Letter from Oklahoma: Weather Underground: The arrival of man-made earthquakes

Rivka Galchen, Letter from Oklahoma: Weather Underground: The arrival of man-made earthquakes. The New Yorker, 13 April 2015. “Until 2008, Oklahoma experienced an average of one to two earthquakes of 3.0 magnitude or greater each year. (Magnitude-3.0 earthquakes tend to be felt, while smaller earthquakes may be noticed only by scientific equipment or by people close to the epicenter.) In 2009, there were twenty. The next year, there were forty-two. In 2014, there were five hundred and eighty-five, nearly triple the rate of California. Including smaller earthquakes in the count, there were more than five thousand. This year [2015], there has been an average of two earthquakes a day of magnitude 3.0 or greater.”

Excerpts from story:

William Ellsworth, a research geologist at the United States Geological Survey, told me, “We can say with virtual certainty that the increased seismicity in Oklahoma has to do with recent changes in the way that oil and gas are being produced.” Many of the larger earthquakes are caused by disposal wells, where the billions of barrels of brackish water brought up by drilling for oil and gas are pumped back into the ground. (Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking—in which chemically treated water is injected into the earth to fracture rocks in order to access oil and gas reserves—causes smaller earthquakes, almost always less than 3.0.) Disposal wells trigger earthquakes when they are dug too deep, near or into basement rock, or when the wells impinge on a fault line. Ellsworth said, “Scientifically, it’s really quite clear.”

The first case of earthquakes caused by fluid injection came in the nineteen-sixties. Engineers at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, a chemical-weapons manufacturing center near Commerce City, Colorado, disposed of waste fluids by injecting them down a twelve-thousand-foot well. More than a thousand earthquakes resulted, several of magnitudes close to 5.0. “Unintentionally, it was a great experiment,” Justin Rubinstein, who researches induced seismicity for the U.S.G.S., told me.

In recent years, other states with oil and gas exploration have also seen an unusual number of earthquakes. State authorities quickly suspected that the earthquakes were linked to disposal wells. In Youngstown, Ohio, in 2011, after dozens of smaller quakes culminated in a 4.0, a nearby disposal well was shut down, and the earthquakes stopped. Around the same time, in Arkansas, a series of earthquakes associated with four disposal wells in the Fayetteville Shale led to a ban on disposal wells near related faults. Earthquakes were also noted in Colorado, Kansas, and Texas. There, too, relevant disposal wells were shut down or the volume of fluid injected was reduced and the earthquakes abated….

Oklahoma is an oil state. Which is not to say that it is a wealthy state. Twenty-four per cent of Oklahoman children live in poverty. It is ranked forty-sixth in over-all health, a measurement that considers such factors as access to medical care and the affordability of that care. In 2013, a boom oil year, it was among the states that spent the least per student, and ranked No. 1 in cutting funding to education.

Oil has brought money to the state, but mostly to a few individuals. The state budget in Oklahoma in 2014 was seven billion dollars; the net worth that year of Harold Hamm, the thirteenth child of a sharecropper from Enid, who heads the oil company Continental Resources, was twice that….

In state government, oil money is both invisible and pervasive. In 2013, Mary Fallin, the governor, combined the positions of Secretary of Energy and Secretary of the Environment. Michael Teague, whom she appointed to the position, when asked by the local NPR reporter Joe Wertz whether he believed in climate change, responded that he believed that the climate changed every day. Of the earthquakes, Teague has said that we need to learn more. Fallin’s first substantive response came in 2014, when she encouraged Oklahomans to buy earthquake insurance. (However, many earthquake-insurance policies in the state exclude coverage for induced earthquakes.)…

In September, 2014, at the request of two state representatives, the Oklahoma legislature conducted an official interim study on induced seismicity. In subsequent hearings, more than five hours of testimony were presented to a committee of legislators. [Austin] Holland [the head seismologist of the Oklahoma Geological Survey], Dana Murphy, of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, and Todd Halihan, the professor of geology at Oklahoma State University, all spoke about the link between disposal wells and earthquakes. Tim Baker, of the O.C.C., spoke about the link between drilling into basement rock and earthquakes.

