Quake debate science questioned while state’s earthquake studies go unfinished newshomepage1 tulsaworld.com hp gas online booking mobile number


This quake happened 30 minutes ago near Oklahoma’s northern border with Kansas, he explains, taking a drag from his cigarette. Crismon won’t need to wait long before feeling the ground rumble under his own home, four miles from an injection well used to collect oil-field wastewater.

The state has about 3,200 active disposal wells, where water produced during oil and gas drilling is injected deep underground. The United States Geological Survey and several scientific studies have attributed Oklahoma’s spike in earthquakes to these wastewater disposal wells, but key state officials say they need more evidence.

"At this point in time, I don’t think we have enough information to truly understand what is causing earthquakes," Gov. Mary Fallin told the Tulsa World. "We know a lot of it’s just natural earthquakes that have occurred since the beginning of the earth, but there has been some question about disposal wells."

Mark Crismon watches a live display of seismicity sent to his computer from a seismometer set up outside a shed at his home in Noble County, north of Glencoe. The data is sent to Oklahoma State University students conducting a study of Oklahoma’s earthquakes. JOHN CLANTON/Tulsa World

"It’s funny because sometimes I think I’m doing discussions about climate change, because it’s all the same thing," said Oklahoma State University geology professor Todd Halihan, a member of the state’s new earthquake committee. "In terms of the peer-reviewed data sets, I don’t know of a paper that’s not attributing our seismicity to injection."

Meanwhile, the Oklahoma Geological Survey, the state agency charged with providing public information about earthquakes, has not issued final studies on the state’s most damaging earthquakes or "swarms" of earthquakes. It shelved a plan to seek public comment on " best practices" for oil and gas operations after the energy industry protested.

• Fallin and key state officials, joined by energy industry groups, are publicly casting doubt on the scientific consensus. Dozens of studies and government reports since the 1970s have found that wastewater injection wells, and in some cases hydraulic fracturing, can trigger earthquakes.

• The state Corporation Commission oversees a "traffic light" system covering injection wells in a quake-prone section of central Oklahoma. As of Wednesday, the agency has issued 27 directives to well operators, including injection wells operated by SandRidge Energy in Alfalfa County and Devon Energy in Payne County that were shut down.

• At least five insurance companies have excluded earthquakes triggered by fracking and wastewater injection from Oklahoma policies. While about 25 percent of Oklahomans with homeowners insurance have earthquake policies, the majority of claims filed last year with the state’s largest insurers have not been paid. Boom brings prosperity

Medford is home to a large natural gas storage facility and an oil refinery. The expanse of flat, green fields flanking Oklahoma 11 leading into town is dotted with pumpjacks, tank batteries and refinery stacks as far as the eye can see. Huge tanker trucks and oil-field service rigs rumble through town, pausing at the four-way stop on Main Street.

Tricia Hackbarth removes items from the family room of her parents’ home as family and friends of Joseph and Mary Reneau began cleaning the mess created from a 5.6 earthquake that struck Prague in 2011. Scientists have said they believe the earthquake was caused by injection wells in the area. JIM BECKEL/The Oklahoman

Large amounts of underground water often accompany oil and gas, up to 10 barrels for every barrel of oil. The wastewater is a salty mix of toxic chemicals that were used in the extraction and must be disposed of by injecting it back into the ground.

“I think most people have come to the conclusion that it’s related to the oil activity," Bush said. "There’s been oil booms and oil activity around here for years, but we haven’t had earthquakes. But we haven’t had all the saltwater injection wells this close, either.” Industry ‘worried’

Across the state in areas plagued by frequent earthquakes, some citizens are organizing small groups to call for action from state and local governments. Angela Spotts, who helped found Stop Fracking Payne County, said the constant shaking "is taking a huge emotional toll on a lot of people."

While Oklahoma recorded one or two 3.0 or greater magnitude earthquakes from 1978 through mid-2009, the state led the nation in the number of 3.0-plus magnitude earthquakes last year, with 585. Studies published in Science and other major journals have said Oklahoma’s increase is related to wastewater injection.

After saving for a city pool for 12 years, the city of Medford was able to build one this year. The pool, still under construction in this January photo, as well as basketball and tennis courts were built with tax revenues generated by a booming energy industry. JOHN CLANTON/Tulsa World

“We are virtually certain that almost everything that we are seeing in terms of increased seismicity not only in Oklahoma but in Texas are all related to recent changes in the way that oil and gas are being produced. Scientifically I don’t think there’s really a lot of doubt about that.”

The Oklahoma Geological Survey has gone its own way on the issue. During presentations to other scientists, OGS’ seismologist acknowledges cases that show a likely connection. On the agency’s website, the same earthquakes have been deemed likely naturally occurring.

In January 2013, OGS seismologist Austin Holland — speaking at a Florida conference on injection wells — cited the Prague earthquake as one of two examples in which injection wells were thought to be a trigger for earthquakes in Oklahoma, records show.

That statement was in response to a study by a former University of Oklahoma seismologist on the Prague earthquakes published that month in the Journal of Geophysical Research. It concluded that the quake was due to nearby wastewater injection wells.

"These best practices are intended to provide guidelines primarily to the oil and gas industry concerning wastewater disposal wells, but may be applicable in many other cases of fluid injection. Once developed, the draft recommended best practices will be made available for public comment," OGS said in a meeting summary.

A SandRidge Energy wastewater injection site near Medford rises above farm land dotted with oil pump stations and injection sites. A SandRidge well in neighboring Alfalfa County was shut down due to earthquakes in the area. JOHN CLANTON/Tulsa World

"We want to get information out quick, but we are also at a university (OU), and published papers are what matter to a university," he said. "If I put it on the website, that makes it much more challenging to justify having it published in a peer-reviewed journal."

Since it began using a new "traffic light" system to monitor injection wells in earthquake zones, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission has issued a total of 27 directives to operators. The directives shut down wells operated by SandRidge Energy and Devon Energy due to earthquakes.

The Corporation Commission began using the monitoring system in December 2013. The commission monitors all wells within a six-mile radius of a 4.0 earthquake, called the areas of interest. Wells are required to record pressure and volume of wastewater injected daily and report it at least weekly to the commission.

The commission also has new rules requiring well operators to record injection volumes and pressures more often if they inject into the Arbuckle geologic layer. That layer spans the state and is just above the granite "basement" layer, prone to fractures and faults.