The U.S. Geological Survey has determined that the large rise in the number of earthquakes in Oklahoma in recent years might be partly attributed to the wastewater disposal methods used in oil and gas drilling techniques.
In a statement released recently, the USGS noted there were one to three earthquakes of 3.0 magnitude or more from 1975 to 2008. Since that time, the state has averaged 40 earthquakes of 3.0 magnitudes or more on an annual basis, according to the USGS, which has labeled the increase a “swarm.”
This information has important implications for Oklahomans in terms of personal safety and building codes. Is it only a matter of time before a major earthquake hits Oklahoma and does major damage?
According to the USGS statement, “the analysis suggests that a contributing factor to the increase in earthquakes triggers may be from activities such as wastewater disposal--a phenomenon known as injection-induced seismicity.”
Injection wells for wastewater are part of the hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” drilling process. The wastewater from the fracking process and other drilling methods is injected into the ground, which could cause instability and stresses in rock layers. Studies in recent years have suggested a link between injection wells and earthquakes here and elsewhere in the world. Fracking has also been blamed for water contamination in some areas by environmental activists.
Should oil and gas companies be held accountable for the increase in seismic activity? Oil and gas companies have contributed much to the Oklahoma economy for decades, but could their drilling techniques lead to major destruction here? Will the end of the fossil fuel era be marked by damaging earthquakes?
These are not simply hyperbolic questions, and the mounting evidence suggests they need to be discussed.
The USGS noted that Oklahoma has always been prone to earthquakes, but “the increased hazard has important implications for residents and businesses in the area.” The USGS pointed to the 5.6 magnitude earthquake near Prague in 2011, and recent earthquakes just east of Oklahoma City that measured 4.2 and 4.4. There were several earthquakes in central Oklahoma on Saturday and at least one on Sunday. I think it’s fair to argue that the large increase in earthquakes is an alarming issue here in Oklahoma, and it’s probably not getting enough attention. Will it take a major earthquake to wake up people?
As I mentioned, there is now a growing number of studies that suggest injection wells and fracking can be tied to an increase in earthquakes. If the oil and gas industry here and elsewhere will not respond to this obvious dilemma with solutions, then the state and federal government should step in to protect people and their property.
Chesapeake Energy was back in the national news again recently.
ProPublica, an independent investigative media site based in New York, published a report a couple of weeks ago on how oil and gas companies are cutting royalty payments to landowners through questionable practices.
The report leads with the case of northern Pennsylvania farmer Don Feusner, who has wells on his land drilled by Chesapeake, the Oklahoma City energy company formerly led by Aubrey McClendon. According to the report, Chesapeake starting “withholding almost 90 percent of Feusner’s share of the income to cover unspecified ‘gathering’ expenses and it wasn’t explaining why.”
This is not uncommon, the report concludes, but it does raise contractual and royalty issues. Here are the overview paragraphs of the report:
. . . manipulation of costs and other data by oil companies is keeping billions of dollars in royalties out of the hands of private and government landholders, an investigation by ProPublica has found.
An analysis of lease agreements, government documents and thousands of pages of court records shows that such underpayments are widespread. Thousands of landowners like Feusner are receiving far less than they expected based on the sales value of gas or oil produced on their property. In some cases, they are being paid virtually nothing at all.
The accelerated use of hydraulic fracturing, known as “fracking,” has created a mini-boom in gas wells in different parts of the country, such as Pennsylvania and North Dakota, but landowners are not necessarily reaping the benefits they expected from the bonanza, the report argues. Many people have also argued fracking has a detrimental impact on the environment.
Chesapeake declined to talk to ProPublica for the report. The company made major headlines in recent months when McClendon’s leadership of the company came under fire. Reuters produced a special report on how McClendon, then the company’s chief executive officer, merged his personal finances with company business. McClendon has since left the company.
