Days after assuming the role of Director for the Oklahoma Geological Survey in July, Jeremy Boak was asked about some of the difficulties he may face in his new state.
Boak moved to Oklahoma last month from Colorado, where he had served as a professor in the Geology and Geological Engineering Department at the Colorado School of Mines.
Currently, Colorado isn’t as seismically active as Oklahoma. It hasn’t registered a single 2.5 magnitude or greater earthquake this month, and only had 10 this year.
Oklahoma has had about 200.
And public fascination with quakes in Boak’s former home is nowhere near the level it has reached here, where news websites keep hourly earthquake updates and social media erupts whenever the state rumbles.
So Boak had lept into the metaphorical lion’s den.
“I know there are traps,” he said, laughing. “You can easily walk into a trap.
“The (increase in) earthquakes is a challenging social issue and we have to do something about it. Our job is to provide information so the decision makers can make the right decision.”
‘Do the science’
The first trap Boak walked into came too late for him to avoid, and, like the quakes shaking up the state, it was apparently man-made.
Boak had already agreed to become the new OGS director when Bloomberg News published bombshell emails from billionaire Oklahoma oilman Harold Hamm and University of Oklahoma staff (OGS is a state entity housed and funded by OU.)
In the emails, received via an Open Records Act request, OU donor Hamm told Larry Grillot, dean of the Mewbourne College of Earth and Energy at the university, that as a representative of the oil and gas industry, Hamm “would be very interested” to help select the next OGS director. Hamm and the school later said the oilman was not added to the search committee.
But it was a follow-up email from Grillot to other OU staff that raised the most eyebrows. In it, Grillot noted that Hamm was “very upset” with OGS reporting on earthquakes (the agency had publicly stated that wastewater injection wells were the likely cause of the rise in Oklahoma’s quakes.)
Grillot said in the email that Hamm had told him he planned to meet with Gov. Mary Fallin to discuss uncoupling OGS and the university, something a spokesman for Fallin said was not possible under law. Grillot also said Hamm was upset to the point of wanting some OGS staff fired.
“I kind of looked at that from afar, like, ‘Well that’s what they’re going to ask you about when you get there,” Boak said, noting he had never spoken with Hamm. “I guess when you have that kind of money, you expect to be listened to. And if something gets you hot, you may not be cautious and you may just speak your mind.
“(Hamm) may have gone over the line, but it wasn’t a big deal. I got an email from (OU President) David Boren that said ‘Do the science, and if anything comes up, contact my staff.’”
It wasn’t the first time outside pressure was placed on OGS staff. Austin Holland, a researcher there who was thrust into the spotlight when the state started shaking, previously told the Tulsa World he had felt pressured by some in the energy industry in regards to his research.
Holland has since left OGS for a post in New Mexico.
“We made him a very good offer, but I’m excited for him,” Boak said. “Now we’ll have to see if we can find someone to replace him. There will be a lot of geophysicists in the market due to the oil industry, but not a lot with earthquake specialties.”
State still setting earthquake records
Boak’s first month on the job didn’t go exactly as he planned. Last week, he said he met with a number of researchers and oil and gas industry executives, and almost felt ready to begin meeting with the public when he was forced to return to Colorado to attend to his wife, who was undergoing a surgical procedure.
Almost as soon as he got there, the ground back in Oklahoma began to rumble. In a 24-hour period, three strong earthquakes hit, the strongest of which rattled buildings across the state to a degree not felt since the record 5.6 magnitude Prague earthquake in 2011.
Two earthquakes in one day……hello Tulsa.
— Mona منى (@LaVidaDeMona) July 28, 2015
@NWStulsa wow we never feel earthquakes in north Tulsa but we felt that. North 46th st.
— MONA Rae (@MLVSLTA) July 27, 2015
All three of the recent temblors occurred in Crescent and, according to United States Geological Survey earthquake tracker maps, they happened nearly on top of each other.
The quakes were so unsettling that on Tuesday, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission announced that two wells nearest the epicenter were shutting down operations completely, while another was scaling back by 50 percent.
