GUTHRIE, Oklahoma (WASHINGTON-POST) – The earthquakes come nearly every day now, cracking drywall, popping floor tiles and rattling kitchen cabinets. On Monday, three quakes hit this historic land-rush town in 24 hours, booming and rumbling like the end of the world.
“After a while, you can’t even tell what’s a pre-shock or an after-shock. The ground just keeps moving,” said Jason Murphey, 37, a Web developer who represents Guthrie in the state legislature. “People are so frustrated and scared. They want to know the state is doing something.”
What to do about the plague of earthquakes is, however, very much an open question in Oklahoma. Last year, 567 quakes of at least 3.0 magnitude rocked a swath of counties from the state capital to the Kansas line, alarming a populace long accustomed to few quakes.
Scientists implicated the oil and gas industry – in particular, the deep wastewater disposal wells linked to a dramatic increase in seismic activity across the central United States. But in a state founded on oil wealth, officials have been reluctant to crack down on the industry.
With seismologists warning that the spreading earthquake swarms could trigger something far bigger and potentially deadly, pressure is building to follow the lead of other oil and gas-producing states and take more aggressive action.
“The question is: Is it all about profits, or do the people have any rights at all?” said Robert Freeman, 69, a retired Air Force contracting officer who is trying to rally his neighbours in Guthrie to demand a moratorium on new disposal wells.
“I understand the oil and gas industry is the economic lifeblood of the state. I get some of my paycheck from the oil and gas industry,” added Lisa Griggs, 56, a Guthrie environmental consultant. “But they don’t get to destroy my house.”
State officials insist they are doing all they can to develop new regulations. In September, Gov Mary Fallin, a Republican, named a coordinating council to study seismic activity. And the Oklahoma Corporation Commission has imposed new restrictions on wells in seismically active areas.
“We’ve taken a proactive approach,” said commissioner Dana Murphy, a Republican.
“The oil and gas industry funds so much of those [commission] races,” said Murphey. “And she hasn’t been a tool of the industry.”
The state seismologist, Austin Holland, readily acknowledged that the industry has tried to influence his work – even as he and his colleague, Amberlee Darold, are pelted with “hate email” from quake victims.
“I can’t really talk about it,” Holland said. I try not to let it affect the research and the science. We’re going to do the right thing.”
For the most part, Oklahoma oil companies and their representatives have declined to engage in the public debate. When industry representatives have ventured forth, they have denied responsibility for the quakes. Glen Brown, a Continental Resources geologist, blamed a worldwide surge in seismic activity that has nothing to do with wastewater disposal.
“There’s a hysteria that needs to be brought back to reality that these quakes are light and will not cause any harm,” Brown said, according to local news reports.
AJ Ferate, vice president of regulatory affairs for the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association, said, “It’s hard to deny that in certain geographic locations with certain geologic circumstances, we’ve had some problems with some wastewater wells.” But “to make a blanket assertion that wastewater wells are always the cause, I don’t know that I can agree with that.”
Around 11pm on Nov 5, 2011, a magnitude 5.6 quake – the biggest in state history – hit the small town of Prague, east of Oklahoma City. Sandra Ladra, a business manager for a state job training centre, was sitting in a recliner watching television when the quake toppled her two-story stone fireplace. Big rocks rained down on her legs, gashing her knees. “I nearly went into shock,” said Ladra, 63. “You just really don’t think you’re going to live through it.”
In August, Ladra filed suit, the first case in Oklahoma to try to pin liability for the quakes to the oil companies. In October, a trial judge dismissed the case, agreeing with New Dominion that Ladra must first go before the Corporation Commission and prove “a scientific basis” for her claim.
Last month, in an unusual decision, the Oklahoma Supreme Court agreed to review that ruling. If the case goes to trial, her lawyer said he intends to convince a jury that the oil companies are at fault – a potential gamechanger, both legally and politically.
“The science has been there since the 1960s to link injection wells to earthquakes,” said Poynter, who has also represented victims of “induced” or manmade quakes in Arkansas.
There, Poynter is on solid ground. Both the US Geological Survey (USGS) and the Oklahoma Geological Survey have confirmed a connection between the recent oil and gas boom and a sharp uptick in seismic activity in Texas, Colorado, Arkansas and Ohio, as well as Oklahoma. Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, generate massive amounts of wastewater, which are then injected deep underground to avoid contaminating clean water near the surface.
Under the right geological conditions, those injections can trigger quakes. “An earthquake that was sitting there waiting goes kaboing. Then things shake,” said John Armbruster, a geologist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University.
There, a single well was linked to a well-defined area of seismicity, Armbruster said, and the response was easy: Shut it down. Similarly, Arkansas declared a moratorium on new disposal wells in northern Faulkner County after earthquakes led to the discovery of a previously unknown fault.
But Oklahoma has about 3,300 active disposal wells, pumping more than two billion barrels of toxic brine a year into a vast network of faults buried underground. So far, state regulators have been unable to establish a clear connection between the quakes and any well.
“Broadly, we can say it looks like there are some strong correlations” between the wells and seismicity, said Holland, the state seismologist. “But when you zoom in, the quakes aren’t happening next to the wells, where you’d expect to find them.”
With few answers forthcoming from state bureaucrats, Jason Murphey teamed up last fall with Rep Cory Williams, a Democrat from Stillwater, to hold the first legislative hearings on the quakes.
Oklahoma State University professor Todd Halihan, a member of Fallin’s coordinating council, testified that the Corporation Commission “is not following injection protocols designed to prevent induced seismicity.” He concluded that the state could either do nothing and risk a major calamity. Or officials could reduce volumes at several “monster” wells, with names such as “Deep Throat” and “Flower Power,” that scientists say may be responsible for a huge share of quakes across the Midwest.