I couldn’t find any significant local coverage of the ProPublica piece, which isn’t surprising. The initial piece was published Aug. 13. This excellent, investigative reporting directly involving a local company was probably either completely ignored or at least played down here. I was made aware of it when it was republished on philly.com. The corporate media here continues to coddle local energy companies while outside media outlets fill the void. It should be noted that The Oklahoman, the state’s largest newspaper, is now owned by a Colorado billionaire, who made his fortune in the oil industry.
The state’s private energy sector, which includes companies such as Chesapeake, SandRidge Energy, Devon Energy and Continental Resources, deserves more local media scrutiny of its business practices and its local and national environmental impact. While these companies are important to the local economy, they also need to act responsibly.
In his piece, ProPublica writer Abrahm Lustgarten noted:
ProPublica made several attempts to contact Chesapeake Energy for this article. The company declined, via email, to answer any questions regarding royalties, and then did not respond to detailed sets of questions submitted afterward. The leading industry trade group, the American Petroleum Institute, also declined to comment on landowners’ allegations of underpayments, saying that individual companies would need to respond to specific claims.
Why won’t Chesapeake and the American Petroleum Institute discuss the issue? That, in itself, raises even more questions.
Another scientific article linking hydraulic fracturing processes to Oklahoma earthquakes has been released just as HBO begins broadcasting a documentary showing how these processes can contaminate water and contribute to global warming.
Here in Oklahoma, where energy companies have a gushing political influence, this might not mean much at the moment, but it seems clear that hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, and its wastewater processes, are facing greater scrutiny throughout the world from scientists and environmental activists. Could fracking be prohibited one day in this country because of the dangers of earthquakes, water contamination and pollution? It could happen, but energy companies, supported by powerful politicians, such as Oklahoma’s U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, will obviously put up a tremendous fight.
Fracking is a process in which water is mixed with chemicals and other products and then injected into the ground at a high pressure. This creates “fractures” in rock formations that can release natural gas and oil.
Last year, University of Oklahoma professor and seismologist Katie Keranen argued in an academic paper that a Nov. 6, 2011 earthquake, measured at 5.7 on the Richter scale, near Prague was likely caused by fracking processes. I wrote about that here. Now, a new study argues that a 2010 earthquake in Chile eventually led to that Oklahoma earthquake because of underground disposal fluids left over in injection wells, according to an article in The New York Times.
Injection wells, or brine disposal wells, are created by the massive wastewater of fracking and can cause instability in fault lines that lead to seismic activity.
The new article, written by Nicholas J. van der Elst and colleagues at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, was published in Science. It argues that a major increase in earthquakes in the central and eastern United States in recent years can be linked to the injection wells caused by fracking, and uses Oklahoma earthquakes and other earthquakes in the U.S. as examples.
You might think that the earthquake issue alone would make government regulators skeptical of fracking, but there’s also the real danger of water contamination and pollution as depicted by Gasland Part II, a sequel documentary created by filmmaker Josh Fox, now airing on Home Box Office.
According to Gasland Part II’s site:
The film argues that the gas industry’s portrayal of natural gas as a clean and safe alternative to oil is a myth and that fracked wells inevitably leak over time, contaminating water and air, hurting families, and endangering the earth’s climate with the potent greenhouse gas, methane.
Fox’s first film on fracking, Gasland, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2011. It also earned him the ire of the oil and gas industry, which attacked the film for supposed inaccuracies.
Gasland Part II is a powerful film that humanizes the result of water contamination on regular people who live close to fracking wells. It also draws larger conclusions about how the federal government and our overall culture has a history of dismissing basic scientific information, much like it did with cigarette smoking, because of corporate money and influence. Our energy policy in this country is dictated by corporations interested in profits, not public safety or long-term strategies.
What should seem clear to most anyone outside the energy industry is that fracking and its processes need more study and more government regulation. Unfortunately, the federal Environmental Protection Agency recently dropped a study trying to determine if fracking processes contaminated an aquifer in Wyoming and has delayed an overall study about the issue.
How much did the powerful oil and gas industry influence this decision, and what will it take before more people become aware of the environmental hazards created by fracking?
Why can’t President Barack Obama, now in his second term, take the lead on this issue? What does he have to lose?