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Who's at fault? How the state’s stance linking injection wells and seismicity changed

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth installment of a six-part series on earthquakes. The fifth installment of this earthquake series runs Sunday, Oct. 4, 2015.


At sunrise over Oklahoma’s landscape, the state Capitol basks in oranges, yellows and reds.

The sun highlights everything it touches, including the oil rigs rising around the Capitol. Fenced in, the rigs are reminders of how Oklahoma is synonymous with the energy industry. In Oklahoma, oil and gas are the lifeblood of its economy.

SCROLL TO BOTTOM of story for interactive map of Oklahoma's injection wells and earthquakes and a timeline of events surrounding current earthquake trends.

More stories this week

• Drilling, Sen. Marlatt and SB 809

• OGS to USGS: Scientist moves amid increased activity

• ENTIRE SERIES

In downtown Oklahoma City, Devon Energy constructed its 50-story glass skyscraper starting in 2009. Across town, Chesapeake Energy’s Oklahoma City office is 120 acres with an on-site daycare and fitness center.

Oklahoma energy is a billion-dollar industry with oil and gas employing nearly 56,000 people, according to recent estimates.

Oil prices were soaring in 2011, as Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin was preparing for the Governor’s Energy Conference. The U.S. West Texas Intermediate reported crude oil barrel was averaging $94.86 in 2011, marking a $15 increase over 2010 oil prices.

That same year, Oklahoma experienced major earthquakes. The first quake, with an epicenter in Lincoln County, measured a 4.8 magnitude.

One day later, the largest earthquake in Oklahoma recorded history — a 5.6 magnitude temblor on Nov. 6, 2011 — rocked cities, damaged houses and injured two with an epicenter 6 miles north of Prague.

As earthquakes increased exponentially in Oklahoma, the state’s stance on linking injection wells and seismicity shifted with the science.

‘I would rather not have to have that debate’

Just one day after the 2011 swarm, Fallin’s staff was deciding how to handle the hot topic of earthquakes. The Governor’s Energy Conference was less than a week away in Oklahoma City.

Alex Weintz, Fallin’s press secretary, was asked how to respond to the significant seismic activity, according to a Nov. 7, 2011, email obtained by EnergyWire.

“She could certainly say, ‘Yeah that was crazy,’” Weintz wrote. “The problem is, some people are trying to blame hydraulic fracturing (a necessary process for extracting natural gas) for causing earth quakes. This is an energy conference heralding natural gas as the energy source for the future…so you see the awkward position that puts us in. I would rather not have to have that debate.”

On Nov. 8, 2011, a Devon Energy lobbyist provided “potential talking points” to Fallin’s staff.

“There is no current evidence that oil and gas operations had anything to do with the recent large earthquakes in Oklahoma,” Devon’s Derek Albro emailed.

“While recent earthquakes were large, such events are not uncommon in Oklahoma. Early pioneers reported such activity and earthquake records have been kept since the late 1800’s.”

Another Albro talking point stated, “according to the (Oklahoma Geological Survey), the earthquake characteristics of both intensity and depth essentially rule out man-made causes.”

When asked recently about the talking points, Devon Energy spokesman Tim Hartley wrote: “Thank you for your note; we would refer you to the Oklahoma Corporation Commission and the Oklahoma Geological Survey for information on their efforts on this topic.”

In Oklahoma, the OCC regulates the oil and gas industry with self-reported data, while the OGS is a state research agency.

More than two weeks after the Prague earthquakes, Fallin requested federal disaster relief for impacted counties.

“Oklahoma has seen its share of natural disasters this year, including the recent earthquakes in Lincoln and Pottawatomie counties,” said Fallin in a Nov. 22, 2011, press release.

Weintz said two things have happened since Fallin took office in 2011: Seismic activity increased and science explaining the events evolved.

By 2014, Fallin began to take more measures.

“By late 2014, it’s clear this was an issue that wasn’t going away and it was becoming increasingly clear that (the) increase in seismic activity couldn’t be explained by natural causes alone,” Weintz said.

‘A horrible job communicating’

Since 2010, scientists have been investigating the correlation between earthquakes and the oil and gas industry.

