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With More Earthquakes Than California, Oklahoma Pays A High Price For Cheap Oil

  This story was originally published Feb. 12, 2015.

If you think of an illustration of Oklahoma, you may picture a pan-shaped state, with an oil derrick on it.  But Oklahoma is fast becoming famous for something else — earthquakes.  In 2014, it registered more perceptible tremors than anywhere else in the contiguous United States, and they seem to be getting stronger. The industry that has long sustained Oklahoma is likely the one now cracking its foundations.

Medford, population about 900, is out on the flat, flat prairie of northern Oklahoma.  It’s the kind of place where people give directions from the four-way stop in the middle of town. The place seems pretty sedate, but it’s not.

“Yeah, we are shaking all the time,” laughs Medford City Manager Dea Mandevill. “All the time.”

Mandevill says that, on the afternoon I stopped by, two quakes had already rumbled through Medford.

“Light day,” she jokes. “The day’s not over yet. We still have several more hours.”

Cheap oil and bad water

Mandevill is on target. Oklahoma used to have, on average, one or two perceptible — that is, magnitude three or greater — earthquakes a year. Now they’re averaging two or three a day. Austin Holland is the state seismologist.

“As far as we know, this has never happened before,” says Holland.

And he means never — in the history of the Earth. Holland says modern oil production has probably triggered the huge jump in quakes.

A few years ago companies figured out how to drill sideways, through layers of shale, then break, or frack, the rock, releasing a torrent of oil. It sparked a massive oil boom in Oklahoma, and lowered oil and gasoline prices across the country. But the process generates much more water than oil, tens of billions of gallons of very salty, carcinogenic, water. 

“This is not water that we want pumped out onto the surface of the earth, or can even treat easily,” says Holland.

The only economical way to get rid of all that toxic soup, Holland says, is to force it deep into the earth.

“That pressure acts as a lubricant, it’s not actually the water itself, but the pressure, and the best way to think about that is an air hockey table.”

Blocks of rock would be the hockey pucks, using Holland’s example. The idea is that injecting water near faults can deliver just enough lubricating pressure to set big slabs in motion. The results can be catastrophic.

The Prague quake

“When it hit, it hit so violent and hard, that we thought the house was coming down on top of us.”

Ryan Ladra stands in his parents’ battered house describing the Prague earthquake, at magnitude 5.6, the strongest ever recorded in Oklahoma.

“Things falling and breaking … there was a lot of noise, and it was very, very violent,” recalls Ladra.

This was four years ago. The stone chimney collapsed, taking part of the roof and ceiling with it. A large rock hit his mom, Sandra. She’s suing oil companies that ran nearby waste-water injection wells.   Meantime the earthquakes keep coming, and Ladra’s jumpy.

“You don’t know what’s a foreshock and what’s an aftershock anymore,” laments Ladra. “And I think they need to do something about it before we wind up with possibly a very large earthquake.”

But curbing oil-related earthquakes isn’t so easy in a state where oil is king. 

Oklahoma’s cautious approach

About one in four jobs in Oklahoma are related to the oil industry. Kim Hatfield with the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association says that companies have used salt water disposal wells here for decades, and at least 3,200 of them dot the state, so it’s hard to pin recent earthquakes on them.

“You going to find out that all tornados are going to be close to injection wells as well,” jokes Hatfield. “If a meteor strikes Oklahoma I’m going to guarantee it will be close to an injection well.”

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin regularly points out that there have always been earthquakes in Oklahoma. She maintains that the recent almost exponential increase in quakes could be natural.

But even some Oklahoma oil men now recognize a problem with certain injection wells. 

Arkansas got serious in a hurry

“They can trigger earthquake activity,” says the former President of the Oklahoma Independent Oil and Gas Association, Mickey Thompson. “I think we saw it, and it was proved up in Arkansas.”

Thompson should know. He ran a company that built a commercial salt water injection well in Arkansas.

“And sure enough, as those disposal wells began to operate, there was an earthquake swarm that occurred, and there was some damage, and there was a public outcry and a big political reaction,” recalls Thompson.

Thompson says Arkansas seized his well, and shut it down along with three others. The state slapped a moratorium on new ones in the area, and his company was forced into bankruptcy. He thought Arkansas had seriously overreacted, but the quakes stopped.

“They got serious in a hurry in Arkansas. I mean Arkansas is not Oklahoma, in terms of how they feel about the oil and gas business, and how they understand the oil and gas business,” says Thompson.

Matt Skinner, spokesman for the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, the board regulating the oil industry in the state, would agree. 

“We operate under different laws,” says Skinner. “We do not have the authority to impose a moratorium.”

Skinner says the commission has shut down a few wells and started vetting applications for new ones much more critically. Companies placing them near earthquake-prone areas now have to agree to waive their normal rights in state court if the commission decides to shut them down. Skinner admits it’s a piecemeal approach, but says the commission is scrambling to address the problem.

“When we say we’re doing everything we can, what we’re really saying is we’re doing everything we know today,” says Skinner. “Tomorrow, we may know something more.”

Oil wells, swimming pools and earthquakes

Back in Medford, City Manager Dea Mandevill frets about an earthquake snapping one of the big natural gas pipelines there. But then she beams, looking out over the new park the little town’s just built with oil boom tax money.  

“We have a new swimming pool and splash pad, new sidewalks, and a new basketball/tennis court,” boasts Mandevill.

Medford also used oil money to buy two new police cars, new ambulances, new fire trucks, and construction equipment. It illustrates the complex relationship between oil and earthquakes in Oklahoma.

“You put up with a few things falling off your walls, a few nights waking up with the shakes,” says Mandevill. “Over all, it’s been good. I’ll take the earthquakes for all the benefits that Medford’s had so far.”

Oil benefits are starting to sag a little in Medford. With oil prices low, companies are laying off workers and producing less oil. That means less wastewater going into Oklahoma wells, and possibly, a let up in earthquakes.

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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