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Profits over People? Earthquakes Rattle Oklahoma
By Dan Sherman

Oklahomans are tough; it’s in their blood. Many are descendants of relocated Native peoples, Dust Bowl survivors, and hearty pioneers. In addition, Oklahomans have grown accustom to an extreme climate. Tornados, droughts, ice storms, and sweltering heat and humidity are nothing new.

However there is a new and growing phenomenon that is causing great concern: earthquakes.  Oklahoma recently topped California as the U.S. state with the highest amount of seismic activity.  According to National Geographic, from 1978 to 2008, Oklahoma averaged only one earthquake per year of 3.0 magnitude or greater. As of July 31, 2014, that year-to-date number has already surpassed 258, nearly double the number of quakes reported in California.

Many experts believe oil and natural gas activity is strongly correlated with the recent spike in seismic activity, but many Oklahomans are reluctant to place blame directly on highly controversial hydraulic fracturing practices. The reason, Oklahoma has a rich history of oil and gas production.

According to Bloomberg, the state pumps about 350,000 barrels of oil a day, making it the fifth largest producer in the United States. One of every six Oklahomans receive a paycheck from the oil and gas industry, and roughly 27% of annual tax revenue for the state comes directly from oil and gas production.

This spring, U.S. Geological Survey confirmed the likely cause of the record breaking seismic activity: Wastewater from oil and gas operations created by both conventional oil drilling and modern techniques like fracking.

So it’s not necessarily the literal act of hydraulic fracturing causing the quakes, but rather the disposal of waste water (from fracking) being pumped back into the earth through underground injection wells—of which Oklahoma has roughly 10,000. Geophysicist William Ellsworth, the lead author of the U.S. Geological Survey, hypothesizes that the high water pressure often used in wastewater injections wells could nudge previously dormant faults out of their “locked” positions.

To counter the significant consensus on this among the scientific community, oil and gas companies have begun hiring their own ‘experts’ to calm the public discourse and to draw attention to other possible causes.

For example Glen Brown, Vice President of Geology for Continental Resources (one of the largest independent oil producers) recently addressed members of the Oklahoma Geological Society. Brown theorizes that the increase in seismic activity across the state may be related to larger swarms of earthquakes worldwide. He says unusual earthquake activity has been observed in recent years in other states where there is no oil and gas activity. Others like Mike Terry, president of the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association focus on the state’s ongoing drought as a possible cause.

Meanwhile, in May 2014 the U.S. Geological Society issued a rare Earthquake Advisory for Oklahoma, warning that the record number of recent tremors significantly increases the chance for a more damaging quake in Oklahoma. Dr. Bill Leith, USGS Senior Science Advisor for Earthquakes and Geologic Hazards said that “building owners and government officials should have a special concern for older, unreinforced brick structures, which are vulnerable to serious damage during sufficient shaking.”

Still industry regulators, politicians, and leaders from the oil and gas industry continue to take a wait-and-see approach. “As an industry, we’ve been saying we need more data and we need to work with regulators and others to help determine what is causing the significant increase in seismic activity,” said Chad Warmington, president of the Oklahoma Oil and Gas Association. “…to unequivocally link it to wastewater injections, I think there still needs to be more research.”

So for now, the earthquake problem will likely continue to grow, and gas production will surge onward while revenue continues to roll in; Oklahoma’s politicians, insurance companies, and other industry stakeholders are content taking the “wait-and-see approach.” Meanwhile most Oklahomans have little choice but to take on a “wait-and-feel approach” as the ground shakes beneath them.

 

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Posted: September 10, 2014