Daily Show -Oklahoma suffers a bizarre surge in earthquakes following a rise in fracking, and the NSA gets an unlikely new mascot. (8:55)
Mother Jones: Major earthquakes thousands of miles away can trigger reflex quakes in areas where fluids have been injected into the ground from fracking and other industrial operations, according to a study published in the journal Science on Thursday.
U.S. Geological Survey confirms: Human activity caused 5.7 quake in Oklahoma
Fracking could be behind recent spike in Oklahoma earthquakes
Fracking's Latest Scandal? Earthquake Swarms
Turns out that when a barely regulated industry injects highly pressurized wastewater into faults, things can go terribly wrong.
Fracking DID cause ELEVEN earthquakes in Ohio last year
Ohio Earthquake Likely Caused by Fracking Wastewater
Maps: The Secrets Drillers Can Hide About the Fracking in Your Backyard
Fracking Tie to Earthquakes Raises Question of Liability
Victims think drilling triggered shaking, and that's OK...
PRAGUE, Okla. -- Jerri Loveland sees a connection between the oil drilling that surrounds her home and the earthquake last November that upended her life.
The magnitude-5.6 convulsion toppled her chimney and buckled her tornado cellar. It inflicted about $50,000 in damage to the farmhouse she shares with her husband, John, and their two young children on a gravel road about 45 minutes east of Oklahoma City.
They had no earthquake insurance, so they don't have the money for repairs. But if they don't fix the damage by September, they fear they'll lose their homeowners insurance.
"I'm not sure what we're going to do. Hope for the lottery, maybe," she said as she showed a visitor how a decades-old addition split from the house.
Some of her neighbors in this rural patch dotted with cattle and oil wells blame "fracking," or hydraulic fracturing. But coming from an oil industry family, she sees the connection as having more to do with the millions of gallons of salt-laden water that comes up with the oil and gets reinjected in deep wells nearby.
In rare cases, that wastewater can lubricate faults and unleash earthquakes. Loveland didn't know before the earthquake that her house sits nearly on top of the Wilzetta Fault, the one that ruptured in November.
"I don't think it was the fracking. I think it was the injection wells," she said, pointing over trees toward an injection well about half a mile away. "But what do you do?"
What people have done in other states -- Arkansas, Ohio and Texas -- is file class-action lawsuits, push for stricter seismic rules and shut down injection wells.
But not in Oklahoma. State officials here are taking a slower approach than their counterparts in Ohio and Arkansas and continuing to let the companies inject near the active fault. The Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which oversees drilling, is working with the Oklahoma Geological Survey to determine whether the quake was triggered, or "induced."
"We're continuing to look at it. It's a little different than what's happened in these other states," said Corporation Commissioner Dana Murphy, who leads the panel. "There's been injection activity in this area for a long time. And there's naturally occurring earthquakes here.
The oil companies that operate the nearby wells say they couldn't have triggered the quake. But scientists say injection certainly can unleash earthquakes. University of Oklahoma seismologist Katie Keranen, who has been studying the earthquake since the day it happened, says there's evidence to back up Loveland's hunch.
"There's a compelling link between the zone of injection and seismicity," Keranen said at a seismological conference in April. She's one of a handful of scientists who see evidence of such a connection.
Like Loveland, people who see potential connections between the quake and drilling activities are resigned rather than resentful. Most seem ready to wait while the state gathers information.
"I assume many people in town think it's the injection. I don't doubt they caused it," said Jim Greff, city manager in Prague, the city closest to the quake's center. "Until the Corporation Commission steps up or someone at the [state] Geological Survey steps up, I don't know that anything can be done."
'Shaking, shaking, shaking' It was just a few minutes before 11 on a Saturday night when the earthquake struck. John and Jerri Loveland had just finished watching Oklahoma State University beat Kansas State in football.
"They had won and everything was going on and the house started shaking," Loveland recalled. She ran upstairs to get their daughter, a toddler. John got their son, and they ran out the door.
After a solid minute of shaking, they stepped back inside and heard a hissing sound. Their pipes were broken. They turned off their water well, got in their car and drove 70 miles to stay with relatives.
About 2 miles away, Joe Reneau said it sounded as if a plane crashed into his yard. The convulsions crumpled, split and tilted the solid concrete slab his home was built on. It would take 33 steel piers driven into bedrock to right it.
"It was just shaking, shaking, shaking," Reneau recalled.
