Ziva Branstetter is the editor in chief of The Frontier, and also the Tall half of the Tiny & Tall show. That’s the nickname given to her and reporter Cary Aspinwall by friends. The Tall Blog takes on the big subjects that are dear to Branstetter: transparency, the news business and high-profile investigations. She’ll also talk about life starting a new digital media company in the middle of the country.
A new report from the United States Geological Survey spells out in the clearest way yet what Oklahoma officials have denied and danced around for so long: A huge increase in wastewater injection from oil and gas exploration is triggering a sharp rise in earthquakes in the state.
And while the increase hasn’t included a catastrophic earthquake and fatalities, the risk in areas such as Oklahoma with induced quakes is now comparable to the risk of such events in California. Avoiding this risk requires “a detailed understanding of the physical processes involved in inducing large magnitude events,” the report concludes.
It lists six misconceptions about fluid injection and earthquakes, including that hydraulic fracking is causing most or all of the earthquakes (it isn’t).
Hydraulic fracturing of rock generally lasts a few days during drilling of the well while disposal of massive amounts of naturally occurring but toxic saltwater that comes up with the oil lasts for months.
Another misconception: Earthquakes only occur close to the injection well and at a similar depth.
Earthquakes can occur 10 km or more away from the injection point and at far greater depths, multiple studies have shown. Trying to pinpoint a single injection well as the cause of each particular earthquake in an area covered with hundreds of them is likely a fool’s errand.
“The injected fluids need not travel the entire distance from the injectinon well to a fault for the injectinon well to affect the fault’s behavior,” the study states. “Like stepping on the brakes in a car, the increase in fluid pressure that is initiated at the well (or brake pedal) is transmitted to the fault (brakes) without the fluid traveling the full distance.”
Another misconception — one that I heard industry officials repeat often during my reporting on this subject — is that wastewater injected at zero pressure into the state’s porous Arbuckle layer wasn’t likely to cause earthquakes. That assumption has also proven wrong in areas such as the Raton Basin, the report states.
In Oklahoma, the advent of horizontal drilling has allowed energy producers to find vast new amounts of oil and gas in recent years. But that technique has brought with it an ocean of wastewater, most of it naturally occurring, that has to go somewhere.
Between 1999 and 2013, the amount of wastewater disposed in the state doubled. In the areas with the highest number of earthquakes, it increased by factors of 5-10, the study found.
Lucky for us, there’s hope of avoiding catastrophic earthquakes here. The report states that scientists, industry and regulators should work together to collect high-quality, real-time data that is reported frequently.
It sounds so simple: Scientists, energy executives and elected officials should just cooperate and make data available with public safety as their agenda.
Only in Oklahoma, that hasn’t proven to be the case. Let’s recap that history:
For the past several years, as the number of earthquakes increased dramatically from a few 3.0 magnitude quakes per year to hundreds, politics trumped science. Thanks to the reporting of journalists including Mike Soraghan at EnergyWire and Joe Wertz of NPR’s State Impact, the curtain has been pulled back a bit.
We learned that state seismologist Austin Holland was summoned to “coffee” with OU President David Boren and billionaire oilman Harold Hamm, founder and CEO of Continental Resources. (At least it wasn’t Kool Aid, one email joked.)
Boren just happened to be on the company’s board and held thousands of shares of Continental stock. He was paid almost $350,000 in director’s fees and stock last year, according to Continental’s most recent report.
Hamm had also given a lot of money to the university.
Boren and Hamm said they just wanted to know more about Holland’s research into what was causing Oklahoma’s earthquake increase. Holland, meanwhile, told reporters (including me) he felt pressured by industry.
Records show whether real or imagined, that pressure may have paid off, at least for the oil companies.
While other states were taking actions ranging from moratoriums on wastewater disposal in some areas to public hearings and action plans, officials here including Gov. Mary Fallin tried to cast doubt on the scientific consensus. They cited the industry’s importance to the state’s economy and said more study was needed.
But the state geological survey, housed at OU in a school named after an oil company, wasn’t finishing its studies on what had caused the state’s largest earthquakes. OGS warned against a “rush to judgment” while Holland continued to focus on smaller earthquakes possibly caused by fracking when all the evidence pointed to wastewater injection wells as the true risk.
Meanwhile, the nation’s top seismologists were warning that damaging earthquakes could strike the state. (Apparently the 5.6 earthquake that damaged nearly 200 homes in and around Prague in 2011 wasn’t warning enough.)
In April, the OGS acknowledged what the rest of the scientific community had been reporting in peer-reviewed studies for several years. The increase in earthquakes here is “very unlikely” due to natural processes and quite likely due to wastewater injection. (Previous OGS statements had taken a far more conservative stance.)
What’s the state doing about it? Rather than passing laws to address the looming danger, state lawmakers passed a bill — signed by Fallin — forbidding cities from dealing with the issue on their own through zoning ordinances.
The state also set up a website to gather earthquake information but without action called for in studies like the one released this week by USGS, such actions appear to be window dressing.
While the state Corporation Commission has a traffic light system that has reduced wastewater injection in areas with high seismicity, it’s possible that system still won’t make enough of an impact to reduce the risk of a major earthquake here. In the meantime, homeowners in large swaths of the state continue to experience cracks in their walls, doors that won’t close and property damage that insurers don’t want to cover.
Ziva Branstetter 918-520-0406