New Study: Injecting Chemicals into Ground Makes Earth So Mad It's Quaking

It's become increasingly clear that Oklahoma's dramatic surge in earthquakes can be linked to wastewater injection wells used in the hydraulic fracturing or fracking drilling process.

A new study links central Oklahoma earthquakes, known as the Jones swarm, to four high-volume injection wells in Oklahoma City.

The study's author, Katie Keranen, is a geophysicist at Cornell University. Keranen, who formerly worked at the University of Oklahoma, has also connected the 5.7-magnitude 2011 earthquake near Prague to injection well activity. She presented her recent findings at a Seismological Society of America conference in Anchorage, Alaska. 

The new information was reported in an article by ENERGYWIRE. (The site requires registration.) The article quotes this statement from Keranen: "What we're seeing is a broad correlation between rising injection levels and earthquakes." Keranen went on to say, according to the article, that the connection was not definitive, although there was a "strong correlation."

In the fracking process, leftover wastewater from the initial drilling process is later injected by high pressure into underground rock formations. This process, some researchers contend, can destabilize the rock and trigger a fault line resulting in earthquakes.

There have been hundreds of earthquakes in Oklahoma over the last five years, including the large one in 2011 near Prague, which damaged buildings. In 2013, Oklahoma was second in the nation among states in the contiguous United States in the number of earthquakes 3.0-magnitude or higher. Earthquakes have become a daily occurrence here in central Oklahoma.

Art McGarr, a geophysicist with the United States Geological Survey, made an unsettling prediction, according to the ENERGYWIRE article. According to the article, McGarr said, "In states like Oklahoma that are injecting a lot of fluid, I think it's highly likely that we'll see a bigger earthquake there."

As I pointed out recently, the federal government has known for decades that injection wells could trigger earthquakes.

Meanwhile, The Oklahoman editorial page has defended the oil and gas industry when it comes to the earthquake issue, arguing, "The jury is still out on the matter of whether the recent earthquake swarm in Oklahoma is related to oil and gas activity." In a technical sense, that might be true, but the correlation between them seems so obvious right now that regulators should act with more urgency.

A new coalition called "States First" has been established to study the earthquake issue, but my first reaction is that its scope seems too broad to make an immediate difference to a pressing problem here in Oklahoma.

Here are some points to consider:

(1) There is no reason for the oil and gas industry to admit culpability for the earthquakes. If there were a major earthquake that caused extensive damage, individual companies could be held legally liable if they admitted their activities caused earthquakes. Why would the oil and gas industry readily accept this liability? It's not a question of whether to trust the oil and gas industry or whether to criticize it. It's just the way business gets done in this country.

(2) The Oklahoma Corporation Commission has voted to require injection well operators to maintain more extensive records about their operations, but it doesn't go far enough. There should be a moratorium on injection wells until the earthquake issue can be clarified. What if the earthquakes, over time, are causing major foundation cracks in houses and other buildings? What about the state's bridges and overpasses? What will be the cost for the delay in action?

(3) Oklahoma is known for its wild and severe weather, including deadly tornadoes. Now it has become earthquake central. How does that affect property values? Who wants to build a home in an area experiencing daily earthquakes that are growing in number and intensity?

I may sound alarmist, but there doesn't seem to be any urgency among state leaders to address the issue. Will it take a major earthquake that causes massive damage to create urgency or does the oil and gas political lobby have such a chokehold on state government that even a deadly and destructive temblor wouldn't make a difference? The answer to that question may come sooner than we want it to.

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