Thinkstock
Fracking well. The damage that causes earthquakes seems to occur after the drilling, when the wastewater is injected deep underground, stimulating existing fault lines.

Bracing for Quakes: Oklahoma Is the New California Due to Oil & Gas

Anne Minard
4/4/16

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has released a first-ever map forecasting human-caused earthquake activity, as opposed to natural quakes. It affirms what people living near heavy oil and gas industry already know: Injecting industrial wastewater deep underground makes the Earth shake.

RELATED: Study Confirms That Fracking Caused Ohio Earthquakes

The USGS reports that the most significant hazards from so-called induced seismicity are in six states, listed in order from highest to lowest risk: Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico and Arkansas. So far, though, Oklahoma tribes aren’t experiencing much shaking from earthquakes, and leaders surveyed by ICTMN expressed little concern.

“It hasn’t been a major concern yet that has been voiced to our department,” said Darren Shields, environmental director for the Kickapoo Tribe in central Oklahoma.

“I have felt two in the last eight years,” added Waddell Hearn, public relations director for the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. “It wasn’t a big deal at all.”

Still, Oklahoma and the Dallas-Ft. Worth area have emerged as areas most likely to see human-caused earthquakes over the next year; the USGS says seven million people there are at risk for near-term damage from earthquakes. Nearly 40 tribes call Oklahoma home—and their risk of damaging quakes now ranks among the highest in the country.

RELATED: Fracking Suspected in Dallas-Area Earthquakes

“Within a few areas of the central and eastern United States, the chances of damage from earthquakes, whether natural or induced, is similar to those of high-hazard areas in California,” said Mark Petersen, chief of the USGS National Seismic Hazard Mapping Project.

Petersen and his USGS study co-authors Michael Blanpied and Justin Rubinstein explained during a press call on Monday March 28 that Oklahoma has a history with very few earthquakes.

“Prior to 2010, we had one or two earthquakes per year,” Petersen said.

Oklahoma’s terrain is laced with dormant faults, and one of those in the southwestern part of the state, the Meers Fault, saw a magnitude 7 earthquake in prehistoric times. Earthquakes at and above magnitudes of 7 are considered to be the most serious, often leading to widespread damage.

“There has always has been a little bit of a threat there,” Petersen said. “Now that you have these very high, consistent levels of seismicity, the chance of having something larger has increased.”

The 2011 Prague earthquake, at a magnitude of 5.6, was the biggest one in recorded history and a case in point, he said.

RELATED: Biggest Quake in Oklahoma History Rattles Indian Country

The Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry in Oklahoma, welcomed the USGS map as a good tool for justifying the sorts of sweeping new regulations the commission has been enacting in response to the earthquake swarms that started back in 2009, commission spokesperson Matt Skinner told ICTMN. The spate of quakes surprised regulators and industry executives alike. Since that time, Oklahoma has seen hundreds of earthquakes per year.

First Skinner’s agency pinned down the causes of earthquakes by looking at individual wells where wastewater from oil and gas operations had been re-injected underground. That practice—which occurs with or without fracking—is now known to be the culprit. Sometimes, he said, shutting off these re-injection wells would immediately halt a nearby earthquake in progress.

The early efforts also yielded information that has been helpful on a larger scale. For example, regulators learned that water sent too deep under the earth causes earthquakes, even though it was once viewed as good practice to save the quality of drinking water. So the commission’s first major regulatory action, in 2013, was to pull back about 300 of the state’s deepest re-injection wells.

The Commission has also been collecting data—with help from the USGS, the Oklahoma Geological Survey, academics and others—on links between earthquakes and wells that are high pressure and high volume. So far, the high-volume wells appear to present the greatest risks, and so the Commission’s latest action, in February and March of this year, has been to reduce wastewater disposal by 40 percent across two areas totaling 11,000 square miles. That’s the equivalent of a million barrels a day, and Skinner said it’s unclear how industry will deal with the reduction.

“Operators will have to figure out what to do with the water,” he said, adding that some may be able to take advantage of commercial disposal sites that have cropped up across the state. “When oil is at $100 a barrel, trucking it somewhere else is a greater possibility than it is when oil is $30 a barrel. It would be logical to assume that some operators will have to cut back on production.”

Skinner said there’s been little resistance from oil and gas producers, given the gravity of the earthquake problem. Hundreds of producers are affected, and although two companies, one large and one small, initially balked at the new restrictions, both have complied without turning to litigation.

The cutbacks will be phased in through the end of May to avoid rapid pressure changes underground, and Skinner says earthquakes are likely to continue in the short term. In fact, he said, he’d been awakened by two of them near Crescent, Oklahoma, on the morning of Tuesday March 29.

Despite the lack of immediate concern among Kickapoo tribal members, Shields said the tribe has a hazard mitigation plan approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That plan ranks earthquakes as one of the top 10 natural threats facing the tribe, but tornado shelters are placed higher on the priority list. However, the new information is causing tribes to take a closer look.