After the hearings, Mark McBride, the committee chair, issued a press release. It denied “a correlation between the injection wells and seismic activity,” and quoted a legislator’s speculation that perhaps the quakes were caused by “the current drought.” None of the scientists who had been present were quoted. I called McBride, who at first had no memory of the study—nor did his secretary. Then McBride remembered it. I asked what he had learned from it, and he said, “Well, one question I had for them was about the drought. That maybe the drought is causing these problems. And I seem to remember that sometimes there’s a problem, if they drill down too far. But that’s about it, really.”

Between 2009 and 2014, no legislation related to earthquakes was even proposed by the state legislature. I asked Representative Jason Murphey, one of the legislators who had called for the interim study—after a town-hall meeting in his district was filled with seven hundred and fifty angry and scared residents—whether he felt that the legislature should respond to the quakes. He said, “I think the most important thing that the legislature can do is to insure that government regulation doesn’t get in the way of technologies of wastewater being disposed of by other means.” The main technology for aboveground treatment of wastewater is a device called the Koch membrane, developed by Koch Industries; it filters out most toxins, though it is considered quite expensive, and can handle only limited volume.

In the 2015 legislative session, the other state representative who had convened the interim study, Cory Williams, of Stillwater, has introduced two earthquake-related bills. One proposes tax breaks for aboveground water-treatment technologies; the other seeks to make earthquake insurance more fair to consumers. At least eight bills have been proposed that aim to make it difficult for communities to set their own rules for oil drilling….

I travelled to Stillwater, to O.S.U.’s Boone Pickens School of Geology, to meet with Todd Halihan, the geology professor. The town’s low redbrick buildings and cracked pavement give the impression of a hastily put-together Western town, but the O.S.U. campus, with its well-tended lawns and fountains, resembles an American Versailles. In the past year, Stillwater has had more than a thousand earthquakes. Halihan, one of the few experts in the state to speak openly about the earthquakes’ relation to oil and gas practices, has become the go-to guy for communicating to the public the science behind seismicity….

Robert Jackman, a petroleum geologist, regularly contacts members of the U.S.G.S., the O.G.S., and the Oklahoma media to update them on the accumulating peer-reviewed work that links disposal wells to seismicity. The oft-heard refrain that more studies are needed is a sore point for Jackman. “We know a cold is spread with sneezing and coughing, so we cover our nose and mouth, we wash our hands, we take precautions,” he said. “We don’t need to know exactly what the strain of virus is or all the technicalities of how the throat becomes inflamed in order to know to use a handkerchief.”…

Some argue that it is a deeply ingrained ethos of Oklahomans to consider freedom from regulation the most important kind of freedom. A century ago, though, Oklahoma had one of the strongest populist and socialist parties in the nation, and in areas other than oil and gas the state has tight regulations. Recently, solar panels became subject to an additional tax. The rationale is that when the panels contribute unused energy to the grid they are using the infrastructure. The fact that money buys policy is well documented, and much of the money in Oklahoma is oil money….

From the data gathered by her graduate students, Katie Keranen published three papers, one in Geology and two in Science. They showed how four disposal wells were likely responsible for twenty per cent of the earthquakes in Oklahoma, and models made by a Ph.D. student, Matthew Weingarten, demonstrated that earthquakes could be triggered as far as thirty-five miles from the wells. When Keranen’s first paper came out, she was still at the University of Oklahoma, where the geology department and the O.G.S. share a building. (Keranen has since left her position at O.U., and is now at Cornell.) But the O.G.S. made, and continues to make, no mention of Keranen’s research on its Web site, which does include links to relevant outside work. When Keranen linked the Jones swarm to disposal wells, the O.G.S. linked it to water levels at nearby Lake Arcadia, producing a study that did not appear in a peer-reviewed journal. A U.S.G.S. researcher wrote to Holland, concerned that trying to link the earthquakes to lake levels could be “distracting from the larger issue of earthquake safety in Oklahoma.” Holland replied that he was “quite skeptical of the potential link” but that the O.C.C. had asked him to study it.