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Oil and Gas Industry Ensnarled in Spate of Oklahoma Earthquakes

Science shows that earthquakes in Oklahoma are man-made and tied to fracking. But in oil and gas country, can policy makers turn against the industry?

The tremors now come daily.

Earthquakes are rippling through Oklahoma with an intensity so persistent they are almost considered normal.

Already 46 quakes large and small, have struck the region since the start of the month. But now the swarms are becoming harder to ignore.

Image: Earthquake damage in Cushing, Oklahoma
Damage at The Cushing Citizen newspaper building in downtown Cushing, Oklahoma, after an earthquake on Nov. 6.Cushing Citizen

A 5.0-magnitude earthquake struck 25 miles west of the town of Cushing on Nov. 6, damaging buildings and crippling aging infrastructure. It was the second large-scale earthquake to hit Oklahoma in as many months.

Even more crushing: scientists believe the causes are largely man-made.

The rise in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has been a boom for Oklahoma’s economy in extracting previously untapped sources of oil and gas. However, scientists say the process of disposing its byproduct has been a bust for the environment, triggering underground tremors at unprecedented rates.

For a state where roughly one-quarter of jobs are tied to the energy industry, stakeholders are in the midst of a difficult reckoning over what must be done to keep the ground from shaking.

“The oil and gas industry basically owns the state,” said Oklahoma state Rep. Cory Williams (D-Stillwater). “Policymakers don’t want to do anything that appears to harm the jobs created by the oil and gas sector and so they don’t want to do anything that even appears to be a regulation.”

Hydraulic fracking itself is not directly responsible for the earthquakes, scientists have found. Instead the problem lies in the massive volumes of wastewater unearthed in the process of unlocking the oil and gas.

Operators typically dump the salty wastewater, injecting high volumes of fluid into disposal wells dug thousands of feet below the earth’s surface. But the pressure from the wastewater is wreaking havoc on Oklahoma’s faultlines.

The Oklahoma Geological Survey (OGS) bluntly concluded last year it was “very likely” that the majority of earthquakes that rippled through the central and northern regions of the state were caused by this process of injecting wastewater into disposal wells.

As a result, the frequency of earthquakes in Oklahoma has increased at remarkable rates over a short period of time. OGS, the state’s energy research agency, recorded 109 earthquakes in 2013. Within two years that number would jump 907.

“The rate of magnitude 3+ earthquakes has increased from 1.5 per year prior to 2008, to the current average rate of 2.5 per day, a rate that is approximately 600 times the historical background,” the Oklahoma Geological Survey found in its April 2015 report.

While no deaths have been reported, the injections are a bit like waking a sleeping giant. Just last month a quake matched an all-time record in the state by reaching a magnitude of 5.6. It was caused by an underground fault line that scientists didn’t even know existed prior to the tremors.

Oklahoma policy makers were initially slow to link the disposal wells to the increase in tremors. Few said directly that the energy sector was contributing to the problem, according to Oklahoma state Rep. Jason Murphey (R-Guthrie).

“Up until very recently there was a great reluctance to take that conversation seriously,” Murphy added. “But the dialogue has changed. Now almost everyone knows and understands the correlation between earthquakes and wastewater injection.”

Related: Strong Oklahoma Earthquake Felt From Nebraska to Texas

Stakeholders are now scrambling to try and prevent the next earthquake before it happens. Republican Gov. Mary Fallin convened a council of stakeholders, including state regulators, academics and energy industry representatives, to hash out a plan of action.

The Oklahoma Corporation Commission (OCC) ordered the shutdown of 58 disposal wells in the hotbed of seismic activity.

Still many policymakers are careful to not implicate the energy industry directly, making pains to distinguish between the drilling process and the storing of its byproduct.

The oil and gas industry creates a vital economic bloodline through Oklahoma. Roughly one-quarter of jobs in the state are tied to the energy sector. Symbolically it is a giant in the state, embodied by the 75-foot-tall golden statue of an oil driller in Tulsa that serves as a state monument.

Image: Crude oil storage tanks are seen from above at the Cushing oil hub in Cushing
Crude oil storage tanks are seen from the air at the Cushing oil hub in Oklahoma.Nick Oxford / Reuters file

A.J. Ferate, vice president of regulatory affairs for the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association, says more research needs to be done before policymakers move forward on preventative measures limiting the number of earthquakes.

“This is not something we can solve overnight, in part because we still need to understand it,” he said.

Opponents to fracking, meanwhile, are charting novel routes in order to force the state’s hand on limiting wastewater injections.

The Sierra Club in Oklahoma has filed a federal lawsuit claiming that oil companies in the region were violating waste-management laws in ways that endangered both residents and the environment.

Richard Webster, an attorney with the Washington-based non-profit Public Justice and lead attorney on the case, said last week’s earthquake in Cushing eerily mirrored warnings outlined in their complaint in predicting that larger swarms are bound to cause lasting destruction.

“It could cause problems with infrastructure, cause serious contamination as well as dangerous to people,” Webster said. “So far we’ve been fairly lucky. We’ve had some damage, but we haven’t had a lot of damage.”