Update on earthquakes: Newest results from Oklahoma Commission look “encouraging”

The Cushing hub is in the middle of the central cutback region presently being monitored by the OCC. On any specific day this vast tank farm stores more than fifty million barrels of oil. Because the Cushing hub feeds the huge complex of petro-chemical plants and refineries lining the shores of the Gulf of Mexico Oil, it is a vital part of the national energy infrastructure. Concern has recently grown because the intensity of the earthquakes at or near the Cushing up has continued to increase, potentially threatening the integrity of the pipelines and tanks.

As the rain continues to pour outside of Skinner’s fourth floor office window in the Jim Thorpe building in Oklahoma City, he states that new earthquake data can now be utilized by OCC scientists in their management of the state’s oil and gas resources. As of this week, 40 percent reductions in the induction wells have been reached as mandated by the OCC directives to the two cutback regions.

These induction wells, designed to inject saline water, a by-product of the drilling process commonly referred to as fracking, have been indicated by scientists as one possible cause in the rapid increase and intensity of Oklahoma earthquakes (Michael Wines, “Earthquakes in Oklahoma Raise Fears of a Big One,” New York Times, 7 January 2016). Seismologists believe that previously high volumes of saline water may have penetrated the Arbuckle foundation and, as well, the pink granite beneath causing existing fissures to increase in size. The fissures then may have created a shift in the bedrock ultimately leading to more frequent earthquakes that have also grown in intensity.

Later on in the morning, Charles Lord, an OCC senior hydrologist specializing in Seismicity, points to a large computer screen in his office monitoring major variables relating to wells in these same two regions. Deftly manipulating data sets provided by the OGS, Mr. Lord is now able to both measure and map the pulse of the oil and gas industry with one keystroke. As never before Lord and his staff can see where earthquakes are occurring and how they be related to the known Arbuckle fault lines. While eyewitness reports can sometimes be inaccurate, the new OCC software shows not only show where the earthquakes take place, but also provides key information that aids the OCC in pinpointing areas in which wells may be contributing to earthquakes.

After the Fairview earthquake in February of 2016, Governor Mary Fallon set aside a one-time amount of $1.4 million for immediate use by the OCC and other state agencies. These funds were sorely needed because the legislature cut most state agencies by 10 percent in the previous budget cycle. One result of this one-time budgetary increase is that the OCC filled five new positions with experts with both an understanding of the oil and gas industry and also seismicity. As well, OCC also used its new funds to create a new data management program that integrated existing data with relevant new data provided by other state and federal agencies. Previously, according to Lord, OCC had relied on Excel sheets that were difficult to statistically manipulate.

Matt Skinner, the public information officer at OCC, hopes that these new data will allow OCC to better ascertain its needs and objectives along with the impact of its directives upon the two cutback areas. In fact, initially these OCC directives were in legal limbo until the state Legislature passed HB 3158 giving the OCC complete legal authority “…to take emergency action in emergency situations.” HB 3158 was signed by the governor on 18 April 2016 (Bill Information for HB 3158 ).

“There was no data on this (the earthquakes) because nothing like this has ever happened before,” says Skinner. Scientists at the OGS continue to remind the public that there are a wide variety of unanswered questions about immediate and long-term remedies even with the new directives in place.  

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.