Oklahoma City residents were rocked out of bed early on Jan. 1, 2016 with a 4.1 earthquake. The city of Edmond reported about 4,400 power outages in the area shortly after the quake. Officials were not sure if the power outages were connected to the earthquake.
Six days later, on January 7, 2016, 4.3 and 4.8 earthquakes occurred almost simultaneously.
Oklahoma has had 131 earthquakes from Jan 1 through Jan 16, 2016 ranging from 2.01 to 4.8.
Below is a comparison for same time period: 2012-2016. Data compiled from US Geological Survey (USGS) website.
Drilling for oil and gas produce waste fluids, most commonly referred to as produced water or brine. The typical method of disposal is the use of injection wells. An injection well is used to place fluid underground into porous geologic formations. These underground formations may range from deep sandstone or limestone, to a shallow soil layer. Injected fluids may include water, wastewater, brine (salt water), or water mixed with chemicals.
As of 2012, Oklahoma had 10,800 active injection/disposal wells.
Before 2008, Oklahoma had barely any serious seismic activity. The state averaged one to two earthquakes of 3.0 or greater magnitude each year. Things began changing in 2009 with 20 to over 800 in 2015 of 3.0 magnitudes or greater.
These are the numbers being reported in various articles with earthquakes lesser than 3.0 have been pretty much ignored. When including 1.0 thru 2.9 quakes the numbers are much more disturbing.
Below is a comparison for of total earthquakes for 2012-2015. Data compiled from US Geological Survey (USGS) website.
While a 4.0 earthquake is alarming and makes the news, one question hasn’t been asked regarding the multitude of lesser quakes. That question: What is the cumulative impact from this many quakes?
FAULT LINES WAKING UP
The USGS released a study in March 2014, involving researchers at the USGS, scientists observed that a human-induced magnitude 5.0 earthquake near Prague, Oklahoma in November 2011 may have triggered the larger M5.7 earthquake less than a day later. This research suggests that the M5.7 quake was the largest human-caused earthquake associated with wastewater injection.
The 2011 Oklahoma earthquake sequence included the November 6, 2011, M5.7 earthquake that ruptured a part of the Wilzetta fault system, a complex fault zone about 200 km (124 mi) in length near Prague, Oklahoma. Less than 24 hours prior to the M5.7 earthquake, a M5.0 foreshock occurred on November 5, 2011. That foreshock occurred near active waste-water disposal wells, and was linked in a previously published study to fluid injection in those wells.
Long-dormant, 300-million-year-old fault lines across Oklahoma are waking up. These reawakened faults in central Oklahoma could produce quakes as powerful as magnitude-5 and 6 earthquakes.
Per USA Today March 19, 2015 article: “Many faults are reactivating, with as many as 17 magnitude-4 earthquakes in 2014,” according to Dan McNamara, a research geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Golden, Colorado.
By the end of 2015, Oklahoma experienced 30 earthquakes in the 4.0 magnitude range.
Researchers have used oil and natural gas industry data and other maps to identify previously undocumented fault lines. But sometimes faults are revealed when a series of earthquakes fire off with epicenters in a linear pattern.
The Edmond area quakes, earlier this month indicate a fault that runs northeast at least two miles from near Interstate 35 and Second Street, McNamara said. Because the newly revealed fault is not on any existing fault map, it’s difficult to tell how far it extends or whether it underlies more of Edmond or connects to a larger fault, he said.
Another concern is whether the fault connects to a larger, deeper fault, such as the Nemaha Ridge — which runs roughly parallel to I-35 from central Oklahoma to southern Kansas — or the Wizetta Fault, which produced the magnitude 5.6 Prague earthquake in 2011.
“We’re concerned these smaller faults could be connected at depth to the longer structures,” he said. “Once you get to those larger faults, you could produce larger quakes.”
THEY BROKE THE STATE
Edmond residents packed a ballroom at the University of Central Oklahoma campus on January 14, 2016. They demanded action.
Arcadia Republican Rep. Lewis Moore hosted the town hall-style forum and took heated questions from residents upset at the Legislature and governor for not taking more action to curtail wastewater injection wells.
“I’ve only got small cracks, but I’m scared to death,” Edmond resident Kathy Matthews told Moore. “You are late to the party. There’s no lack of conversation. There’s a lack of action.”
Other residents wanted to know why Moore voted last year for Senate Bill 809, which limited the ability of local governments to regulate oil and gas operations. The bill also reaffirmed the Oklahoma Corporation Commission as the state’s chief energy regulator.
Rep. Richard Morrissette, who held his own earthquake forum on Friday Jan. 15, 2016 at the state Capitol, challenged Moore to join him in getting legislation to Gov. Mary Fallin’s desk in the first week of the upcoming legislative session. Morrissette, an Oklahoma City Democrat, is calling for a moratorium on saltwater disposal wells.
WHOSE IN CHARGE?
Among U.S. states, Oklahoma is fourth in oil production and third in natural gas. The U.S. Geological Survey made the connection between the earthquakes and wastewater injection as early as 2012, but still little action has been taken by the state of Oklahoma’s governor, Mary Fallin. While seismologists warn that a magnitude 6.0 earthquake could be around the corner—which in terms of the amount of energy released would be more than 30,000 times the strength of the tremors the state currently experiences—Fallin and the oil and gas industry appear in lockstep, calling for more data to definitively pinpoint the earthquakes’ cause.