RELATED: Oklahoma Tribes Keep Wary Eye on Escalating Earthquake Activity

“The hazard mitigation plan will be reviewed soon considering the new study from USGS on induced and natural earthquakes,” Shields said.

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page

POST A COMMENT

Comments

Rick Kooi
Rick Kooi
Submitted by Rick Kooi on
Just keep Senator Inhole in office.....The Snow Ball throwing Dunce and Mouth Piece for the Oil & Coal Industry......$3/4 Re-Election Campaign Contribution from Oil & Coal is just the tip of the iceberg of support for the Senator. Over 40,000 Digital Weather Stations around the world tell us that temperatures are rising faster than at any time in millions of years... ...But YOUR Senator blocks ANY attempt at slowing the destruction of our planet... ...all in the name of SELF INTEREST....Certainly not in your interest.... ...The QUAKES you are experiencing are JUST THE BEGINNING of BIG TRILLION DOLLAR ENERGY INDUSTRIES plans for you. ....Montana's Glacier National Park had 150 Pristine Glaciers in the 50's when my family visited....today just 25 remain...soon to be 24! ...But YOUR Senator blocks ANY attempt at slowing the destruction of our planet... ....All Satellites & All Digital Ocean Buoys testify to Rapid Warming of the Earth & the Earth's Oceans....... ....But YOUR Senator blocks ANY attempt at slowing the destruction of our planet...He throws snowballs in arrogant disregard of Science. .....Science brought the dangers of ACID RAIN to EARTH to the attention of a Very Conservative President....He Followed Science and economically halted ACID RAIN. ....But YOUR Senator blocks ANY attempt at slowing the destruction of our planet...He CLAIMS HE KNOWS BETTER that SCIENCE.......$3/4 million dollars in contributions from OIL & COAL helps the thinking process and reelection. ....Science brought to the attention of a Conservative President the dangers to the OZONE HOLE to EARTH and that Conservative President followed science....and the danger retreated. .....Science has been warning PLANET EARTH that you cannot keep pumping tens of billions of tons of pollution into our atmosphere with damaging the delicate balance in our atmosphere which has allowed humans to be FRUITFUL & PROSPER....to use the Biblical imperative from God. ....But YOUR Senator blocks ANY attempt at slowing the destruction of our planet...blocks ANY attempt to follow the BIBLICAL Imperative to be good Stewards of GOD's CREATION.... *****I feel as Christians we should do what we can to preserve and protect God's creation rather than to cause harm and destroy. Then we can also be comforted in knowing we did our best to care for and nurture His glorious creation as He would have done. We need to remember Matthew 10:29 - that even the sparrow does not fall to the ground without His notice. Isn't that awesome? When we stand before God in judgment we do not want Him to ask us why we stood idle and let so many sparrows fall. "

WinterWindTeacher's picture
WinterWindTeacher
Submitted by WinterWindTeacher on
It just doesn't seem like there is a lot of intelligence working on any of the environmental concerns. If a state averages 2 earth quakes a year and now there are 800 in a year, wouldn't that give someone a head scratch that something is wrong and slow down on the go until you can find the broken wheel? Sometimes it just seems like how much dumber can stupid get? Can it not have some effect by sticking a large syringe into the earth and sucking out her fluids, draining off what solid matter is deemed monetary value and then flushing the waste slurry water at high pressure back into her being? It is an irritating thing about government - their planning is all backwards and knee deep into don't know yet. I would think that any elected body politic would want to hear from a scientist in biology, or environmental sciences occasionally before voting on or approving any proposed development, extractive or mining permits as to the effects it would have upon the health of the immediate environment; soil, water and air. I would think it would be imperative to have full disclosure as to the impacts upon the bio-diversity, if there is any left, and any health risks to human populations. It is difficult to think that these questions came up much in any of the discussions/votes - because it shows perplexity and confusion, in other words - the representative government at what ever level; local, state or federal, has done everything to accommodate business interest, being business friendly, which is taking care of the bottom line. It is just another example of what was sacrificed for monetary, everything. Principles, values, life, the whole environment is just a crap shoot at the tables! I am sorry that people are not concerned. The earth is being so greatly abused, ravaged by men and machines to tear her to pieces for every last thread of the good sense that has held her together for billions of years. The earths creation is a miracle, it is so intricate and complex and it hurts to see her pummeled for a fist full of dollars. I think it was the last 7th generation that has come here, there is very little of a supportive healthy environment to support another generation say nothing of seven generations. It is shamefully sad that the children of earth allowed the mother to be put into such a stricken and wretched state. The Earth was so beautiful once and she deserved to continue to be as lovely. I think the children forgot their promise to care for the earth when they were born and instead got seduced by false value - money.
2