Watch CBSN Live

Did an oil tycoon try to get researchers fired?

Here's a story that's shaking up the Oklahoma oil patch. Oil tycoon Harold Hamm pressured the University of Oklahoma to fire scientists that published research linking the more than 400-fold increase in earthquakes in the Sooner State to activity from the oil and natural gas industry, according to Bloomberg News. Officials in Oklahoma, however, claim that Hamm didn't act on his threat.

The Bloomberg story quotes from an email, obtained through an open public records act, that quotes Larry Grillot, the dean of the University of Oklahoma's Newbourne College of Earth and Energy, saying "Mr. Hamm is very upset at some of the earthquake reporting to the point that he would like to see select OGS (Oklahoma Geological Survey) staff dismissed." Hamm also indicated to Grillot that he was "would be very interested and would be willing to sit on your search committee" for a new director.

According to school officials, Grillot never forwarded Hamm's request to University of Oklahoma President David Boren, a former U.S. senator and governor who sits on the board of Continental Resources (CLR), the oil and gas company where Hamm is chairman and chief executive.

"Dean Grillot will verify that he never passed on to President Boren any requests for Mr. Hamm to serve on the Search Committee or to remove any member of the OGS staff," Catherine F. Bishop, vice president for public affairs at the University of Oklahoma, told CBS MoneyWatch in an email. "The facts speak for themselves. No OGS staff member has been terminated or threatened with termination. No research has been stopped or modified. An independent search for the OGS Director has been conducted, and a distinguished graduate of Harvard has been selected. The University has more than once expressed its total commitment to academic freedom in this matter."

Nonetheless, Hamm's activities have raised concerns in the scientific and academic world.

"I was really just shocked to see it," said Gretchen Goldman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, in an email. "We know these types of things happen."

Jordan Kurland, associate general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, told CBS MoneyWatch that his organization is celebrating its centennial, and "it's this kind of thing that was the main reason for our creation." Such pressures may discourage professors from tackling controversial topics, he said.

Scientists have linked the earthquakes in Oklahoma to wastewater generated through the process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracturing, and injected deep into the ground. A study published last year in the journal Science showed that Oklahoma had more earth quakes than California. It linked 2,547 small quakes near Jones, Oklahoma, to four "prolific" wastewater wells.

"The wells sent a wave of water pressure coursing through the subsurface," the Science article said. "The pressure can reduce forces acting to keep faults locked and trigger earthquakes."

Politics is no stranger to some universities. State legislators in North Carolina backed by the Tea Party have targeted research institutes at the University of North Carolina that have been critical of Republicans in the state. Some conservatives have also targeted scientists researching climate change, saying the problem is overblown.

View CBS News In