Environment
Sue Ogrocki / AP

Rumble on the Oklahoma prairie

Geologists link state’s increase in earthquakes to fracking

The T-shirts say it all: Keep calm and polka on.

It has been almost three years since a 5.6-magnitude earthquake struck Prague, Oklahoma, buckling a highway, cracking structures and rattling nerves. It was the largest earthquake ever recorded in the state.

City workers in Prague, a community of 2,400 people about 45 miles from Oklahoma City, wore the “Keep calm” T-shirts in May ahead of the heavily Czech-American community’s annual heritage festival.

It’s good advice. The Oklahoma prairie is rumbling like never before. Like residents across the state, the people of Prague have had to adjust to constant earthquakes. In the first half of 2014 alone, there were 211 earthquakes at or above 3.0 magnitude in the Sooner state, crushing the record 109 set in 2013. For three decades prior to 2009, Oklahoma measured one to three quakes 3.0 or higher per year.

On a Thursday in late June the region was hit by five quakes stronger than 3.0 — all in one morning.

Scientists link the seismic activity to the injection of wastewater into the earth, a process that follows the fracking of rock formations for oil and natural gas.

“They’re happening all around us, and they’re getting more intense,” said Mary Reneau, 71, who, along with her husband, Joe, 78, operates a 440-acre hay farm on the outskirts of Prague.

The 2011 temblor heavily damaged the Reneaus’ home. A chimney collapsed into the couple’s living room. Since the big quake and extensive repairs, the Reneaus have found new cracks.

Links to fracking strengthen

oklahoma earthquakes
Jess Burrow, left, and James Patterson look over damage at Joe and Mary Reneau’s home after a 5.6-magnitude earthquake in November 2011.
Sue Ogrocki / AP

It was 5:47 a.m. on June 16 of this year when a 4.5-magnitude earthquake roused Oklahoma City residents from their sleep. The temblor was one of several early-morning quakes felt in the metro area over the course of the week.

During a live morning broadcast, KOCO 5 meteorologist Danielle Dozier covered her mouth with her hand and appeared too stunned to talk. The rattling from the quake could be seen on air. “Forgive me,” she said after a pause. “That actually scared me.”

It’s unlikely to reassure Dozier or other residents, but a recent article by United States Geological Survey (USGS) scientists in The Journal of Geophysical Research has strengthened the temblor uptick’s ties to fracking.

The study suggests a 5.0-magnitude quake that struck the day before the record-breaking 5.6 temblor was induced by fluid injection. That earthquake likely triggered the larger main shock and thousands of aftershocks.

In fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, water, sand and chemicals are blasted into the earth to crack rock and extract oil and natural gas trapped inside. Wastewater is used in the process as well as the volumes of saltwater the earth spits out of the wells are disposed of in injection wells.

State and federal scientists continue to study the Prague sequence in relation to nearby injection activities. The USGS and the Oklahoma Geological Survey analyzed the area’s earthquake activity since 2009 and released a joint statement in May calling wastewater injected into deep geologic formations “a likely contributing factor to the increase in earthquakes.”

The number of injection wells in Oklahoma continues to rise. There are about 10,000 scattered across the state; five years ago, injection wells numbered about 8,000. Reneau said big tank trucks used in the drilling process regularly rumble down the once quiet rural dirt roads near them.

The oil and natural gas industry has decades-long ties to the state. Drilling activity strengthened the Oklahoma economy during the recession and helped residents evade the collapse of the housing market.

In that atmosphere, industry groups as well as residents and politicians have downplayed the links between wastewater injection and earthquakes. But they have become impossible to ignore. Oil and natural gas companies working with scientists and local politicians are calling for forums with industry representatives on behalf of rattled constituents.

The companies have provided the scientists with a deluge of data on injection wells, said Elizabeth Cochran, a geophysicist with the USGS. The statistics involve everything from volume to times and depths of injection. It’s information that will bolster the efforts of scientists studying the links between earthquakes and wastewater injection in Oklahoma and elsewhere.

After all, Oklahoma isn’t the only state experiencing an unprecedented earthquake surge. Ohio, Arkansas, Texas and Colorado have also experienced numerous earthquakes in recent years, which are uncommon historically in those areas.

“All of the earthquakes are in locations where wastewater disposal is going on,” said Lucille Jones, a California-based seismologist for the USGS.

We are prone to flooding. We have made contingencies to that. We’ve never made a contingency for an earthquake.

Ray Poland

mayor of Jones, Oklahoma

Getting earthquake-prepared

Ray Poland, mayor of Jones, population 2,600, about 20 miles northeast of Oklahoma City, greets diners by name at Rooster’s Café. He grew up in California but felt his first earthquake in 2009 in Jones.

“We knew our plan if we were to have a catastrophic tornado,” Jones said. “We are prone to flooding. We have made contingencies to that. We’ve never made a contingency for an earthquake.”

Since the earthquakes started knocking pictures off walls and trinkets off shelves, schools in the town began participating in the Great Central U.S. Shake Out, a campaign for earthquake preparedness that reached Oklahoma in 2011. It centers on an earthquake drill that happens on the same date and time across the nation. Besides the drills, Poland and his neighbors started buying earthquake insurance — an industry that gets a boost every time Oklahoma residents feel shaking.

The state’s geological office is awaiting a federal grant that will allow it to beef up staffing and equipment to help deal with earthquakes.

Gov. Mary Fallin approved rules recently that will require well operators to record injection pressure daily instead of monthly. The rules were drafted by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which approves permits for injection wells in the state.

Although politicians have begun to address the increased seismic activity, preparedness measures in Oklahoma are barely off the ground. It’s not known, for instance, what damage emergency operations centers, police and fire stations and hospitals might sustain before hurting their ability to respond to an earthquake disaster.

People like Mary Reneau keep calm and — in her case — garden on.

“We have a business to run,” she said. “I have a garden to keep and harvest, and I’m just going to live my life.”

She hopes those in power will do what’s right when it comes to earthquakes. If it’s drilling or injection wells causing the problem, she wonders why a different way can’t be found.

“If we can find a way to put a man on the moon, surely we can find a different way to drill for oil,” she said.

But she’s not holding her breath that the oil companies will make that effort.

“I don’t think they really care about the people and their homes, the land, all of that,” she said. “I don’t think they care as long as they make their money.”

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