Oklahoma has experienced more than 600 3.0 magnitude or greater earthquakes this year alone, following 585 last year. In 2013, the state experienced 109 quakes and in 2012 it experienced 35, according to U.S. Geological Survey.

In September 2014, Fallin created the Coordinating Council on Seismic Activity to study the earthquake situation.

The council is comprised of: Rep. John Enns, R-Enid; Sen. Bryce Marlatt, R-Woodward; Secretary of Energy and Environment Michael Teague; OCC; OGS; Oklahoma Energy Resources Board; Groundwater Protection Council; OU Mewbourne College of Earth & Energy; Oklahoma State University Boone Pickens School of Geology; University of Tulsa Department of Geosciences; Okla­homa Independent Petroleum Asso­ciation; and Okla­homa Oil and Gas Association.

Fallin said she created the council because Oklahoma has always had earthquakes, but not to such an extent.

“We are seeing more earthquakes today than we did several decades ago,” said Fallin in a written statement. “It’s important we study this issue and have sound science that can inform decisions made in both the public and private sector. This new council will link researchers with the energy industry and policymakers to ensure we are maximizing communication and access to information. We can’t examine a complex issue like this in a vacuum; everyone needs to be at the same table and talking.”

Secretary Teague, appointed to Fallin’s cabinet in August 2013, said the administration needed a mechanism “to bring people together.”

Teague said the council’s diverse membership allows resources from seismologists, university research, databases from the Groundwater Protection Council and industry data to converge in one place. He said the linkage between everything is positive and underplayed.

“At the first, we said we were doing a horrible job communicating with the public,” Teague said. “We know we have a problem. You can’t look at the number of earthquakes we’ve had over the years and say that’s natural. We recognized we were not doing a great job of talking to the public and telling them what was new and what we do know.”

‘Somebody asked the question’

In a statement issued April 21, 2015, Oklahoma Geological Survey said it was “very likely” the majority of Oklahoma’s quakes were triggered by injection wells associated with oil and gas production.

That same day, Fallin launched a website — earthquakes.ok.gov — to increase communication.

Teague said the website was scheduled to launch earlier, but the project was contracted out due to a lack of expertise in the area. As a result, he said it coincidentally launched the same day as the OGS statement.

On April 21, Fallin called the seismic statement “significant,” according to a press release, but the governor did not publicly comment on the issue until Aug. 4, 2015, when she stated there was a “direct correlation.”

More than 250 magnitude 3.0 or greater quakes, including seven magnitude 4.0 or greater earthquakes, occurred between April 21 and Aug. 4, according to U.S. Geological Survey. So far, this year has experienced 20 magnitude 4.0 or greater quakes, with nearly half of them recorded between April 21 and Aug. 4.

During those months, 743 magnitude 2.5 or greater earthquakes were recorded.

Only a dozen days during that time period didn’t experience magnitude 3.0 or greater earthquakes, USGS records show. Considering magnitude 2.5 or greater earthquakes during the time period, there was not one day without an earthquake.

Addressing the silence from April and August, Teague explained Fallin’s delayed announcement.

“I don’t think it was as much as a time gap as it was when somebody asked the question,” Teague said. “The governor hosted the council meeting, and she opened it up to the press afterwards. I normally did not open the meetings to press. When the governor made that announcement, it was more of the timing that she brought the press into the room and less that she changed her position.”

‘Slowed down’ reaction

House Speaker Jeffrey Hickman, R-Fairview, said he suggested Rep. John Enns, R-Enid, for Fallin’s council because a majority of the earthquake activity has been in northern and north central Oklahoma.

“His district runs from Canadian County and up through Enid and past,” Hickman said. “We probably have no one else who has been impacted by it more than the counties he represents. He seemed like the most logical choice who represented the areas most impacted.”

During the most recent council meeting, Stanford scientist Mark Zoback spoke. Zoback is a geophysics professor and director of the Stanford Natural Gas Initiative.

Zoback said it was impossible to know what caused the Prague earthquake, Weintz said. Enns said that was the first thing out of Zoback’s mouth.

“It’s impossible to say a specific seismic activity happened because of a specific well or actions taken by any new energy company,” Weintz said.

Yet, OCC spokesman Matt Skinner said the OCC worked with the OGS to identify a highly suspect well in the situation of Lincoln County, and the well ultimately was shut down.

