A disposal well in Oklahoma.

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Oklahoma is at the Epicenter of a Debate About Industry and Earthquakes

  • Joe Wertz

peggydavis66 / Flickr

A disposal well in Oklahoma.

Oklahoma’s largest-recorded earthquake is relatively small on the scale of international seismic events, but debate about its cause has created a lot of aftershocks.

Recently published research further suggests the 5.7-magnitude quake that shook near Prague on November 2011 was triggered by injection wells used by the oil and gas industry. This means Oklahoma’s quake could be the largest linked to induced seismicity. The state’s official seismologist disputes that conclusion, and says the data point to natural causes.

But what about the oil and gas industry itself? Michael Behar with left-leaning magazine Mother Jones explored the Oklahoma quake in a story published this morning. He ran into familiar roadblocks:

For its part, industry is doing its best to avoid discussing the issue publicly…

None of Oklahoma’s biggest oil and gas producers — Apache, Chesapeake, Devon, SandRidge, Sheridan — responded to StateImpact’s requests for interviews about induced seismicity or whether the companies themselves were looking into the possibility that earthquakes could be linked to injection and disposal wells.

We weren’t the only ones getting the silent treatment, Mother Jones reports. When the Society of Petroleum Engineers in September 2012 convened its first-ever meeting on injection-induced seismicity, reporter Behar was told:

“I appreciate your interest but press is not allowed to attend in any fashion.” My requests to speak with geophysicists at leading oil and gas companies implicated in injection-induced earthquakes were also ignored or denied.

Behar did get in contact with Tulsa-based New Dominion, which operates an injection well near the Wilzetta fault and the epicenter of the November 2011 earthquake:

He informed me that people claiming to know the true source of the Oklahoma quakes are “either lying to your face or they’re idiots.”

Earthquakes are on the rise in the mid-continent of the United States, and there’s a growing consensus among geophysicists that quakes in many states — including Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Ohio — were triggered by injection wells.

“Does industry concur?,” Mother Jones’ Behar asks:

Jim Gipson, director of media relations for Chesapeake Energy, operator of the wells under DFW airport and a now-closed well near Greenbrier, Arkansas, declined my request for an interview. Hal Macartney, geoscience adviser for Pioneer Natural Resources, which owns some of the wells implicated in the Colorado quakes, dodged my calls and emails for three weeks. Even those not implicated directly with quake-causing wells are staying silent. Hydrofracking pioneer Norman Warpinski, who works for Halliburton, refused comment. Geophysicist Mark Houston and managing partner Steve Sadoskas, at oilfield-services provider Baker Hughes, wouldn’t talk. Julie Shemeta, founder of MEQ Geo, a firm that does seismic consulting for oil and gas exploration, said she was too busy for a 15-minute phone call even though I offered her a two-month window to schedule it.

But there’s a good reason why seismologists think energy companies might know more than they’re letting on, and there’s a powerful motivation to know a lot what’s going on underground: money.

The computing capabilities of the Oklahoma Geological Survey are dwarfed by the high-tech mapping and seismic resources at any major energy company, agency seismologist Austin Holland told StateImpact in January. But there are competitive reasons why a company would want to keep that data secret, and many corporate legal departments likely wouldn’t OK the release of data that could connect a company with an earthquake.

Seismologists say they need more data from injection wells — measurements and records that either aren’t recorded, aren’t publicly available, or aren’t recorded with enough resolution to help study induced seismicity. On this, every seismologist StateImpact interviewed agreed. Mother Jones heard the same thing:

Ideally, the USGS would get real-time data. But operators are only required to track monthly volumes, and those tallies are often delayed six months or more.

Meanwhile, other theories into the cause of Oklahoma’s largest-ever quake are being considered, Mother Jones reports:

As for Keranen’s explosive research on the Wilzetta Fault, New Dominion’s Antonides is recruiting his own scientists to produce a report challenging it. Meanwhile, he has his own theories. “The traffic driving across the freeway could have caused it,” he says, adding that another “trigger point” is the two large aquifers that bracket the fault. Drought has reduced their water levels, “removing a lot of the weight” and allowing the ground underneath to “rebound” and perhaps release energy in a pent-up fault. “All this stuff is tied together—the aquifers, plus trucks driving across the freeway, plus water disposal, plus 50-story buildings—the whole system of man.” (This hypothesis has some basis in reality. Scientists in Taiwan fear that the weight of a skyscraper unhinged faults underlying Taipei. Though no such structure, it must be said, is found within 50 miles of Prague, Oklahoma.)