say that two-thirds to three-fourths have been in the energy business,” he said.

In previous articles, EnergyWire has reported on the close relationship between the university and the oil industry, including a 2013 meeting with Boren, Hamm and state seismologist Austin Holland of the Oklahoma Geological Survey. Holland has acknowledged feeling “pressure” from the industry — and university emails show Hamm wanted scientists fired who were linking the oil and gas industry to earthquakes, Bloomberg reported in May.

Hamm denies he tried to “bully” scientists, and Boren and Holland say interactions and conversations with representatives of the oil industry haven’t changed scientific research.

The World’s Kreihbel reports:

“No researcher at the Oklahoma Geological Survey … has ever received pressure from the university to change their research or to slow their research,” Boren said. “There has been no pressure about their research in any way.”

Boren also tells the World that much philanthropic giving in Oklahoma comes from oil and gas companies, and that “most” of the $2.4 billion OU has raised in his 20 years as president “has come from the energy sector:”

But he also said those contributions cannot come with stated or implied conditions that compromise the university. “The University of Oklahoma — no university — should ever take a donation where there is a quid pro quo that benefits the donor,” he said.


On June 26, Harold Hamm filed a defamation lawsuit seeking more than $75,000 in damages “over a Facebook post that linked to the EnergyWire story and accused the billionaire of trying to ‘squelch’ science examining links between Oklahoma’s energy industry and earthquakes,” The Oklahoman‘s Brianna Bailey reports:

Hamm filed a defamation lawsuit Friday against Oklahoma City oilman Mickey Thompson, one day after Thompson wrote a post on his personal Facebook page that was critical of Hamm. The lawsuit was filed in Oklahoma County District Court. … “The Oklahoma oil industry has been wrong and late to the dance on induced seismicity. Hamm’s usual insightfulness has been missing on the issue,” Thompson wrote, according to a copy of the Facebook post filed with the lawsuit. “As for philanthropy, Hamm has been hugely generous to OU. But the fact remains he tried to squelch OGS efforts to establish good science on seismicity. Shame on him!”

Thompson, who “has been called a friend and adviser of Hamm’s in various media reports,” declined comment to The Oklahoman. In his lawsuit, Hamm claims that Thompson “knew the statement was false or ‘entertained serious doubts concerning its truthfulness,’” Bailey reports:

In his lawsuit, Hamm is seeking an injunction against Thompson to remove the post from Facebook. Hamm also is seeking punitive damages, as well as legal fees and costs.

StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership among Oklahoma’s public radio stations and relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online.

Joe was a founding reporter for StateImpact Oklahoma (2011-2019) covering the intersection of economic policy, energy and environment, and the residents of the state. He previously served as Managing Editor of Urban Tulsa Weekly, as the Arts & Entertainment Editor at Oklahoma Gazette and worked as a Staff Writer for The Oklahoman. Joe was a weekly arts and entertainment correspondent for KGOU from 2007-2010. He grew up in Bartlesville, Okla. and studied journalism at the University of Central Oklahoma.
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