“There was a highly suspect well and working with (former OGS Director) Austin (Holland), that well was identified and shut down,” Skinner said.

According to a report presented by Holland on Jan. 23, 2013, “given the spatial distribution of both (Underground Injection Control) Class II wells and earthquakes with respect to faults it is possible some earthquakes may be induced.”

Jeremy Boak, new OGS director, said in talking with Holland after he left, the Jones earthquake swarm continues to be discussed.

“In bursts of activity, it’s a little more difficult to make connections to induced or natural,” Boak said. “You have a rapid increase of water being disposed, then a lag time and then an earthquake.”

In a written timeline provided by Holland, discussions about induced seismicity began for the Jones earthquake swarm in 2010.

Emails acquired by EnergyWire in March 2015 reiterate that fact. In 2013, Holland wrote that “we have recognized the potential for the Jones earthquake swarm due to the Hunton dewatering, but until we can demonstrate that scientifically or not, we were not going to discuss that publicly.”

The Hunton dewatering referenced by Holland in the email is a reference to an oil and gas project in Lincoln County.

Enns said it could be the injection wastewater disposal wells in some areas of the state, but the state is laced with fault lines.

Oklahoma has had earthquakes for decades, Enns said, but the issue is deciding which are natural and which may be “man-made.”

“This is not something that will end right away,” Enns said. “(California), they typically have lots of earthquakes, and the state is in an earthquake drought. It’s as much as an anomaly in California as much as Oklahoma is having earthquakes. The earth is very complex.”

Enns said the oil and gas industry is not trying to make Oklahoma quake. Enns and Skinner said the industry has been nothing but helpful.

“They’re really good about working with us,” Enns said. “There could be one or two bad actors, but most of them want to figure this thing out.”

Rep. Cory Williams, D-Stillwater, said he agrees the industry has provided data and OCC has been nothing but diligent. However, he said the state acted like nothing was wrong for far too long.

“You would say you were waiting for ‘our science’ to come and when it didn’t, we finally had to accept ‘the science,’” Williams said about government operations. “We were getting our points from the industry.

“(Oil companies) don’t get to give talking points just because their companies are in Oklahoma.”

Williams said he understands the companies are “big players,” huge employers and “economic engines,” but government is not for sale.

“Most people don’t understand it (Oklahoma’s increased seismic activity), so if you’re getting your information from the industry, then yeah, that’s a problem and that is exactly what is happening,” he said. “ ... They have billions of reasons why they don’t want it to have a direct correlation.”

‘It’s about the economy’

The day after Fallin’s “direct correlation” comment, Aug. 5, 2015, Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services reported “the earthquake trend has and will continue to have sharp economic consequences for home and business owners, mortgage lenders, insurance companies and investors exposed to real estate in earthquake affected areas.”

Rep. Mike Sanders, R-Kingfisher, said if people continue to move forward, without scientific proof about earthquakes’ correlation to injection wells, he is concerned.

“It’s (the oil and gas industry) absolutely our lifeblood and our job creators that hire our employees and people who live in our districts — that’s how people put food on the table and pay their mortgage,” Sanders said. “I’m not going to make any type of rash decision on emotion, and what they did in Texas (banning drilling in Denton) to me was a knee-jerk reaction. We’re going to protect the folks that help fund our state and create jobs in our state and there’s no correlation.”

Enns said if Oklahoma retains an objective point of view, it will be fine.

“Having people in Stillwater saying it’s fracking and going nuts and having the city council doing this stuff (banning) — that will run business out of the state,” Enns said. “We need to leave it to the people who know what they’re doing and stop being so (emotionally) driven, then it will be all right.”

Rep. Chad Caldwell, R-Enid, said officials don’t need to ignore the situation, but the state needs to deal with it in a smart, measured approach.

“If you start putting fracking and drilling bans in cities across Oklahoma, you’re telling the oil and gas industry that Oklahoma is closed for business,” Caldwell said.

Weintz said Oklahomans want a reasonable policy that does so without crippling the largest industry.

“It’s not about campaign contributions, it’s about the economy and hundreds of jobs supported by the energy industry,” Weintz said. “We’re supportive of that industry, but all of us have an interest in getting these polices right.”



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