From Journalist to Geologist: A Q&A with Rex Buchanan

[Credit: Kansas Geological Survey]

Rex Buchanan, interim director of the Kansas Geological Survey [Credit: Kansas Geological Survey]

After decades as a science reporter, interim director of the Kansas Geological Survey Rex Buchanan now finds himself at the epicenter of a media frenzy. 

When Rex Buchanan became interim director of the Kansas Geological Survey in 2010, earthquakes there were practically unheard of. Only a handful had occurred in the previous ten years, and none at all since 2008. But beginning in 2013, at least one tremor large enough for people to feel rattles Kansas every few days—an uptick in seismic activity that researchers have tied to the state’s oil and gas industry.

Reporters have been quick to jump on the link. Many mistakenly blame the quakes on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in which geologists crack open subsurface rock formations using high-pressure fluid to extract oil and gas buried underground.

A frequent source for media interviews, Buchanan finds himself setting the record straight, explaining that the more likely cause of the quakes is wastewater injection (also known as saltwater disposal), the process of forcing the saltwater produced during oil and gas extraction back into the ground. Although the pressure that fracking induces is released once oil or gas begins to flow, saltwater disposal adds pressure as more and more fluid is forced underground, and it’s this pressure that can trigger motion along faults.

Even without a geology degree, Buchanan might be better prepared than most for this public relations maelstrom. A science writer by training, with additional experience as a University of Kansas lecturer and a past president of the Kansas Academy of Sciences, Buchanan knows a thing or two about communicating with a lay audience. But that’s not to say his new job has been easy.

In February, Buchanan chaired a symposium on induced seismicity at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Jose, Calif. He caught up with freelancer Kerry Klein to speak about how his media experience has influenced his role at the survey—and vice versa.

Why did you decide to become a journalist?

I put myself through college working as a sports writer for a newspaper. I think writing is kind of fun; it’s always gratifying. If you were to ask me what were the most satisfying things I’ve done professionally, it’s probably a book publication.

What were your books about?

Two of them were on geology in Kansas, and then I did a Grand Canyon book with another guy.

You don’t actually have a geology degree. How did you come to be the director of a state geological survey? 

Here, Buchanan is measuring groundwater levels in the Ogallala aquifer in Morton County, Kansas. [Credit: Kansas Geological Survey]

Here, Buchanan measures groundwater levels in the Ogallala aquifer in Morton County, Kansas.
[Credit: Kansas Geological Survey]

I’ve taken courses, and I spent a lot of time in the field. By doing those books, I felt pretty comfortable around geology. I’d also say that the job I have is an administrative one. That technical expertise is important but the ability to manage people is probably more important. When I go over to legislature, I’ll talk in general terms about what’s going on, but I always take along somebody who knows a lot more than I do.

How has your experience as a journalist influenced what you do now?

I think that background is really helpful in dealing with audiences like the legislature. And a lot of regulatory agencies have a culture of not talking to the press or to people. I’ve really tried to press our regulatory community to go out and talk to groups in the affected areas monthly, even when we don’t have any good reason to go—just go down and develop a relationship with them so that they trust us.

What would you say is the best part of your job? 

In early January every year, we go out and measure water levels in the Ogallala aquifer. It’s cold and nasty, but we spend a week, GPS guiding us to about 1,400 water wells. I just think it’s so, so much fun. I could do that for free.

One Saturday afternoon, the wind came up and it was about zero [degrees Fahrenheit]. It snowed and it got pretty ugly. Because of how the well was situated I had to be looking in the north wind and my nose started to run. But I had like 300 feet of tape in the bottom of this well; I’d got both hands occupied. The wind caught the snot, blew it up on my glasses, and it froze solid. I was setting there, pulling up this tape, I can’t see, and I’m thinking, “I don’t have to do this.” But most days are a lot more fun.

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?

Each year, Buchanan speaks at a field conference for Kansas legislators. [Credit: Kansas Geological Survey]

Each year, Buchanan speaks at a field conference for Kansas legislators.
[Credit: Kansas Geological Survey]

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.

Since getting this job, what’s been your impression of working with journalists?

I would say 80 to 90 percent of those interactions are positive. The ones I like are the ones that work the hardest. A reporter from a Wichita paper called me probably 20 times in one day, including 3 times at home that night. The upshot was a much better story.

In an earlier conversation, you mentioned you had a bad press experience recently. What happened?

That was a story that made a strong link between earthquakes and fracking, as opposed to saltwater disposal. The reporter did two stories for the Lawrence paper, but they got picked up by the AP and went nationwide.

After the second story, I called the reporter. She felt she had done an accurate story; I told her she hadn’t. It was pretty clear to me that continuing to talk to her wasn’t going to work, so I told her I wouldn’t talk to her again. Did that help? Shoot, I don’t know. It didn’t feel very good, but in 35 years I’ve never done that before.

What are the stakes of bad publicity?

I can guarantee you that I heard from the governor about [that story]. Every time it happens I hear from the oil and gas folks about it.

I didn’t ever used to get hate mail. I didn’t used to get called ugly names by people in public. But it happens now.

What’s the worst mistake a journalist can make when interviewing you? 

If they make it clear they haven’t done their homework; that really irks me. Or, if they come with an agenda—like that reporter I had the biggest problem with.

Here’s something: when I was teaching, I always taught students to end interviews with, “What didn’t I ask you that I should have asked you?” Do you ever do that?

Sometimes, yes.

A reporter did that to me one afternoon when I was not in a good mood, and I said, “There’s a lot of stuff you didn’t ask me. That’s not my problem; that’s your problem, now, isn’t it?” I’ve thought about that a lot because it wasn’t a very nice thing to say.

I always thought I’d be one of those guys that got along with reporters really well. Well, maybe I wouldn’t. I had another television reporter just this week that I basically said, “Don’t call me again because I ain’t talking to you.” I went home and my wife said, “You know, you’re picking ‘em off one by one; sooner or later you’re not going to talk to any of them.”

Buchanan is a regular guest with Kansas Public Radio, where he talks about water, earthquakes, and science. [Credit: Kansas Public Radio]

Buchanan is a regular guest with Kansas Public Radio, where he talks about water, earthquakes, and science.
[Credit: Kansas Public Radio]

If you were to go back to teaching journalism, what’s one piece of advice you’d give your students based on your experience now?

The worst time to develop a relationship with somebody is when you need that relationship. The reporters I like dealing with are the ones who call me regularly about water and regular oil and gas issues. So when they call me about earthquakes, I know who they are and I know what their background is.

Ok, last question. 

And it’s, “What question should you have asked me?” Go ahead, ask it! [laughs]

No, actually! A few days ago, you suggested that retirement may not be that far off. What would you do in your retirement? 

I told my wife I would go drive around. [laughs] Ok, here’s a story. State geologists met in Deadwood, South Dakota, the year before last. I drove to North Platte, Nebraska, spent the night, and went through the panhandle up to the Black Hills. It was a Sunday afternoon. I stopped in this little town and bought a limeade and a barbecue sandwich. I took off cross country. I was in the middle of nowhere, 4-wheel drive, no cell phone coverage, 75 degrees, no humidity—gorgeous day. Jimi Hendrix came on the radio and I stopped the vehicle and I thought, “Right now, this is as good as my life will ever be. It will never be any better than this.” I almost started crying. It was just so cool.

– This article has also been posted in three parts on The Plainspoken Scientist, a blog by the American Geophysical Union. Read the first post here.

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