Seismologist vacancies complicate earthquake response

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At a time when Oklahoma has been rocked by two of the strongest earthquakes since 2011, a state agency tasked with researching the problem has no seismologist on staff and may fill only one of two open positions with a seismologist, The Frontier has learned.

The delay in hiring a new state seismologist is creating headaches for the Oklahoma Corporation Commission as it struggles to respond to the growing number of large earthquakes.

Meanwhile, the commission is preparing to announce a new plan to cut back on wastewater disposal in an area of the state where a 4.7 earthquake struck early Monday. And in a release Tuesday, Gov. Mary Fallin’s office announced formation of a new working group to study possible reuse of wastewater produced from oil and gas drilling operations.

Monday’s quake 15 miles north of Medford followed a 4.7 earthquake on Nov. 19 in the same area near the Kansas border. The state has recorded more than 5,000 earthquakes in 2015 alone.

Matt Skinner, a spokesman for the Corporation Commission, said he could not provide details about the commission’s planned response to Monday’s quake because operators have not yet been notified. As it has in the past, the commission staff is expected to ask injection well operators to cut back or halt injection in the area where Monday’s earthquake occurred.

Since early 2014, the commission staff has requested operators of oil and gas wastewater injection wells to halt or cut back operations in areas with an increasing number of earthquakes. The U.S. Geological Survey and other organizations have cited numerous scientific studies that connect injection of wastewater with earthquakes.

The Corporation Commission works closely with the Oklahoma Geological Survey, also a state agency, to determine how to respond to earthquakes. However vacancies at the OGS, based at the University of Oklahoma, have impacted that response, Skinner said.

“The fact that we don’t have the resources we used to have over there is a very big problem for us,” Skinner said Tuesday.

OGS’ state seismologist, Austin Holland, announced in July he was leaving for a position in New Mexico. In September, his replacement — Amberlee Darold — announced she was leaving for another job.

While OGS used to have two full-time seismologists on its staff, currently the agency has none.

Jeremy Boak, director of the Geological Survey, said he was not aware of concerns about the vacancies until Monday.

“We’ve got plenty of people to respond,” Boak said. He said the staff includes a “seismology technician” trained to read instruments that measure earthquakes and a “junior seismologist who leads my analysis team.”

The junior seismologist, Jefferson Chang, is a research associate working toward a Phd at OU that includes a dissertation on earthquakes, according to the OGS website.

OGS is seeking a seismologist to fill Holland’s position and hopes to begin interviewing candidates early next year, Boak said. The agency recently expanded its search to make sure it attracts the best candidates, he said.

“We don’t want to rush anything,” Boak added.

When asked whether OGS planned to fill Darold’s position with a second seismologist, Boak said he is unsure.

“There might come a day when this (earthquake) issue goes away. I want that second person to be able to support multiple teams,” he said.

Researching the state’s earthquake problem is a multi-disciplinary effort and OGS has several skilled researchers working on the issue, Boak said. The staff includes a hydrologist and geologists who are researching various aspects of the “induced seismicity” issue.

Boak said reduced energy production due to a drop in oil prices combined with the commission’s directives may be having the desired impact.

“For earthquakes above 2.8, yes we’ve had some bigger earthquakes, but in terms of frequency, they are down,” he said.

In Grant and Alfalfa counties, where many of the earthquakes have been reported, Boak said the frequency per day has dropped from 2.5 to 1 when viewed as a 45-day average.

Records show the state has set records for earthquakes 3.0 and above in 2013, 2014 and this year, with dramatic increases each year. (Read the OGS’ latest official statement on induced seismicity here.)

This graphic from the U.S. Geological Survey shows the rapid increase in earthquakes 3.0 and higher in Oklahoma in recent years.
This graphic from the U.S. Geological Survey shows the rapid increase in earthquakes 3.0 and higher in Oklahoma in recent years.

Last year, well operators injected about 1.5 billion barrels of wastewater into the ground in Oklahoma.

Fallin’s announcement that she is forming a “fact-finding working group” came during the 36th Annual Oklahoma Governor’s Water Conference and Research Symposium underway in Norman. The working group will study how wastewater can be recycled and reused rather than injected, the press release states.

The new panel “will be a non-regulatory, fact-finding work group focused on identifying regulatory, technical and economic barriers to produced water reuse,” the release states.

Fallin named J.D. Strong, director of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, to serve as chairman.

Fallin’s release did not say whether the working group will hold any public meetings or issue any public reports. A similar state working group studying induced seismicity has not held public meetings.

In an email to The Frontier late Tuesday, Fallin’s spokesman said the new working group “is not a public body that falls under the Open Meetings Act.”

“However, there could be times that the group may want to hold a meeting open to the public. Again, this is an advisory panel so its recommendations or reports will not be public documents,” said the email from Michael McNutt.

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Ziva Branstetter

Editor in Chief / Staff Writer

Ziva maintains she was always too nosy to be anything other than a reporter. Though she's on a new adventure with The Frontier, she spent more than 25 years in the newspaper business, making politicians nervous and making sure readers got the truth. Contact: ziva@readfrontier.com or 918-520-0406.
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