23 March 2015

Q&A with journalist-turned-geologist Rex Buchanan (Part 2): Walking a political tightrope

Posted by mcadams

Rex Buchanan Measures Groundwater

Rex Buchanan measures groundwater levels in the Ogallala aquifer in Morton County, Kansas.
Photo courtesy of Kansas Geological Survey.

By Kerry Klein

After decades as a science reporter, interim director of the Kansas Geological Survey (KGS) Rex Buchanan now finds himself at the epicenter of a media frenzy. This is the first in a three-part series featuring an interview between Buchanan and University of California, Santa Cruz, science journalism student, Kerry Klein. Klein interviewed Buchanan after a symposium on induced seismicity at the 2015 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Jose, Calif. Read the first post in this series on The Plainspoken Scientist.

(Part 2): Walking a political tightrope

What’s one thing you hope your audience got out of the symposium?

I hope that the distinction between fracking and saltwater disposal is made clear. That alone would be a huge step forward.

What are the political challenges of your job? Is it your responsibility to look out for the Kansas economy, which is so reliant on oil and gas? 

It’s our job to worry about geologic resources of economic importance, so we certainly worry about oil, gas and water-related issues. But the oil and gas industry doesn’t want any more regulation even though they understand there’s a problem. Politically, we’re walking a real fine line. Having said that, I don’t know that we have a lot of choice.

We started having earthquakes in September of 2013. The governor said he wanted to establish a task force and they wanted me to chair it. Some people since then have said that I’ve involved the survey too much in a very contentious issue. But … [i]t seems to me these are exactly the issues we have to be involved with, no matter how contentious they are.

A recent Esquire article claimed that Austin Holland, director of the geological survey in Oklahoma, which is experiencing its own increase in induced seismicity, has the worst job in America. Do you ever feel that way about yourself?

About the first of October, we had a … I think it was a 4.2 [magnitude earthquake]. We had to go down to where the earthquake was and meet with the county commission. It was open to the public. All the Wichita television stations were there. [Many of us] had lunch together, and I said, “I know when I walk in that room, everybody’s going to say, ‘well I’m sure glad I’m not that guy.’” And everyone at the table pretty much agreed with me.

We had a 4.9 in November. A 4.9 may not be a big deal in California, but it’s a big deal in my part of the world. My phone rings off the hook and people go crazy. If we were to have a 5.7 like they had in Prague [County, Oklahoma] then in all honesty, I’m not sure I would survive. That’s how touchy this issue is.

What do you mean by that?

I may be being overly pessimistic here, but between the oil and gas side and the environmental community, if we had a really big earthquake that caused enough damage, my guess is the accusations that we hadn’t done enough to head it off would be so severe that it would be tough to keep doing what I do.

Check back next Monday for Part 3 of Klein’s interview: “A reporter on the other side of the media.”

– Guest blogger Kerry Klein is a geologist turned journalist currently studying in the Science Communication Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She talks science and the media on Twitter. This post also appeared at the SciCom class blog, Out of the Fog–Emerging Science from California’s Central Coast.