Last month the Intertubes began buzzing with news that the notorious Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline is stirring back to life, so now would be a good time to revisit the rise of fracking-linked earthquake hazards in Oklahoma. The two intersect because the Keystone XL pipeline would be part of a larger project involving the major oil hub of Cushing, which happens to in the region of much of the earthquake activity in the state — and it happens to be a national security hotspot, too.
How hot is Oklahoma? Another round of three earthquakes struck near the towns of Fairview and Mooreland last week. These registered just under the benchmark of 3.0 magnitude, which is considered to the level at which most people feel them, but that’s just a taste. So far this year alone, more than 90 earthquakes of 3.0 or greater have hit the state.
Keystone XL Rises From The Ashes
To clarify, the overall Keystone project is already partly completed. One leg goes from Canada to Cushing, the TransCanada company’s Keystone Pipeline. A southern leg of Keystone pipeline also recently went into operation. The new leg, Keystone XL, would add a second route from Alberta, through the Bakken fields in the US, and down to a hub in Nebraska.
President Obama formally put the kibosh on the Keystone XL pipeline last fall, declaring that it was not in the national interest. The Obama Administration’s position is that the cross-border project requires federal permit approval under a 1968 executive order. Here’s the explanation from the State Department:
To issue a permit, the Department must find that the border facility would serve the national interest. The Department consults extensively with relevant federal, state, and local agencies, and invites public comment in arriving at this determination.
That was not the end of the story. Last month Keystone XL owner TransCanada took the U.S. government to court, arguing that the President had overstepped his constitutional authority:
This case presents the question whether the Constitution grants the President unilateral power, unsupported by any statute and contrary to the expressed wishes of Congress, to prohibit the further development of the Keystone XL Pipeline on the basis that the pipeline would cross a U.S. border and would, if permitted to proceed, undercut the President’s influence in international climate change negotiations.
Keystone XL And The National Interest
So, there’s still a possibility that the Keystone XL pipeline could be built.
That brings us to the situation in Oklahoma. Aside from being a major oil and gas producer, Oklahoma has also become a hotspot for disposing of the copious amounts of wastewater involved in the drilling method known as fracking, short for hydrofracturing.
As the “hockey puck” graph above illustrates, Oklahoma has become the epicenter of a surge in seismic activity in the US, and evidence is piling up that that the increase is related to fracking waste disposal (and, to a much lesser extent, fracking itself).
Back in 2011 our sister site Planetsave noted that the Keystone route through Oklahoma was compromised by the increased earthquake activity. Fast forward to last spring, and the UK’s Independent raised the alarm specifically over the potential impact of increased activity on the Cushing hub as a whole.
Last fall Bloomberg added fuel to the fire by drawing the national security connection to seismic activity near Cushing. Reporter Matthew Phillips made the point that little has been done to address earthquake hazards in the region, compared to the response after the deadly 9/11 terrorist attacks:
In the months after Sept. 11, 2001, as U.S. security officials assessed the top targets for potential terrorist attacks, the small town of Cushing, Okla., received special attention. Even though it is home to fewer than 10,000 people, Cushing is the largest commercial oil storage hub in North America, second only in size to the U.S. government’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
The FBI, state and local law enforcement and emergency officials, and the energy companies that own the tanks formed a group called the Safety Alliance of Cushing. Soon, guards took up posts along the perimeter of storage facilities and newly installed cameras kept constant surveillance. References to the giant tanks and pipelines were removed from the Cushing Chamber of Commerce website. In 2004, the Safety Alliance simulated a series of emergencies: an explosion, a fire, a hostage situation.
Interestingly, the Safety Alliance staged a major tornado drill in May 2013, but so far it has been slow to react to the potential for seismic activity to affect storage tanks and pipelines in the area (if you’ve heard otherwise, drop us a note in the comment thread).
Earthquakes And Known Unknowns
There’s a good reason why the reaction to fracking related earthquake hazards has been so slow: very little is known about human-induced seismic activity. The last US Geological Survey report on US seismic hazards was issued in 2014, and in accordance with normal practice it did not include human-caused earthquakes.
USGS has actually been attempting to quantify and analyze induced activity for a number of year, and in April 2015 it issued a preliminary seismic hazard report that underscored the challenges. Here’s a snippet from the abstract for the August 2015 update:
Forecasting the seismic hazard from induced earthquakes is fundamentally different from forecasting the seismic hazard for natural, tectonic earthquakes. This is because the spatio-temporal patterns of induced earthquakes are reliant on economic forces and public policy decisions regarding extraction and injection of fluids. As such, the rates of induced earthquakes are inherently variable and nonstationary…
The full preliminary report incorporates workshop discussions with industry representatives and other stakeholders. It contains this further explication of the knowledge gap (see pages 36 and 38):
It is clear that the established, 6-year update schedule for the NSHM [National Seismic Hazard Model] is not ideal to address induced seismicity. Annual or even more frequent updates of the hazard model and other products could account for rapid changes in induced seismicity…
Participants at the workshop requested advice regarding reasonable guidelines for when to shut down and when to restart injection. This is a difficult problem because it is unknown why induced seismicity o ccurs near some fluid injection wells and not at others; in some cases seismicity tracks injection, and in other cases seismicity lags…
The report concludes with this thought (see page 43):
Modeling induced seismicity in probabilistic seismic hazard analysis is very difficult, since we do not understand some of the fundamental differences between natural and induced earthquakes, and because the seismic activity can change based on changes in human activity. P redict ing when and where induced seismicity will occur in the future is challenging…
…In Oklahoma, activity rates have varied exponentially, and earthquakes have migrated several tens of kilometers over a year or two. These changes may be related to oil and gas exploration activity but they also may depend on physical processes, which are poorly understood…
So…stay tuned as the Keystone XL case winds through court. In the meantime, since last summer state authorities in Oklahoma have begun to take preemptive action by placing limits on fracking wastewater disposal, but given the activity this year it could be too little, too late.
Image (screenshot): via USGS.