In a nutshell the O&G industry is saying it’s not their “fault”.
Kim Hatfield, vice chairman of the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association (OIPA) and the president of Crawley Petroleum, said that the scientific consensus isn’t as clear cut as it could be. According to Hatfield, scientists might agree that wastewater injection correlates to increased earthquakes, but they’re still debating how exactly it happens.
Calls for a moratorium on the use of the injection wells are increasing.
A spokesperson for Governor Fallin stated: “Governor Fallin cannot legally issue an executive order banning injection wells, nor can she issue a blanket moratorium.” Her office points to the Oklahoma Corporation Commission. The commission is tasked with regulating the wells.
But Matt Skinner, spokesperson for the Oklahoma Corporation Commission (OCC), said, “It is our understanding that the commission does not have broad moratorium power.”
Hatfield said, “We’re working to understand it, but a knee jerk reaction like they’re calling for is not something that will lead to a useful resolution.”
Hatfield agrees that a moratorium would actually cost the state tens of millions of dollars every month and added that it could put many out of work
The Oklahoma Supreme Court cleared the way in July 2015 to allow citizens to sue O&G companies for earthquakes damages.
The O&G industry said that the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industries and tends to be very friendly toward them, should deal with these cases.
The state supreme court disagreed.
A group of 14 homeowners in Edmond, OK filed a lawsuit this month. The lawsuit names 12 energy companies which operates disposal wells in the Edmond area and claims the injection of fracking wastewater into these wells “caused or contributed” to earthquakes and constituted an “ultrahazardous activity.”
Among the dozen energy companies named in the lawsuit are affiliates of Devon Energy Corp., New Dominion LLC, Marjo Operating Co. Inc. and Pedestal Oil Co. Inc.
The lawsuit seeks a permanent injunction to stop the use of 16 saltwater disposal wells operated by the energy companies.
INSURANCE COMPANIES REACTION
When living in an earthquake prone area it is a smart idea to have earthquake insurance.
What if an insurance company refuses coverage?
This is the predicament many in Oklahoma are now finding themselves. Geico and other insurance companies announced in December 2015 that they are refusing insurance coverage for any damage caused by man-made earthquakes – such as those caused by processes like fracking, injection, and drilling. Other companies like State Farm said they will cover all earthquake damage, regardless of cause, but customers are required to buy endorsements to their homeowner’s policies.
Citizens complained about high deductibles on earthquake insurance and lack of action by state officials while also demanding [Governor] Fallin make an appearance on the House floor where the public hearing was held. Neither Fallin nor any of her representatives made an appearance at the hearing.
“Why are the entities responsible for the earthquakes not paying our insurance premiums?” asked Edmond resident Mark Davis, who received a thunderous round of applause.
Several citizens complained that insurance firms have failed to inspect their homes after an earthquake.
Julie Allison, also of Edmond, said insurance deductibles are so high most homeowners can’t afford to repair earthquake damage. Based on her own research, Allison told the crowd Oklahomans paid $13 million in earthquake insurance premiums in 2013 as the state endured 104 tremors.
Oklahoma Insurance Commissioner John Doak told the group state insurance companies do not offer earthquake insurance as part of the basic policy.
“It is sold as a separate endorsement,” he said.
While not covering damages due to man-made earthquakes is bad for homeowners, it does speak loudly about the fear the insurance companies have with these earthquakes.
For an insurance company it is simple economics. More man-made earthquakes increase the risk of having to pay for the damages, and that means less profit.
It is also an indication that the insurance companies have made the connection between injection wells and earthquakes that the O&G industry is trying to deny.
Energy In-Depth (EID), a front group for the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA), published 3 articles in 2015 disputing man-made earthquake activity related to “fracking” and injection wells.
The researchers claim the increase in seismic activity has coincided with a dramatic increase in volumes of disposal of salty wastewater into the Arbuckle formation, a 7,000 foot deep, sedimentary formation under Oklahoma. They believe the formation is in hydraulic communication with the crystalline basement, where almost all of the earthquakes are occurring.
The researchers claim to have identified the triggering mechanism for seismicity: high volume injection.
But it’s important to note Southwestern Oklahoma has high injection volumes but few if any felt seismic events. The same can be said for western and northeast Oklahoma.
Note that EID focuses on areas of Oklahoma were there are the least amount of injection wells.
From “Induced Earthquakes Throughout the United States” report by The Virginia Tech Seismological Observatory, the map below shows earthquakes (red) and disposal wells (black), and many of the earthquakes are located farther away from disposal wells. That can cause confusion, but it doesn’t mean the earthquakes aren’t connected to the wells.
Frackorporation compared the number of earthquakes to injection volumes and found there is a correlation.
OCC ASKS FOR REDUCTIONS
Following this year’s seismic activity, the OCC asked operators of 27 disposal wells in the Fairview area to limit their volumes.
This is VOLUNTARY directive.
Among the 27 disposal wells are seven operated by SandRidge Energy Inc., which has defied a December commission directive to limit disposal well activity in another area of the state. Regulators and the company are trying to work out a settlement to avoid a protracted legal case before the Corporation Commission.
While the OCC is “asking”, Oklahoma residents are demanding action. Things will be really rocking in Oklahoma this year, in more ways than one.
©2015 by Dory Hippauf