Report: Silence and denial surround Oklahoma's "frackquake" problem

Why isn't Oklahoma doing more to address its massive uptick in seismic activity?

Published April 6, 2015 4:58PM (EDT)

     (Calin Tatu/Shutterstock)
(Calin Tatu/Shutterstock)

The New Yorker's Rivka Galchen this week takes a deep dive into Oklahoma's "frackquakes," the seismic activity linked to new methods of gas and oil extraction -- mostly, the injection wells used to dispose of fracking wastewater -- that by last year was occurring at triple the rate of California's quakes.

Her piece depicts a state struggling to come to terms with its new designation as the reigning earthquake capital of the U.S., and of state legislators and regulators who really, really don't want to be talking about this.

Take, for example, a series of earthquakes in the town of Prague, which destroyed at least sixteen houses and five million dollars in damages to a building at nearby St. Gregory’s University. The official position of the Oklahoma Geological Survey ("charged with investigating the state's land, water, mineral, and energy resources and disseminating the results of those investigations to promote the wise use of Oklahoma's natural resources consistent with sound environmental practices"), is that the tremors were likely naturally occurring, and that there's "insufficient evidence" to suggest that most of Oklahoma's earthquakes are caused by disposal wells.

That position, writes Galchen, "has no published research to support it, and there are at least twenty-three peer-reviewed, published papers that conclude otherwise."

Between 2009, when the increase in seismic activity first began, and 2014, meanwhile, the state legislature failed to even propose any legislation related to the quakes. And leaders appear unwilling to consider the facts:

In September, 2014, at the request of two state representatives, the Oklahoma legislature conducted an official interim study on induced seismicity. In subsequent hearings, more than five hours of testimony were presented to a committee of legislators. Holland, Dana Murphy, of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, and Todd Halihan, the professor of geology at Oklahoma State University, all spoke about the link between disposal wells and earthquakes. Tim Baker, of the O.C.C., spoke about the link between drilling into basement rock and earthquakes.

After the hearings, Mark McBride, the committee chair, issued a press release. It denied “a correlation between the injection wells and seismic activity,” and quoted a legislator’s speculation that perhaps the quakes were caused by “the current drought.” None of the scientists who had been present were quoted. I called McBride, who at first had no memory of the study—nor did his secretary. Then McBride remembered it. I asked what he had learned from it, and he said, “Well, one question I had for them was about the drought. That maybe the drought is causing these problems. And I seem to remember that sometimes there’s a problem, if they drill down too far. But that’s about it, really.”

The Oklahoma Corporation Commission, charged with regulating oil and gas exploration and, according to Galchen, much more empowered to do something about the earthquakes than state officials, is slowly getting there -- a spokesman said quakes are "our No. 1 priority,” but added that “rules take time, and are difficult to change" -- but Galchen reserves more sympathy for locals speaking out against the industry: "The activists’ fluent knowledge and ready evidence can, perversely, make them sound crazy—so much data!—if one forgets that they are being continually, from all corners, gaslit."

The whole saga brings to mind Florida's ban on the term "climate change" and other institutional attempts to ignore a man-made problem in hopes it'll go away, right down to the scientists unhappily resigned to the politicization of their research. And it's made all the more strange by Galchen's assertion that most of the scientists she spoke with don't think the state should ban fracking or the use of disposal wells -- they're calling merely for "open discussion, and a rational plan to avoid triggering the earthquakes that are felt...almost daily."

Many Oklahomans, it seems, are unwilling to speak out against the oil industry forming the backbone of their state; it's that same loyalty, Galchen suggests, preventing stronger legislation -- the state's anti-regulation fervor, she points out, didn't stop it from levying a new tax on rooftop solar panels. Oklahoma, it follows, may be inclined just to think of its quakes as an unavoidable downside of the oil boom -- worth enduring instead of working to prevent.

By Lindsay Abrams

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Earthquakes Fracking Oil And Gas Oklahoma Wastewater Injection