Environment, Education, Energy: Policy to People

Oklahoma Has Highest Potential for Earthquakes, New USGS Forecast Shows

The U.S. Geological Survey on Monday released for the first time maps that forecast regions that could experience damage from human-triggered earthquakes. Oklahoma has the highest risk for potential shaking, researchers say.

Roughly 7 million people live and work in areas that have experienced a dramatic increase in human-triggered earthquakes in recent years, federal researchers say. Most of the uptick is tied to the oil industry practice of pumping wastewater into underground disposal wells.

The industry-linked shaking is concentrated in six states throughout the central part of the country — Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico and Arkansas. Prior to 2008, the states collectively averaged about 24 magnitude-3.0 or greater earthquakes a year. That rate has “steadily increased” since and peaked with 1,010 such quakes in 2015, according to the report.

Among the states, Oklahoma has the highest potential hazard, and shares with Texas the highest number of residents exposed to the shaking. A region that extends from central Oklahoma north and west towards the Oklahoma-Kansas border presents the greatest risk, according to USGS estimates. The forecast suggests that region has a 5 to 12 percent chance of experiencing a magnitude-6.0 or greater earthquake in 2016.

Mark Petersen, director of the USGS National Seismic Hazard Mapping Project, says parts of Oklahoma and other states now have the same earthquake risk as California.

“There is a potential for damage,” he said. “It’s mostly for cracking damage, and not collapses of buildings.”

In separate statements, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin and Corporation Commissioner Dana Murphy said the USGS report justified recent regulatory efforts aimed at reducing activity at oil and gas operations in shaky areas.

“We must continue to take progressive steps based on the latest scientific data and research as quickly as possible to resolve this complex and challenging public safety issue,” Murphy said.

State Rep. Richard Morrissette, who has been critical of the state’s response, said officials reacted slowly and with minimal actions.

“Foundations, walls and ceiling were cracking for at least two years before this governor and the Corporation Commission took this issue seriously,” Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City, said in a statement. “Why didn’t the Corporation Commission develop a map such as the USGS’s months ago?”

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