Then the top half of his chimney crashed through the roof of his den.
Farther south, toward Meeker, the quake buckled the blacktop of U.S. Route 62. To the west, in Shawnee, a turret atop the stately administration building at St. Gregory's University severed and crashed to the ground.
The upheaval cracked walls for miles around, knocked over dressers, bounced plates off shelves and broke open cracks in the flat, red earth. At least two people were injured by falling bricks, and state officials tallied up damage to nearly 200 homes and businesses.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency declined to provide disaster aid, but the U.S. Small Business Administration issued about $2 million in low-interest loans in the area.
Aftershocks continued for weeks after, as strong as magnitude 4. Six months later, in early May, a magnitude-3.9 quake struck the same area.
As frightening as it was, Loveland thinks the "foreshock" was scarier. In the early morning of that Saturday, at about 2 a.m., she and her husband were roused from their sleep by a magnitude-4.7 convulsion, sending them scrambling outside with their children.
"We didn't know what was going on," she recalled.
That foreshock was centered a little less than a mile from a drilling site with two injection wells owned by Spess Oil Co., a small operator from Cleveland, Okla., about 70 miles north of Prague. One theory holds that the foreshock triggered the "main shock," which was felt as far away as St. Louis. It was the strongest earthquake ever recorded in Oklahoma.
'Too much of a coincidence' It would not be the biggest U.S. earthquake suspected of being triggered by oil and gas activities. According to a recent National Research Council report, that would be a magnitude-6.5 earthquake in 1983 near Coalinga, Calif., that injured 94 people. Researchers have linked it to oil extraction.
But at magnitude 5.6, the Oklahoma quake would be the largest caused by wastewater injection.
And Joe and Mary Reneau think it was. Joe said that if the earthquake and its aftershocks are plotted, they line up with the injection wells in the area.
"That's too much of a coincidence," said Mary, seated next to Joe in their living room on a June afternoon. "I definitely believe that. Just about everybody around here thinks it is."
Smaller earthquakes tied to oil and gas activities in the past few years have triggered bigger reactions in other states.
In Texas, Chesapeake Energy Corp. shut down two wells near the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport in 2009 after they were linked to much smaller, magnitude-3.3 quakes (Greenwire, March 11, 2010).
Ohio this year called in a team of seismologists from Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory to study a series of earthquakes in Youngstown that culminated in a magnitude-4 event on New Year's Day. Three months later, state officials announced that the quake had likely been caused by a new injection well, which had already been shut down (Greenwire, March 9). They also proposed rules banning new injection wells near faults. Earlier this month, Gov. John Kasich (R) deemed the situation an emergency and told regulators to implement them immediately (EnergyWire, July 12).
In north-central Arkansas, several residents are pursuing a class-action lawsuit against the operators of four wells linked to a "swarm" of earthquakes as large as magnitude 4.7 (EnergyWire, July 5). State officials say the shaking diminished after regulators shut down all injection last year.
In those states, however, large-scale oil and gas drilling is newer than in Oklahoma and not woven so tightly into the economy.
Oklahoma squeezes a Texas-sized love for the oil and gas industry into a state four times smaller. The signs are hard to miss. The grounds of the state Capitol in Oklahoma City are dotted with oil rigs. The University of Oklahoma's geology school bears the ConocoPhillips brand. Oklahoma City's skyline is dominated by the new Devon Energy Center tower, and its beloved basketball team plays in Chesapeake Energy Arena.
"Oklahoma relies on this resource," said Oklahoma Geological Survey seismologist Austin Holland. Prague's Greff echoed, "Oil and gas is big in Oklahoma."
Oil and gas is big, as well, in Prague, the city closest to the quake's epicenter. The biggest employer in town is New Dominion LLC, a Tulsa company that pioneered large-scale "dewatering" -- a production method requiring a lot of wastewater disposal -- in Oklahoma.
Two of the five members on the city council were New Dominion employees until one resigned earlier this year. The company bought water rights for the city and land for a fire station. And the company's annual "New Dominion Dayz" bash is the second-biggest event in Prague each year, after its Kolache Festival.
New Dominion has been generous with the state Geological Survey, as well, donating $100,000 worth of seismic equipment to measure a swarm of earthquakes in Oklahoma City's eastern suburbs.
Given the industry's involvement with the city, Greff shows little surprise when he's asked whether Prague is showing undue deference to drillers.
