Thousands of Earthquakes

Image of Picasso work

The sheer number of earthquakes so far this year in Oklahoma is staggering.

Last week, a New York Times article on this issue noted that there have been at least 2,600 earthquakes this year in Oklahoma. Only a couple of weeks ago a 4.5 magnitude earthquake north of Edmond shook homes and buildings in the Oklahoma City metropolitan area. In 2011, a 5.6 earthquake near Prague caused extensive building damage.

Scientists have linked wastewater injection wells used in hydraulic fracturing or fracking and traditional drilling to earthquakes throughout the country and in Oklahoma for quite some time. In the process, the wastewater from drilling is eventually injected with high pressure into rock formations. Some consider this the most environmentally friendly way to dispose of the wastewater, but that view is quickly changing given the number of earthquakes here and elsewhere near injection wells.

The issue, as The Times notes, has pitted the oil and gas industry here in Oklahoma against an increasingly anxious number of people, who fear all the seismic activity is leading to a major earthquake that could destroy buildings and take lives.

Environmentalists have also expressed an interest in the issue. The local chapter of the Sierra Club is circulating a petition that calls on the Oklahoma Corporation Commission to “pass rules requiring any injection well site be preapproved with extensive studies done on the site as well as constant monitoring.”

The oil and gas industry’s position on the issue so far seems to be that wastewater injection wells have been around for a long time and there’s never been a problem before, thus the increase in seismic activity has nothing to do with drilling and wastewater disposal methods.

The energy sector, of course, is important economically to Oklahoma and employs thousands of people. The newspaper article notes, for example, that 340,000 jobs are tied to the oil and gas industry in the state. Meanwhile the state government here is now completely dominated by Republicans, who are ideologically opposed to new government regulations.

All this makes it highly unlikely state government officials will approve any type of meaningful, broader regulations on the state level regarding injection wells. Unfortunately, as I’ve written before, it will probably take a major, destructive earthquake to wake people up.