Brine: Work has changed prairie
and methods around oil production water spills worldwide — brine that is, salt water, something that “has cost Oklahoma a lot of land,” he said.
The easiest mark related to Sublette's work is the Ecological Research Center that opened in 2004 at the preserve. Others, if you know where to look, are remediation sites across the prairie where once brine-scarred “moonscapes” are transformed back into grasslands. More, his research continues to carry the influence of TU and an unlikely partner for the oil and gas industry, The Nature Conservancy, to best-practices on oil and gas fields worldwide.
“In a nutshell, I can't say enough good things about Kerry Sublette,” said Harvey Payne, who as one-time director for the preserve in the early 1990s shuddered at the idea of “some well-meaning ivory tower professor” coming to look at oil production and possibly stir up a political hornets' nest.
“He personally raised, I'm sure, over $1 million that he has put into remediation on the preserve,” he said. “Bureau of Indian Affairs, oil producers, people around the world use the techniques he's developed here at the preserve and that's really something,” Payne said.
Preserve Director Bob Hamilton said the research center hosts scientists from universities far and wide each field season that look at everything from birds and botany to oil and gas.
More than 180 published papers have resulted from work carried out at the remote station and the accompanying old ranch bunkhouse that was restored to house the scientists in residence.
“If you have to point to one person, Kerry Sublette is the reason why that facility exists,” Hamilton said, acknowledging the major role played by the University of Tulsa and The Nature Conservancy for the roughly $1.5 million facility plus maintenance endowment.
“People were collecting samples and running them back to TU, or to their universities and Kerry said, `what we really need is a research facility out here.' It's come to be that the preserve and the research facility has been more influential in remediation research than any other single site worldwide,” he said.
On the wide-open prairie, the real action happens below the surface, Sublette said.
A miracle from the prairie for the oil fields, put in the simplest terms and focusing on one tiny — but critical — element of a broad approach is the advent of what might be called Sublette's microbe ranches.
“A bug ranch,” Sublette laughed at the suggestion, but acknowledged it's a loosely accurate characterization of what happens with Biotrap technology developed at the university and now in commercial use internationally.
“It's very important for us to understand what's going on with the microbial community. Whether it's working the way it should, whether it's responding the way it should,” he said. “We have the capability now to provide irrefutable proof that the micro-organisms in a certain environment are degrading a certain compound.”
No question, the prairie has been a transformative landscape for the man who stood alone in the dark under the night sky with the camera on his tripod on the Tallgrass.
He's completed important work there and he's loved and lost there. He met his wife of 18 years, Judy, on the prairie. She passed away last fall but years earlier she was part of a cancer support group attended by Sublette's first wife, who also died of cancer.
“After my (first) wife died I took all the members of her support group, in groups of two and three, on a tour of the Tallgrass Prairie,” he said. “We'd spend the day out there, driving around, seeing the bison, hiking around. So, on a trip out there I got to know Judy and I thought, `this is a nice lady.' I got to know her a little better, and we started seeing more of each other, and it developed into a relationship.”
His environmental consulting business will take more of his time now and he still will lead professional training seminars for agencies, corporations, and countries worldwide, he said.
There will be hundreds and hundreds of shots to come.
“Now I just try to fill my time with as much productive or fun things to do as possible,” he said. “I'm sure it's going to be that way for a long time.”
University of Tulsa professor Kerry Sublette talks about a brine spill remediation site with Tallgrass Prairie Preserve Director Bob Hamilton.