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Fossil Fuels

Published on May 6th, 2014 | by Tina Casey

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Oil And Gas-Related Earthquakes Push Oklahoma Into Damage Territory

May 6th, 2014 by  


While we’re waiting for the seismicity denialists to come out of the woodwork, the US Geological Survey and the Oklahoma Geological Survey have just jointly updated the state’s earthquake status to warn that a recent, rapid increase in the state’s earthquake rate means that “the likelihood of future, damaging earthquakes has increased for central and north-central Oklahoma..”

The joint Oklahoma earthquake warning traces the cause of the increase at least partly to the oil and gas industry, linking the surge to the practice of injecting wastewater from drilling operations underground.

USGS warning Oklahoma earthquakes

Oklahoma earthquake rates courtesy of USGS.

Oklahoma Earthquakes And Fracking

The statement did not specifically finger wastewater from the drilling method known as fracking (short for hydraulic fracturing), but the operation does significant amounts of wastewater, so for now we’re going to assume that at least some of those wells are receiving fracking wastewater.

Oklahoma earthquakes sounds like some kind of oxymoron, since until recently the state did not have much of a reputation for significant seismic activity. However, the recent earthquake uptick puts Oklahoma second only to California, so let’s see what the oil and gas industry has to say about that.

Oklahoma Earthquakes Could Be Caused By Wastewater Injection…

Actually, the American Petroleum Institute happens to agree with the seismologists, at least as to a general point. Here’s a nugget from the relevant API fracking fact sheet (skip to item #9):

Most recent reports of seismic activity have stemmed from underground injection of wastes, which is strictly regulated by the EPA’s Underground Injection Control (UIC) Program.

Hmmm. Notsofast on the strictness of that federal oversight. The EPA UIC program works like this (of course we looked it up, duh): the states come up with a compliance plan, EPA approves the plan, and then the states are responsible for enforcing their plan. Any guesses as to whether or not any particular state has the resources to do all that strict regulation?

…But Let’s Agree To Disagree

Our friends over at the Associated Press picked up on this story (via sfgate.com), and reporter Bailey Elise McBride cites a spokesperson for the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association who had this to say:

Granted, we’ve not seen this level of seismic activity in Oklahoma in the last 60 to 80 years and before that we don’t have a record. It causes us all concern, but the rush to correlate this activity with our industry is something we don’t believe is necessarily fair.

Oklahoma Earthquakes On The Rise

Whatever. While the petroleum industry gets its story straight, here’s the latest news from seismologists who actually study these things.

We’ve noted previously that fracking operations themselves have not been directly linked to induced seismicity for a number of reasons, but there is a growing chain of evidence directly linking wastewater injection to increased seismic activity.

The problem is that injecting massive quantities of liquid can increase pressure and lubricate faults, causing earthquakes. According to the new statement, the recent change in earthquake rates cannot be accounted for by natural fluctuations.

The updated warning notes that the rate of earthquakes in Oklahoma has increased by about 50 percent just since October 2013, totaling 183 earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or greater through April 14, 2014.

That’s a pretty stunning uptick considering that the average from 1978 to 2008 was only two magnitude 3.0 or larger per year. Starting around 2009 the rate began to increase, and as you can see from the chart above in recent months the rate of increase has really begun to skyrocket.

Here’s what the warning means in terms of earthquake hazards, according to a USGS spokesperson cited in the statement:

We hope that this new advisory of increased hazard will become a crucial consideration in earthquake preparedness for residents, schools and businesses in the central Oklahoma area. Building owners and government officials should have a special concern for older, unreinforced brick structures, which are vulnerable to serious damage during sufficient shaking.

Taxpayers On The Hook For Cheap Fossil Fuels

Boil down the seismology-speak in the joint warning, and what you get is, “you guys are going to have to spend a lot more money on infrastructure hardening.”

 

Oklahoma taxpayers are also shelling out for new state monitoring stations deemed necessary by the  Oklahoma Geological Survey to monitor the increased activity.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: when it comes to cheap fossil fuels, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

Not for nothing, but at the end of the joint statement there are two links to earthquake preparedness sites. One is for ready.gov and the other is for The Great Shakeout, a worldwide earthquake drill scheduled for October 16, 2014.

The Great Shakeout — who knew?

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



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