Seismic Stalemate

Image of oil gusher

Recent stories on NewsOK.com dissecting the dramatic surge in earthquakes here and its possible connection to oil and gas drilling activities are probably the most thorough local look at the issue so far.

The stories were primarily written by Adam Wilmoth, the energy editor of The Oklahoman, which operates the NewsOK.com site. In his main report, Wilmoth presents the analysis of experts from academia and the oil and gas industry and outlines the history of earthquakes here. The accompanying graphics are helpful as well.

Wilmoth puts the earthquake surge in this perspective:

The number of earthquakes measuring magnitude 3.0 or greater has jumped from an average of less than five a year to about 40 a year for the past five years and more than 200 so far in 2014, according to the Oklahoma Geological Survey.

Here’s the anchor article. It’s worth reading if you’ve ever experienced an earthquake here and then were left wondering if the next one would literally bring the house down.

I do believe, however, the main story relies too heavily on the claims of people who work in the oil and gas industry. Certainly, executives at oil and gas companies here have a vested financial interest in arguing the recent surge in seismic activity is a natural phenomenon. The story never really directly points out that conflict of interest in blunt enough terms for me.

Oklahoma’s surge in earthquakes, according to scientists outside of the oil and gas industry, is at least partially due to water disposal wells used in the hydraulic fracturing or fracking process. In the fracking process, wastewater is eventually injected by high pressure into underground rock formations. Scientists believe it’s that process that triggers earthquakes along the state’s fault lines. Although disposal wells have long been used in the oil and gas industry, they have grown in number because of the recent boom in fracking in the state. There are currently 12,000 injection wells in Oklahoma, according to one of the recent NewsOK.com articles.

I also believe an editorial in The Oklahoman/NewsOK.com, which followed Wilmoth’s reports, completely distorted the issue. The editorial makes the big italicized point, “We have shaken this way before. The point seems to be this: Don’t blame the oil and gas industry for earthquakes in Oklahoma. This went on in the 1950s, too.

Yet one local scientist, Austin Holland, who works for the Oklahoma Geological Survey clearly claims in an earlier article on NewsOK.com:

There are number of times in the historic past before we had seismic monitoring that we had seismicity clusters, but none of these upticks in seismic activity even come close to comparing to what we see today.

I respect the work they are doing, but certainly feel that it is not the whole story.

“They” are people like Glen Brown, who works as a vice president for geology at local energy company Continental Resources. Brown’s claim is that the recent surge in earthquakes here was similar to a surge in the 1950s, which included a 5.5-magnitude quake in El Reno.

The main conundrum is that available scientific techniques might not be able to ever conclusively show beyond a shadow of a doubt that disposal wells are responsible for the earthquake surge. This is compounded by the fact that the oil and gas industry has no compelling reason to accept any liability for the increase in seismic activity.

It’s a seismic stalemate that could lead to property damage and even human casualties if a large earthquake hits the state.