Federal Government Has Known For Decades About Link Between Injection Wells And Earthquakes

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Earthquakes continue to shake Oklahoma in record numbers and intensity, and the federal government has known for decades that injection wells can lead to seismic activity.

I came across a 2011 article in OilPrice.com that points out an injection well drilled by the U.S. Army was filled with liquid waste from 1962 to 1965 but that process was halted when it was determined it could be causing earthquakes. The well was drilled and maintained under the auspices of the now closed U.S. Army’s Rocky Mountain Arsenal (RMA) located near Denver.

The RMA, established during World War II in 1942, manufactured chemical weapons. It was closed in 1992. At one point, the RMA leased land to Shell Oil Co. to produce agricultural chemicals. According to the RMA site, “Although the U.S. Army and Shell used accepted disposal practices of the time, decades of chemical and agricultural production led to contamination of some of the soil, structures and groundwater.”

A major clean-up began when the site closed, and it’s now become a wildlife refuge, but perhaps more relevant to Oklahomans is the RMA injection well used for wastewater disposal in the 1960s. According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS):

In 1961, a 12,000-foot well was drilled at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, northeast of Denver, for disposing of waste fluids from Arsenal operations. Injection was commenced March 1962, and an unusual series of earthquakes erupted in the area shortly after.

Oilprice.com and at least one another site quote from a RMA document, which is apparently not available on the Internet now, that concludes, “The Army discontinued use of the well in Feb. 1966 because of the possibility that the fluid injection was triggering earthquakes in the area.”

Later, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to one site, apparently used even stronger language about the Colorado earthquakes. “Injection had been discontinued at the site in the previous year once the link between the fluid injection and the earlier series of earthquakes was established.”

What’s more a 1951 Survey Bulletin by the USGS argued:

Within the United States, injection of fluid into deep wells has triggered documented earthquakes in Colorado, Texas, New York, New Mexico, Nebraska, and Ohio and possibly in Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Investigations of these cases have led to some understanding of the probable physical mechanism of the triggering and of the criteria for predicting whether future earthquakes will be triggered, based on the local state of stress in the Earth's crust, the injection pressure, and the physical and the hydrological properties of the rocks into which the fluid is being injected.

Essentially, then, the federal government has known for some 50 to 60 years that injection wells can cause earthquakes but has allowed the process to continue by the oil and gas industry, which is experiencing a mini-boom here and throughout the country because of hydraulic fracturing or the fracking process. In the process, wastewater is deposited by high pressure into underground injection wells.

I know this isn’t necessarily current news and it might be boring to sludge through the historical record, but the coverage here of earthquakes in the local press has primarily privileged the oil and gas industry’s overall claim that it’s uncertain why there’s been a dramatic surge in earthquake activity in Oklahoma. Why in the world would the oil and gas industry ever admit any culpability?

Scientists have once again linked injection wells here and elsewhere to earthquakes. The 2011 5.7-magnitude earthquake in Prague, for example, was caused by a foreshock of another earthquake the previous day, according to scientists, and that earthquake was located near an injection well.

Oklahoma has had a record number of earthquakes so far this year. The Oklahoma Geological Survey has reported there has been at least 140 earthquakes 3.0-magnitude or higher so far. (By the time I post this the number will probably be higher.) That’s in contrast to 130 earthquakes 3.0-magnitude or higher for all of 2013, and Oklahoma had the second highest number of 3.0-magnitude earthquakes in the country last year.

The fact that seismic activity is escalating at this rate should be of grave concern for state leaders.

The bottom line: Earthquakes here are growing in number and intensity, the federal government has known for decades about the connection between injection wells and seismic activity and not much is getting done to protect the safety and property of Oklahoma residents.

(Here’s a recent article I published on the overall issue of fracking and its related processes.)