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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Oklahoma Experiencing Dramatic Increase In Earthquakes

Chad Devereaux examines bricks that fell from three sides of his in-laws home in Sparks, Okla., Nov, 6, 2011, following two earthquakes that hit the area in less than 24 hours. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)

Chad Devereaux examines bricks that fell from three sides of his in-laws home in Sparks, Okla., Nov, 6, 2011, following two earthquakes that hit the area in less than 24 hours. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)

So far this year, Oklahoma has had more earthquakes of a magnitude 3.0 or greater than any other state in the country — including California. More than 200, just since January.

This is a new and remarkable phenomenon. Just five years ago, Oklahoma was averaging only two 3.0 earthquakes a year. Now, it’s averaging one or two a day.

Scientists are saying that oil and gas-related activity, including fracking and wastewater disposal wells in the state, may be partially to blame.

“We see some cases where there is a pretty clear link between fluid injection and the earthquakes,” Austin Holland, a research seismologist at the Oklahoma Geological Survey, told Here & Now’s Robin Young.

In other cases, the link is less clear.

“We may be looking at a combination of factors,” Holland said. “We can tell that sometimes very large rainfalls or changes in aquifer levels can cause earthquakes. Just the natural changes that occur. We could be looking at a combination of that, combined with changes in the amount of waste water that is disposed of and natural stress changes. There are all sorts of different options that we are looking at and things that might be occurring.”




From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.


I'm Jeremy Hobson. It's HERE AND NOW. And coming up, we'll talk with military analyst Andrew Bacevich about U.S. involvement in the crisis in Iraq.

YOUNG: But first, the news making waves and tremors in Oklahoma. Since January, Oklahoma has had 200 earthquakes of a magnitude 3.0 or greater. California has had just 140. Some say it may be related to oil and gas exploration, water used in fracking or the drilling of wells to hold water runoff. Austin Holland is a research seismologist at the Oklahoma Geological Survey. He joins us from the studios of KGOU in Norman. And, Austin, what do you think is going on here?

AUSTIN HOLLAND: A lot of people are saying, well, it has to be due to hydraulic fracturing. Well, fortunately, hydraulic fracturing is a very quick process, and so that's an easy question to answer. And we do see some earthquakes caused by hydraulic fracturing, but we can explain all these earthquakes through hydraulic fracturing. And the reason we can say that is many of these earthquakes are occurring where hydraulic fracturing is not and when hydraulic fracturing is not occurring in those areas. So there are other oil- and gas-related technologies that may be responsible for some of them, as well. But we can clearly say that hydraulic fracturing contributes a small portion to this recent increase. And another question or challenge with the why now question is these technologies - hydraulic fracturing and waste disposal in wells - have been occurring for about 60 years. So the why now question is a very good question.

YOUNG: Right. And just to remind people - hydraulic fracturing is forcing water underground to break up the shale that might be holding under oil or gas. There also wells that are drilled for all this water. So, I mean, it makes sense that this much disturbance in the ground might have repercussions. But as you said, you're looking for other answers, as well. Because why? I mean, tell us more about Oklahoma, in the sense of whether or not it should have earthquakes at all. It's considered pretty stable?

HOLLAND: Oklahoma is considered fairly stable. It's in a continental interior. However, we have a higher earthquake hazard than many of the surrounding states within the mid-continent of the United States.

YOUNG: Yeah. So it's not as if it's unheard of. But this is a swarm, as I hear it's called - a swarm of earthquakes. Now, back to the fracking because, you know, this is what everybody's talking about. There was a report from the U.S. Geological Survey that found that many of - in fact, most of the new earthquakes did take place near some sort of active injection wells. These are the storage wells.

There's a geophysicist, William Ellsworth. He was lead author who wrote, it's completely plausible that high water pressure used in this injection could nudge previously dormant faults out of their locked positions. But again, he's just using the word plausible. You know, a little more on your thoughts on this because you're seeming to agree that some of it is fracking. But why isn't all of it?

HOLLAND: Well, certainly we could be looking at trigger earthquakes from this injection. One of the challenges is a lot of this injection occurs at very low injection pressures. The other thing here is that the earthquake rate change is occurring over a very large area - about 25,000 square kilometers. Most of the time, we see just these rare isolated incidences, where we have earthquakes triggered by deep water injection, generally at higher pressures than what we're looking at in Oklahoma.

YOUNG: In part, you're saying that with the fracking itself - injecting into the shale - you can see, time and place, when that's happening. But it's harder with the wells to really draw the line that a scientist would want to draw because there's so many of them and there's different kinds of injection?

HOLLAND: Yeah. And they've been running for, in many times, decades.

YOUNG: Yeah.

HOLLAND: And so the big question is why now? If they are triggering, what is going on? What has changed in the subsurface?

YOUNG: What do you think it is?

HOLLAND: We see some cases where there's a pretty clear link between food injection and the earthquakes. In other cases, it's a lot more tenuous. We may be looking at a combination of factors. We can tell that sometimes very large rainfalls or changes in aquifer levels can cause earthquakes - just the natural changes that occur.

YOUNG: Yeah.

HOLLAND: And so we could be looking at a combination of that combined with changes in the amount of wastewater that's disposed of and maybe natural stress changes. There's all sorts of different options that we're looking at and things that may be occurring.

