Oklahoma Corporation Commission shuts down oil wells to reduce threat to Cushing oil hub

Housed in the aging Jim Thorpe building next to the capital in Oklahoma City, Commissioner Robert Anthony is the chair of the panel which is elected to make the decisions at the OCC. Anthony knows the issues at the OCC perhaps better than anyone. Serving his fifth consecutive six-year term on the Commission, Anthony is a graduate of the Wharton School of Finance and holds a Master of Science from the London School of Economics.

Standing behind his weathered desk on the fourth floor of the decrepit Jim Thorpe Building, over the years Anthony has been the target of much criticism both from those in the industry he was elected to regulate as well as the public. But he admits that he never thought he would be forced to learn about Oklahoma earthquakes simply to fulfill his role as a commissioner.

No amount of formal education or professional experience could have prepared Anthony for the unique circumstances he and the other two OCC commissioners, Dan Murphy and Todd Heitt, now confront. Said Anthony last week in an interview, “We’re going to do what the experts tell us to do. We’ve had one of the best scientists come from Stanford University and we’ve learned a lot. Read that report and you can tell what we are up against.” The report Anthony refers to is by two seismologists at Stanford University’s Department of Geophysics (F. Rall Walsh III and Mark D. Zoback, “Oklahoma’s recent earthquakes and saltwater disposal,” Science Advances 1,no. 5 [5 June 2015]).

Oklahoma earthquakes, according to the Stanford University study, are not only becoming more frequent but, of greater concern, are intensifying in magnitude. Three weeks ago a quake measuring at 4.5 on the Richter scale struck just a few miles northwest of the Cushing hub. Luckily there was no damage to the tank farm (Michael Wines, “New concern over quakes in Oklahoma near a hub of U.S. oil,” New York Times, 14 October 2015) .

Last year, however, an earthquake struck Cushing itself. According to scientists, the magnitude 4.3 quake caused minor damage, “…throughout the city of Cushing including cracked plaster, broken widow glass, and items thrown from shelves” Fortunately no damage was reported to any of the oil tanks or pipelines. At least not yet.

What is grabbing the attention of the OCC is that the largest earthquake in Oklahoma history hit of the small town of Prague, Oklahoma, in 2014. That earthquake measured at 5.6. Prague lies just one county to the south of the Cushing hub.

According to the Richter scale, a 5.6 earthquake can, “…cause damage of varying severity to poorly constructed buildings” and is defined as a “moderate” earthquake. The 2014 Prague earthquake was just .3 from registering as a “strong” earthquake as measured on the Richter scale. As such, a strong earthquake can cause, “…damage to moderate number of well-built structures in populated areas.” “Earthquake-resistant structures survive with slight to moderate damage.” The exact impact of a moderate or strong earthquake causing, “slight” or “moderate” damage on Cushing’s fifty-four million barrels of oil reserves and intricate pipeline infra-structure is unknown because nothing like this event has ever occurred.

While oil is presently abundant and relatively inexpensive hovering at $45 a barrel, one destructive earthquake at the Cushing hub could damage the American oil and gas industry and, in turn, the nation’s economy.

In a remarkably short time Oklahoma earthquakes have become a very real national security issue.

Unfortunately state and federal agencies are ill equipped to meet the unprecedented nature of the national security issue created by Oklahoma earthquakes. Joe Briley, an aide to Commissioner Anthony, points out that even the basic legal aspects involved remain murky. What entity, for example, is responsible for the legal liability of damages created by these numerous earthquakes and future earthquakes?

While seismologists have been able to conclusively demonstrate that there is a direct relationship in Oklahoma between these injection wells and the rise in earthquakes, they are convinced that it is next to impossible to blame any one well or company for specific damages caused by an earthquake or series of earthquake. When water is injected into disposal wells, it may travel any number of miles before settling in fissures in the substrata. These fissures then become serious fault lines in the rock formation that runs throughout much of Oklahoma and, in turn, the shifting of these plates cause earthquakes. Millions of barrels of water in the disposal wells lubricate stable rock formations of the overlying Cambro-Ordovician Arbuckle group.

In a court of law, however, there is no way to substantiate which wells, if any, cause certain earthquakes. It is also impossible to predict if and when these quakes may reoccur.

Cushing, which has no recorded history of earthquake activity prior to the disposal wells doting its landscape, is now described in the scientific literature as lying directly atop the newly named “Cushing fault.”

In this troubled environment, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission has cautiously taken a proactive stance with little support from any federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency or the Department of Homeland Security (“Earthquakes in Oklahoma linked to oil, gas drilling,” HSNW, 24 June 2015). Last Friday, in fact, the OCC announced it was shutting down or reducing the volume of 13 wells near Cushing to protect the tank farms from future earthquakes Well operators 6 to 10 miles have, according to the OCC, been notified that they may be asked to shut down their wells in the near future. To date, the industry is complying with these requests.

However, no one really knows at OCC if this strategy will actually work.

Each of the wells now shut down, those within three miles of the tank farms, or those 3 to 6 miles from Cushing, which were forced to reduce volume by 25 percent, are wells in which large amounts of contaminated water have been injected over the last few years. The water, highly saline in content, is a by-product of the oil drilling; as much as 4 to 10 barrels of water may be generated for each barrel of oil.

The OCC is attempting to reduce the number of earthquakes in and around Cushing by reducing the volume of water injected into the earth to amounts prior to when the earthquakes first began. In theory, this should reduce the number of earthquakes along with their intensity. However, scientists agree that there is no way to know whether the earthquakes will subside, or what kinds of permanent changes have already occurred in the substrata that may cause more earthquakes in the future.

OCC Public Information Officer Skinner is quick to remind the public that the big oil companies do not own the Oklahoma earthquakes near the Cushing hub. The operators of these wells are not familiar names like Exxon, rather they include small drillers like American Energy-Woodford, Crown Energy, Cher Oil, Petrowarrior, and F.H.A. Investments.

Realistically OCC lacks the experience and resources to adequately deal with the problems they currently face with regards to these Oklahoma earthquakes. Including Skinner, the OCC can spare just two staff members to work part-time on this project. This year the Oklahoma legislature cut the OCC’s overall budget by 10 percent in light of an estimated one billion dollar shortfall in revenue attributed in part to falling oil prices. The Oklahoma Geological Survey, the agency providing statewide drilling data to the OCC, currently has just one professional seismologist on board.

Twenty-four hours after the earthquake that struck his home in Guthrie awakened Skinner, there was still no media report of its occurrence.

While those at the OCC hope that the Environmental Protection Agency will soon provide additional resources, including much needed professional expertise, no word as yet has come from inside the Washington beltway that help is on the way. At the same time, Oklahoma earthquakes apparently remain a national security issue that the Department of Homeland Security chooses to ignore.

Until federal expertise and support reaches Oklahoma, Commissioners Robert Anthony, Dan Murphy, and Todd Heitt, along with staffers Matt Skinner and Joe Briley, are left to manage a potential human-made catastrophe that could conceivably also become a national security disaster.

Robert Lee Maril, a professor of Sociology at East Carolina University, is the author of The Fence: National Security, Public Safety, and Illegal Immigration along the U.S.–Mexico Border. He blogs at leemaril.com.