Both the OGS and the USGS have issued reports pointing to wastewater injection, where wastewater drawn to the surface by hydraulic fracturing is pumped back into the earth, as being the culprit for the dramatic rise in Oklahoma’s earthquakes.
Boak told The Frontier there’s such a strong correlation between wastewater injection wells and earthquakes that it’s “almost impossible to dismiss.” But prior to his arrival at OGS, the agency had disputed that fact.
An older study and informational poster on the agency’s website noted correlations between the levels of Arcadia Lake northeast of Oklahoma City and the earthquake swarm in that area that began in 2011. It states that connections between the “Jones swarm” of earthquakes and wastewater disposal was “unlikely.”
“It looks to me that OGS was a good deal more cautious in saying that (these earthquakes) were related to injection,” Boak said. “But science caution is important. The scientific data can be good, but the interpretation can get you into difficulties.
“We have to be cautious not rush to a conclusion that will have an impact, such as the corporation commission plugging up wells and shutting down wells. They still need a place to put that water.”
That the Crescent wells closed or cutback is not wholly unusual in itself: A July 17 OCC release stated 352 injection wells have either cut their injection rate, are not injecting, have reduced their depth (or are in the process of doing so), or have proven to be injecting at a safe depth.
But those cutbacks have apparently had little to no effect on earthquake totals in the state, the numbers of which are staggering.
In 2014, Oklahoma registered 567 earthquakes magnitude 3.0 or greater. So in a single year, the state had more quakes of that magnitude than the cumulative total since 1978.
If that number sounds unsettling, just wait: The state is on pace to smash last year’s record. At this rate, Oklahomans will top last year’s total sometime in early August, and the state will breeze past the 900 mark at the end of the year.
The late July outbreak of 4.0 or stronger earthquakes in Crescent gave Oklahoma 20 such temblors this year, breaking last year’s record of 19.
“There’s a certain excitement to this problem,” Boak said. “I don’t want to take excitement from other people’s misery, but it’s an exciting problem to work on. It’s part of what brought me here. It’s a very interesting challenge.”
On the topic of shutting down injection wells, Boak said he felt a widespread shutdown, where all wells ceased operations, would have an almost immediate impact on the number of earthquakes. But if that happened, the oil and gas industry “would be in serious trouble.”
“So the question is, is there a way to stage the reduction to a level that’s acceptable when we don’t yet know what’s acceptable?” Boak said. “It’s an interesting question.”
And one the public might not have the patience for, he admitted.
“The (oil and gas) industry I know wants to wait and see if these solutions (plugging some wells, reducing injection in others) has a noticeable effect,” he said. “But politically, there may not be enough patience for that if these earthquakes stay so high.”
‘A great mystery to solve’
Another option, one that might be a tough sell to the public, might be to spread the injection sites around, Boak said.
Currently, most wastewater is pumped into the Arbuckle formation, an area of brittle rock said not to react to the chemicals in the injected liquids. However, that formation sits on top of Oklahoma’s Nemaha fault line.
Lay that fault line over a map of the hundreds of Oklahoma earthquakes that happen monthly and a clear picture emerges.
“The problem (with the Arbuckle formation) is that it may be leaking into this Pre-Cambrian basement (deep, complex rock millions of years old,)” Boak said. “An argument, a convincing argument, has been made that this wastewater is leaking into that precambrian basement and that’s what’s causing the earthquakes. The Arbuckle may not have a good seal between it and that basement, which would mean we could possibly find another formation with a better seal somewhere where the injection could be done.
“If that place exists, and if we find it, maybe we wouldn’t have to reduce the injection wells as much. The other risk is that we find a new place (for the injection water) and we put too much in the ground and we start a new earthquake center.”
But Boak believes a gradual scaling back of injection sites will work. He points to the fact that wastewater was injected in the state for years before the earthquakes flared up.
“There’s some reason to believe there’s a threshold where it backs up and causes these earthquakes,” he said. “That’s what I’m understanding is happening.
“(OGS) is eager to answer this question for the people in Oklahoma. There’s a great mystery to solve here.”