OKLAHOMA CITY — Hiring the state’s next chief seismologist has become a big priority for one of Oklahoma’s top Republican leaders.
As his northwest Oklahoma constituents continue to be rocked by tremblers — including a magnitude 5.1 one last weekend — House Speaker Jeffrey Hickman, R-Fairview, admits he’s been checking in frequently with the University of Oklahoma to make sure the university understands how important the hire is at the state Capitol and to ensure Oklahoma Geological Survey, which is housed at the university, is making progress.
Nearly seven months have passed since the state’s former chief seismologist, Austin Holland, quit to take a job with U.S. Geological Survey, and the state agency, which previously employed him — OGS — hasn’t yet hired his replacement.
“(I’ve been assured they’re) taking it very seriously and trying to make sure we get the best leaders we can for the seismology team,” Hickman said. “I think they know how important that hire is … and they’re trying to hire an outstanding person to fill this position.”
Oklahoma Geological Survey, which houses the state’s two seismologists, is under a microscope these days as near daily temblors — widely linked to oil and gas disposal wells — rattle homes and businesses across the state.
The agency’s seismologists are tasked with communicating and providing analysis of the quakes to Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which then takes that information and uses it regulate oil and gas industry practices in an effort to stem the rising number of quakes.
Jeremy Boak, head of OGS, and the man tasked with selecting a replacement for Holland, said he isn’t going to be rushed when it comes to picking a candidate to head the state’s earthquake efforts, despite pressure to make a selection.
“I really want to find the right person rather than be rushed to bring someone in really fast,” Boak said this week.
The agency took a second blow in November when the state’s second seismologist, Amberlee Darold, quit to take a job with U.S. Geological Survey — suddenly leaving both positions empty.
Still, Boak takes umbrage to any criticism he’s not working to fill vacancies on his staff. He doesn’t understand why “the impression has built” among some Oklahomans that his team has no seismologists.
That’s “patently false,” he contends.
He’s already hired one seismologist — geophysicist and “jack-of-all-trades” Jefferson Chang. He’s also assembled a team of four analysts and hired a seismic technician, who’s responsible for maintaining the state’s extensive network of seismological tools.
Boak now is reviewing 25 resumés submitted by mostly academic-types who want to head efforts in one of the most seismically active parts of the country.
He’s singled out one person in particular for an interview next month. Boak said he believes he’s someone interested in doing more research into the core causes of the state’s seismicity spike and who will “be something of a long-term builder of core earthquake programs.”
“It turns out it was worth the wait,” he said of the candidate.
In the interim, OCC spokesman Matt Skinner said the agency has “developed a very good working relationship with some of the people that have stepped up to fill the gap.” It was that team that helped his agency develop its latest plan to reduce wastewater injections by 40 percent in western Oklahoma following last weekend’s 5.1 quake.
“The recent plan that we unveiled this week would have been impossible without their input,” he said.
The team also has improved its data-sharing capabilities in the past two weeks, thanks to $1.4 million in emergency funds released by Gov. Mary Fallin to improve response to the tremblers, Skinner said.
Previously, the OGS could only report quakes that were a 2.8 or greater. Now, raw data is flowing back and forth between the agencies about every movement recorded by the seismometers in an effort to predict quakes before they occur.
“The overall goal is get beyond having to be reactive,” Skinner said.
Still, Skinner notes that “obviously, we have a need for a state seismologist — no doubt about it.”
Speaker Hickman said he doesn’t think the state’s complex relationship with the oil and gas industry, which while being blamed for causing quakes, is also a key driver of the state’s economy, would deter qualified applicants.
Quite the contrary.
He likened the rise in quakes to the state’s unpredictable spring weather. The best meteorologists in the country vie to work in the state with such active weather patterns, so it should be the same with seismologists working in a state with active faults.
“I would think, quite frankly, we would have a better chance than ever of getting the best in the field,” he said.