Major Earthquake Warning

Image of wind turbines

The U.S. Geological Survey and the Oklahoma Geological Survey organizations have issued a warning that the dramatic surge in earthquakes here is “significantly increasing the chance for a damaging magnitude 5.5 or greater quake in central Oklahoma.”

In a joint statement, the USGS and OGS pointed out an analysis “suggests that a likely contributing factor to the increase in earthquakes is triggering by wastewater injected into deep geologic formations.”

For months, some researchers have concluded that the rise in earthquake activity here has been caused by oil and gas activity, specifically the hydraulic fracturing or fracking process. In that process, wastewater from the initial drilling is later injected by high pressure into underground rock formations. Oklahoma is currently experiencing a mini-boom in oil and gas production.

The USGS and OGS statement noted that there has been a rise of about 50 percent in the number of earthquakes since October 2013 alone, which increases the risk of a major, damaging earthquake. So far this year, there have been at least 145 earthquakes of 3.0-magnitude or higher, according to the statement. Last year, there were 109 such earthquakes. A 5.6-magnitude earthquake, the largest ever recorded in the state, struck near Prague in 2011, damaging buildings.

According to the statement:

. . . we hope that this new advisory of increased hazard will become a crucial consideration in earthquake preparedness for residents, schools and businesses in the area. Building owners and government officials should have a special concern for older, unreinforced brick structures, which are vulnerable to serious damage during sufficient shaking.

Some oil and gas industry officials continue to deny there’s a proven link between the rise in earthquakes and injection wells in central Oklahoma. According to the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association:

. . . no Oklahoma-based researchers, the men and women with the greatest understanding of Oklahoma’s geological structures, have definitively linked seismic activity in central Oklahoma to oil and natural gas activity. The OIPA and the oil and gas industry as a whole support the continued study of Oklahoma’s increased seismic activity, but a rush to judgment provides no clear understanding of the causes.

I’m really unsure about the use of the words “rush to judgment.” The federal government has linked earthquakes to injection wells for decades. I’ve written about that issue here. Recent studies have shown the Prague earthquake was probably linked to injection well activity along with the overall spike in earthquakes here in central Oklahoma known as the “Jones swarm.” If anything, there hasn’t been enough “rush” to both study the issue and introduce new regulations, including moratoriums.

Meanwhile, a small group of oil and gas company executives are floating a new proposal to extend gross production tax breaks in Oklahoma. Gov. Mary Fallin’s office issued a statement saying the governor “is inclined to support the concept . . .”

So, in other words, Oklahoma is giving tax breaks and will probably extend tax breaks to an industry that some researchers argue is ultimately responsible for the dramatic surge in earthquakes here and could very well be responsible for the “big one” down the road. It doesn’t get more obvious than that about who holds the real political power in Oklahoma and why there’s no urgency among state leaders over the earthquake issue.