Leading geoscientists said Wednesday that an earthquake more forceful than the ones already measured may not be out of the question for Oklahoma, which would increase damage significantly.
However, those scientists met in private, refusing open access to their discussions.
The comments were made at a seismicity workshop at the Moore-Norman Vocational Technical School, hosted by the Oklahoma Geological Survey, attended by dozens of geological experts from around the country.
Organizers barred reporters access to seminars where the scientists discussed their findings, however. Reporters for at least two organizations—StateImpact and The Frontier—were escorted from a seminar.
“Just got kicked out of workshop/meeting on #okquake hosted by Oklahoma Geological Survey,” seasoned StateImpact environmental reporter Joe Wertz posted on Twitter. Wertz said the organizers told him his presence would hamper open discussion. “I’m paraphrasing; ‘having media there prevents free-flow of information,’” Wertz added.
Why would state geoscientists, within days of Oklahoma’s largest recorded earthquake, hold restricted meetings and refuse access to a reporter?
“Because he wasn’t invited?” answered Martin Emery, a Devon Energy geoscientist working with organizers, responding to a Facebook query. “The meeting itself was/is invite only. Press conference(s) are (being) given, at a number of times over the event. But it’s not a public meeting.”
Eventually, geoscientists did emerge, with startling information despite the closed doors—but also with oil industry executives in tow.
Jeremy Boak, director of the Oklahoma Geological survey, seemed to speak candidly, despite secrecy over the closed meetings.The science is clear, he said. Oklahoma is more likely to have big earthquakes now, damaging ones, because oil industry operations have set them in motion. A massive increase in injection wells, sunk during the recent fracking boom, have created a “pulse” of pressure that is moving under the state, causing earthquakes.
“If you keep having more and more earthquakes, eventually you are going to get some bigger ones,” Boak said. “The injection pulse that is out there will continue to influence the crust. It’s already in motion. The decline (in earthquakes) will be constrained by how rapidly that spreads out.”
Further, the scores of small earthquakes created during the boom make larger earthquakes hit with more frequency, and those create the likelihood of even larger quakes, ones that Oklahoma hasn’t seen for more than a thousand years. The Survey needs more data, he said.
“For one as large as a magnitude six, there is some probability. It’s relatively small, based on our estimates. It would be better to do a much more detailed risk assessment,” Boak said.
What would a Magnitude 6 do to a populated area? Quite a bit more than the 5.8 that hit Pawnee on Friday, he said. The Richter scale increases exponentially, so a six is a much more powerful quake.
“A lot of buildings in Oklahoma are really old and were never built to any seismic code,” Boak said. “I’m not terrified about the Devon Tower, but I could see a lot of glass popping out.”
Such projections are within a mathematical principle called the Richter-Gutenberg Law. Discovered in the 1950s by legendary scientists Charles Francis Richter and Beno Gutenberg, the relationship indicates that, roughly, for every 100 earthquakes of magnitude 2.0, there is usually 10 3.0 quakes and one 4.0. Since Oklahoma has had thousands of smaller quakes—more than 2,500 in the last year alone—the frequency of larger quakes is more likely to increase, according to the rule.
United States Geological Survey geophysicist Daniel McNamara said the increasing frequency is cause for concern among geoscientists.
“Geologists think there was a magnitude 7 about 1200 years ago,” McNamara said. “Magnitude fives happen every 15 to 20 years. It’s just very strange in the last five years you get three magnitude fives. The frequency is increasing.”
The Oklahoma Corporation Commission ordered the shutdown of 37 wells in wake of the Sep. 3 earthquake in Pawnee, updated to 5.8, the strongest in state history.
“Obviously Pawnee was an emergency action. We didn’t’ have that authority before. This is our first use of new authority given us at the last (legislative) session at our request,” said spokesman Matt Skinner.
How long is the shutdown?
“Indefinitely,” Skinner said.
Both Boak and McNamara agreed that shutting down such wells is probably a necessary step in stopping or slowing down the quakes, but it may take a while for the shutdowns to take effect. Perhaps decades.
McNamara noted that much of the initial research on human-induced earthquakes began with a study of a wastewater injection well near Denver, used in the early 1960s. The well was shut down in 1967 when scientists discovered it triggered nearby earthquakes.
“(Earthquakes) went on for 20 years. There were earthquakes into the 1980s,” McNamara said. “The largest earthquake happened a year after the well was shut down. Even if all wells were shut down today, there is still energy in the system and it will take some time.”
Not everyone was happy with the new shutdown power being exercised by the Commission. Kim Hatfield, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association, said the shutdowns are an economic hit to an industry reeling from recession. He outlined the impact on what he said would be one typical well in the area being shut down.
“It means there are 6,000 barrels of oil that are not being produced…$300,000 a day that is not going into the state’s economy,” Hatfield said. “I thought it was a little bit aggressive. I certainly understand they wanted to err on the side of caution…They’ve gone ten miles out from the fault line. There is nothing in the research that I’m aware of that indicates wells that far away would have an effect.”
Audience angry, frustrated
In a forum open to the public Wednesday night, more than 200 people packed into a conference room in the Student Union at the University of Tulsa.
A panel of experts gave presentations related to earthquakes, which took up the majority of the hour-and-a-half event, followed by a 30-minute audience Q&A.
Several audience members asked questions that were raised by frustration or anger, while many made only statements to the panel.
Boak explained how the Oklahoma Geological Survey tracks earthquakes in the state and gave context to Saturday’s 5.8 magnitude quake.
The Oklahoma Geological Survey uses about 40 seismometers to locate quakes in the state, and the United States Geological Survey has brought in some temporary ones, Boak said. There will be more seismometers in Oklahoma in the next few weeks, which will allow more earthquakes to be located and recorded, he said.
Before Saturday’s quake, 70 percent of seismic energy released in the state in 2016 was concentrated on a fault zone near Fairview, Boak said.
Now, 65 percent of energy released this year was from the earthquake in Pawnee, which dropped the fault in northwest Oklahoma to less than 25 percent, he said.
Boak also noted Oklahoma sees spikes and drops in earthquakes. The earthquake rate is slowing down, but there are larger ones this year, he said.
The group of panelists included Boak, Skinner, Oklahoma Oil and Gas Association president Chad Warmington and Oklahoma Sierra Club director Johnson Bridgwater.
Bridgewater said the Sierra Club’s position is that America is at a point of historical change where it’s time to consider a new form of renewable, clean energy.
He also briefly discussed the organization’s concerns that the oil and gas industry is adding to environmental degradation and habitat loss.
In a brief presentation, Warmington said one of the positive things that came out of all of the quakes is the collaboration to find a solution to the problem.
Warmington explained the actions state regulators have taken to prevent more earthquakes in the state. He also noted the Oklahoma Corporation Commission’s quick response to Saturday’s earthquake and praised its ability to shut down nearby disposal wells within hours of the event.
The forum was hosted by the American Chemical Society as part of its Chemistry Cafe series.