"It's not true of me," Greff said in an interview in his office. "If they want to give us things without asking for anything in return, I'll take it."
The industry's popularity is one of the reasons that Joe Reneau sees no point in taking on the oil companies. "I'd be run out of town," he explained. But Reneau, who retired back to Oklahoma 25 years ago after working in military intelligence in Washington, D.C., said he's ready to challenge the oil companies in court -- next time.
"If it were to happen again, I would be soliciting donations for a lawsuit to put this thing in the court system to get a definitive answer: Are they or are they not related to fracking and the saltwater wells?" he said. "So long as there's not a court action, I don't think anybody's going to do anything. Everything's going to be swept under the rug."
'They're kind of a savior' Jean Antonides' voice has taken on a rare mocking tone.
"This is it. This is King Kong," he says. The vice president of exploration for New Dominion is standing next to his pickup truck on a gravel pad and pointing to a 6-foot metal tower of valves.
"This" is the Wilzetta saltwater disposal well, which happens to bear the name of the fault that ruptured in November. It's one of three such wells within two and a half miles of the quake's epicenter. It could fit inside most suburban backyard sheds.
Black plastic pipes stick out of either side, like outstretched arms reaching into the red dirt. Water is coursing into the pipes from the oil wells that surround it in the green and brown fields beyond. From there, it's flowing down more than 4,000 feet into a formation called the Arbuckle.
To Antonides, who usually speaks in a more earnest tone, it's silly to think that his company's well caused the quake.
"That's people watching too many Superman movies," Antonides says. "Some individuals pick only the data that serves their purpose."
He adds that having earthquakes may not be such a bad thing. Smaller earthquakes such as the one in November might be preventing bigger, more dangerous earthquakes by relieving stress on underground faults.
"What happens if there had not been that release of energy?" he asks. "They're kind of a savior. They help keep down the big ones."
Such sentiments are not generally shared by the seismological community. Some say smaller, man-made quakes have usually presaged larger eruptions. Others have looked into setting off controlled earthquakes. But they found that although they could start them, they weren't sure whether they could stop them and almost certainly couldn't control them. In addition, a magnitude-5 quake releases only about one-thousandth of the energy of a magnitude-7 quake.
Antonides thinks the November earthquake was caused by the weight of extremely heavy rains in the area that fell days before the earthquake after months of drought.
"The volume is just immense. It's the rate of change," he says. "That was the trigger point for the Wilzetta fault. That relative weight change was the trigger point."
The 3,000 or so barrels (126,000 gallons) a day that New Dominion poured into the Wilzetta well in the month before the quake is tiny in comparison with that, he says. And he says it's significant that New Dominion doesn't need to use pressure to push water down the Wilzetta well. Instead, the water flows freely and even creates a vacuum in the well.
That's not true of the Spess wells. About 2 miles away, down gravel roads and a rutted two-track, they're only about a thousand yards apart as the crow flies. They inject much less water than the New Dominion well, but it has taken increasing amounts of pressure to get the water down. In 2000, Spess used no pressure. But after that, it started taking more pressure to inject the brine, as high as 500 psi in 2010. In the company's 2011 report to the state, filed in March of this year, the pressure was down to 250 psi.
The Spess wells are even less imposing than the New Dominion well. They were drilled as production wells in the 1940s and '50s, and they show their age. They both have a patina of rust, and broken fencing at one of the wells surrounded standing liquid on a recent afternoon in June. Piles of rusting well parts are strewn nearby.
Steven Spess, listed on state forms as the agent for the company, said in a brief phone interview with EnergyWire that there's no chance the company's wells had anything to do with the earthquake.
"None whatsoever," he said. "We put in such a small amount of water."
But some of Keranen's fellow seismologists agree that there is evidence to support the idea that the earthquake is connected to the injection wells.
University of Memphis seismologist Steve Horton, whose findings were part of the basis for the well shutdown in Arkansas last year, posted a research report earlier this year citing a correlation among the Spess wells, the New Dominion well and the location of the quakes' epicenters (EnergyWire, April 19). He warned that Oklahoma authorities are risking another damaging earthquake if they continue to allow injection into the fault.
But what brought national attention to the question of whether the Nov. 5 quake was man-made was a March U.S. Geological Survey report that said a "remarkable" increase in earthquakes is "almost certainly man-made" (EnergyWire, March 19).