YOUNG: Does it change the conversation - the fact that people can actually feel this effect? I mean, fracking's also been a boon to the state. But might it make it a different conversation if, in fact, people start to get frightened because they're feeling this?

HOLLAND: Well, it certainly has changed the conversation dramatically within the state already. But I want to be clear that fracking is a very small contributor to this. Most of the water that's disposed of in these disposal wells that are the more likely candidate for causing some of the earthquakes - that water's actually coming from the production of oil and gas. It's naturally occurring water that comes out as we produce the oil and gas. And so it makes it much more of a challenge to deal with this. We could treat and recycle all the water used from hydraulic fracturing. We can't do that from all of the produced water that comes out with the oil and gas. So it changes the dynamic of this debate significantly if we want to continue oil and gas production here in Oklahoma.

YOUNG: Austin Holland, research seismologist at the Oklahoma Geological Survey, speaking about this swarm of earthquakes that that state has felt in the last few years. Austin, thank you.

HOLLAND: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Puzette

    Your “expert” on fracking and Oklahoma is most likely on the payroll of big oil/gas … if he cannot acknowledge that fracking and deep injection wells used to dispose of frack fluid is the primary cause of earthquakes in OK!!!!!

    • it_disqus

      Yes the science does not exist. When someone can predict earthquakes in areas where there is no fracking, we will pay attention. Until then it is just biased opinion.

      • Allen Hurley

        Check out the earthquakes in Arizona, NW Alaska, Idaho, and Wyoming. How about South Carolina and others. If hydraulic fracturing is always the cause, why aren’t we having swarms of earthquakes in the Dakotas?

      • Allen Hurley

        Explain why major earthquakes have doubled in numbers since 1970 and the major portion of that increase has happened in the last 2 or 3 years. Could the increase in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas be related to the increase throughout the world? Good science would at least look to a link between the worldwide increase and those happening in the south central United States.

        • it_disqus

          No. I assert you must explain how earthquake prediction is so much better now that we can attribute it to human action.

    • Allen Hurley

      Puzette, good science does not jump to conclusions and allows facts to prove or establish cause and affect. If man is partially involved with the earthquakes, adjustments can be made to keep energy flowing at available, and affordable rates.

  • mckemper

    One must wonder why, when speaking about the extent of the area experiencing earthquakes in Oklahoma, the speaker measures that area in “square kilometers” instead of square miles, which would be a much smaller number.

  • unkerjay

    Either it’s happening for no apparent reason or there’s some factor or factors responsible for the increase.

    Reasonably, what has changed?

    No guarantee of causality, but, it’s a reasonable place to look.

    “There are all sorts of different options that we are looking at and things that might be occurring.”

    Or, given a lack of faith (now there’s a pun in the making) in science and its ability to either answer questions or identify problems, prayer is an option.

    I tend to favor science. That’s just me.

  • Joshua Coombs

    Although the first gas production was recorded in 1939, by late 2004,
    there were only 24 Woodford Shale gas wells. By early 2008, there were
    more than 750 Woodford gas wells.[5][1]
    Like many shale gas plays, the Woodford started with vertical wells,
    then became dominantly a play of horizontal wells. The play is mostly in
    the Arkoma Basin of southeast Oklahoma, but some drilling has extended
    the play west into the Anadarko Basin and south into the Ardmore Basin.[6] The largest gas producer from the Woodford is Newfield Exploration; other operators include Devon Energy, Chesapeake Energy, Cimarex Energy, Antero Resources, St. Mary Land and Exploration, XTO Energy, Pablo Energy, Petroquest Energy, Continental Resources, and Range Resources.

    The expert said its been around for 60 years, but with the total number of gas shales being 24 by the year 2004 (the only ones possibly operating for ten years) , I cant say that should do the same damage as the 750 that are reported by 2008. The amount and production have both doubled since 2010 even though there is now less resource to find. At least these guys are becoming very wealthy! They are the same people that look down on our poverty as though its our own fault, and as they buy mansions our houses fall apart!

  • Class No More

    Common sense tells ya if your screw a drill into something solid it is then weakened and hurt – way to go white man raped the environment of Oklahoma all in the name of growth, development and stupidity

    • Allen Hurley

      Without energy exploration and recovery, we have no automobiles, natural gas heated homes, or electricity to cool our homes. It is good to take precaution when adverse affects happen whether they be natural or man made. It would be advisable to relocate injection wells to areas free of major faults to limit the possibility of the earth shaking. However, this may be

      a natural occurrence and Oklahoma may settle back to a normal routine soon. I hope this is not a precursor to a major continental shift. That would take years to recover from.

  • http://CAFrackFacts.org/ CAFrackFacts

    The injection of large volumes of water into the earth at high pressures – such as in hydraulic fracking – has been directly linked to inducing seismic events. Learn more about the links between fracking and earthquakes across the country, here: http://www.cafrackfacts.org/impacts/seismology/

  • Stanley

    I expect an open discussion when I listen to “Here and Now”, so was greatly disappointed in Robin’s interview with the “expert”. It would have been nice if the “expert” had supported the theory of fracking causing the earthquake swarms, but he didn’t. It was disconcerting to hear Robin repeatedly ignore her expert’s statements, presenting questions from a point of having already reached a conclusion. An “expert” with an opposing view would serve the purpose.

    I listen to public radio in order to avoid the bias of CNN and Fox.

Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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