Written by Rick Busby for Provost Umphrey
In mainland America, we tend to associate earthquakes with the west coast, especially the imagined archetype catastrophe, where California falls into the sea. By contrast, we don’t give much thought at all to earthquakes in the interior of America in places like Oklahoma, Kansas or even Texas. Those places are more likely to be struck by hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, blizzards and ice storms. These are the “natural” types of environmental disasters in the interior of America, not earthquakes. Yet, it will likely come as a great surprise to the majority of Americans to learn that, due to an unprecedented spike in measurable seismic events since 2009, the great state of Oklahoma is now recognized as the earthquake capital of the world.
A spate of recent lawsuits, including one filed in federal court last week by the Sierra Club are alleging that hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” practices throughout Oklahoma are behind the unprecedented rise of earthquake incidents in the Sooner State. Prior to 2009, Oklahoma averaged a mere two earthquakes a year measuring a magnitude of 3.0 or greater. However, since 2009, the incidence of earthquakes in Oklahoma has dramatically spiked. Today, Oklahoma is now averaging well over two earthquakes a day.
According to reports, in 2014, Oklahoma registered more than 5,000 total incidents of earthquakes with 585 of those registering a magnitude greater than 3.0. Earthquakes that measure from 3.0 to 7.0 in magnitude are considered medium-sized events. The previous calendar year only 109 events of 3.0 magnitude or greater were recorded. The jump between 2013 and 2014 translates to a more than 400% increase in earthquake incidents measuring above 3.0. Last year, in 2015, just over 900 earthquakes in Oklahoma were recorded that measured magnitudes over 3.0.
On New Year’s Day 2016, an earthquake measuring 4.1 in magnitude woke residents in the Oklahoma City area. Over the following 6 days, two more back-to-back earthquakes were recorded near Oklahoma City, measuring 4.3 and 4.8, respectively. By mid-February, Oklahoma had registered over 130 earthquake incidents throughout the state. The week before the Sierra Club lawsuit was filed, an earthquake recorded at a 5.1 magnitude occurred in northwest Oklahoma. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) recorded the event as the “third-strongest” in Oklahoma history with tremors recorded in seven surrounding states.
This dramatic rise in Oklahoma’s earthquake activity over the last seven years is the reason why the Sooner State is now considered the earthquake capital of the world. The historically unprecedented spike in seismic activity cannot simply be attributed to “natural” events and it appears that regulators may no longer be able to ignore the man made causes for this looming environmental crisis.
Sierra Club Lawsuits Seeks To Reduce Public Risks Caused By Fracking
According to a 2015 USGS scientific report, the sharp increase in Oklahoma’s earthquake activity since 2009 may be connected to “industrial operations that dispose of wastewater by injecting it into deep wells.” However, the report stops short of saying those “industrial operations” are directly responsible for the increase in earthquake activity. Still, the report does go on to advise that those who live nearby the activity are at a “greater risk.”
To immediately alleviate those risks, the Sierra Club lawsuit seeks, among other things, an immediate 40% reduction in the amount of chemical wastewater being injected into the ground by three energy companies drilling in Oklahoma. The suit alleges that the drilling companies have violated provisions of the Resource and Recovery Act, a key federal waste management rule.
At the same time the lawsuit was filed, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission (OCC), which is the agency regulating Oklahoma’s oil and gas industry, ordered producers to reduce their chemical wastewater injections by more than 500,000 barrels a day in northwest Oklahoma. The order impacts the production capacities of approximately 250 injection wells and it remains unclear at this time if the operators will comply with the order.
Fracking Dangers To Environment & Public Safety Are A National Concern
In terms of measurable seismic activity, earthquakes are certainly recorded in other parts of America besides the west coast. However, under “natural” circumstances, their incidence is only occasional and even rare. The vast majority of incidents do not measure high enough seismic activity to create any visible, physical damage to topical infrastructure. Unseen perhaps, but, by scientific standards, these tremors are still measurable enough to classify as an “earthquake.” Yet, just because their effects are “unseen” does not mean there are no consequences to the environment and, by extension, increased risks to those living near the activity.
Besides Oklahoma, bordering states Kansas and Texas are also seeing increases in their respective state’s earthquake activity since fracking became widespread beginning in 2009. Still their respective activity is not yet as dramatic as Oklahoma. However, if the scientific studies attributing Oklahoma’s sharp spike in earthquakes to the chemical wastewater and by products resulting from fracking methods prove true, then Texas, Kansas and any other state employing fracking practices in oil extraction may also yet see detrimental environmental consequences.
So far, the oil and gas industry in Oklahoma has been dragging its heels on decreasing production capacities. By extension, a decrease in production would also imply a reduction in the volume of chemical wastewater being injected into the deep wells. The lawsuits are seeking to immediately restrict the volume of chemical wastewater injections as a method of easing the underground pressures creating the earthquakes in Oklahoma and surrounding states.
If the incidents of earthquakes continue to rise unabated, one of the tangential dangers to public safety is the potential contamination of Oklahoma’s public water supplies. Allegations are already beginning to surface that the current water crisis in Flint, Michigan may also have its origins in fracking practices. Contamination of public water supplies as a consequence of chemical wastewater fracking practices can potentially lead to a volatile and unpredictable mix of health concerns, some of which could prove to be fatal.
The rising incidence of lawsuits being filed around the country against fracking companies evidence the growing sense of public anxiety and fear over the consequences of the controversial oil extraction process. At stake are the fortunes of a multi-billion dollar industry with the public interest hanging in the balance.