That finding did not include the November earthquake, but the author of the USGS report, seismologist Bill Ellsworth, told EnergyWire in April that "the largest preponderance of evidence" points to the Oklahoma quake, in addition to a Colorado quake earlier in 2011, being caused by injection (EnergyWire, April 23).
Seismologist: Fracking Injection Wells Linked to Earthquakes: Dr. Elizabeth Cochran discusses research showing that injection wells from fracking and gas and oil production is likely causing an uptick in U.S. earthquakes - May 18, 2014
More Evidence On Fracking...
News Report: "In what the Pennsylvania governor says will 'level the playing field for gas exploration', a controversial bill has been passed, rendering previous zoning laws void"
Mother Jones On Fracking: There are plenty of reasons to worry about fracking—groundwater contamination, methane leaks, that flaming tap water thing. But can it really cause earthquakes? That's the question the US Geological Survey set out to answer after a spate of tremors in the Midwest—an area not usually known for earthquakes—alerted scientists to the possibility that some of them might be man-made.
Seismic activity in the Midwest started increasing around 12 years ago but picked up significantly in the past few years, says seismologist Bill Ellsworth, the lead author of a new USGS study examining potential links between fracking and earthquakes in the region. Since 1970, the baseline for earthquakes in the Midwest measuring above a 3.0 hovered at around 21 per year, but beginning in 2001, that number began to rise. There's been a "remarkable increase" in the past few years: The number of 3.0-plus earthquakes rose from 29 in 2008 to 50 in 2009, then to 87 in 2010, and in 2011 to a staggering 134. Something unusual was going on, but what? As Ellsworth and his colleagues at USGS ask in the study, "Is this increase natural or manmade?" And if it's man-made, is fracking—which has ramped up in the region in the past several years—to blame?
Fracking Water Injection Could Trigger Major Earthquake, Say Scientists
New studies suggest injecting water for geothermal power or fracking can lead to larger earthquakes than previously thought.
It is already known that pumping large quantities of water underground can induce minor earthquakes near to geothermal power generation and fracking sites. However, the new evidence reveals the potential for much larger earthquakes, of magnitude 4 or 5, related to the weakening of pre-existing undergrounds faults through increased fluid pressure.
The water injection appears to prime cracks in the rock, making them vulnerable to triggering by tremors from earthquakes thousands of miles away. Nicholas van der Elst, the lead author on one of three studies published on Thursday in the journal Science, said: "These fluids are driving faults to their tipping point."
Prof Brodsky said they found a clear correlation between the amount of water extracted and injected into the ground, and the number of earthquakes.
From The BBC: UK scientists confirm that 3 earthquakes occurred due to fracking
New research suggests that fracking is not a significant cause of earthquakes that can be felt on the surface.
UK scientists looked at quakes caused by human activity ranging from mining to oil drilling; only three could be attributed to hydraulic fracturing
There has been increasing concern about the potential role of fracking in earthquakes. The worries prompted the the US Geological Survey to look into it, and scientists found that the increase in earthquakes is likely man-made, but probably caused more by wastewater disposal than fracking itself. Now, afabulous new piece from EnergyWire looks a little more deeply at the wastewater connection.
Reporter Mike Soraghan visited Oklahoma, where state officials are taking their time investigating the connection between the industrial processes and a magnitude-5.6 quake that damaged homes and highways along the Wilzetta Fault last year:
The oil companies that operate the nearby wells say they couldn't have triggered the quake. But scientists say injection certainly can unleash earthquakes. University of Oklahoma seismologist Katie Keranen, who has been studying the earthquake since the day it happened, says there's evidence to back up Loveland's hunch. "There's a compelling link between the zone of injection and seismicity," Keranen said at a seismological conference in April. She's one of a handful of scientists who see evidence of such a connection. Like Loveland, people who see potential connections between the quake and drilling activities are resigned rather than resentful. Most seem ready to wait while the state gathers information. The whole article is an informative read on the state of science and policy when it comes to these quakes....
Note: The following extract is about an earthquake in Oklahoma and how calmly they are handling it. Oklahoman's are very self-assured people who may think the end of the world is coming (amongst the very religious) but little things like earthquakes, just because they are just destabilizing the ground beneath thier feet, is not something that bothers them much when thier Big Oil Masters are the cause. We all bow to our Big Oil overlords. ALL HAIL BIG OIL!
Other posts on Oklahoma;