By Richard A. Oppel Jr. and Michael Wines, The New York Times, April 3, 2015
PRAGUE, Okla. — Yanked without warning from a deep sleep, Jennifer Lin Cooper, whose family has lived near here for more than a half-century, could think only that the clamor enveloping her house was coming from a helicopter landing on her roof. She was wrong.
A 5.0-magnitude earthquake — the first of three as strong or stronger over several days in November 2011 — had peeled the brick facade from the $117,000 home she bought the year before. Ms. Cooper, 36, could not get out until her father pried a stuck storm door off the front entrance. Repairs have so far cost $12,000 and forced her to take a second job, at night, to pay the bill.
At a packed town hall meeting days later, Ms. Cooper said, state officials called the shocks, including a 5.7 tremor that was Oklahoma’s largest ever, “an act of nature, and it was nobody’s fault.”
Many scientists disagree. They say those quakes, and thousands of others before and since, are mainly the work of humans, caused by wells used to bury vast amounts of wastewater from oil and gas exploration deep in the earth near fault zones. And they warn that continuing to entomb such huge quantities risks more dangerous tremors — if not here, then elsewhere in the state’s sprawling well fields.
“As long as you keep injecting wastewater along that fault zone, according to my calculations, you’re going to continue to have earthquakes,” said Arthur F. McGarr, the chief of the induced seismicity project at the federal Earthquake Science Center in Menlo Park, Calif., who has researched the Prague quakes. “I’d be a little worried if I lived there. In fact, I’d be very worried.”
But in a state where oil and gas are economic pillars, elected leaders have been slow to address the problem. And while regulators have taken some protective measures, they lack the money, work force and legal authority to fully address the threats.
More than five years after the quakes began a sharp and steady increase, the strongest action by the Republican governor, Mary Fallin, has been to name a council to exchange information about the tremors. The group meets in secret, and has no mandate to issue recommendations.
The State Legislature is not considering any earthquake legislation. But both houses passed bills this year barring local officials from regulating oil and gas wells in their jurisdictions.
The state seismologist’s office, short-staffed, has stopped analyzing data on tremors smaller than magnitude 2.5 — even though a recent study says those quakes flag hidden seismic hazards “that might prove invaluable for avoiding a damaging earthquake.”
The governor referred an interview request to Michael Teague, her energy and environment secretary. Mr. Teague said the governor’s earthquake council was helping coordinate the response to the shocks and that underfunded regulators and scientists had benefited from efforts to find new state and federal assistance for their work.
“It’s not working well enough if your house is shaking, absolutely no doubt,” he said. “But it’s working very well.”
But others say the political will is missing to confront an earthquake threat tied to Oklahoma’s dominant industry.
It is “a dangerous game of Russian roulette,” said Jason Murphey, the Republican state representative from earthquake-ridden Guthrie, in central Oklahoma. “If a dangerous earthquake happens and causes lots of damage and injuries,” he said, “a cloud will hang over the energy sector for a long time to come.”
If scientists see dangers, many Oklahomans are wary of disrupting an industry so woven into everyday life.
The state’s oil and gas wells gush profits to corporate owners, but also royalties to farmers and homeowners, and tax payments to the state and cities. By some accounts the industry supports as many as one in five Oklahoma jobs. It showers Oklahoma universities with millions of dollars in donations and helps make dreams like Oklahoma City’s N.B.A. franchise, reality.
It is also a major political contributor to Ms. Fallin, legislators and all three elected members of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which oversees oil and gas production and disposal wells.
“We always want to be invited to the prom,” said State Representative Cory Williams, a Democrat from Stillwater, the home of Oklahoma State University and one of the state’s most seismically active areas. “And we’ve decided that oil and gas is the best prom date we’ll ever get, and we don’t want oil and gas to go away.”
Those blessings, however, are not unalloyed.
From 2010 to 2013, Oklahoma oil production jumped by two-thirds and gas production rose by more than one-sixth, federal figures show. The amount of wastewater buried annually rose one-fifth, to nearly 1.1 billion barrels. And Oklahoma went from three earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or greater to 109 — and to 585 in 2014, and to 750-plus this year, should the current pace continue. In the United States, only Alaska is shaken more.
The Corporation Commission lacks explicit authority to regulate earthquake risks. So it is trying to contain the risks posed by roughly 3,200 active wastewater disposal wells using laws written to control water pollution.
Last spring, the commission began trying to weed out quake risks by scrutinizing wells near larger quakes for operational problems and permit violations. A few dozen wells made modifications; four shut down. It is now difficult to win approval for new wells near stressed faults, active seismic areas or the epicenters of previous quakes above 4.0 magnitude. Regulators significantly expanded the areas under scrutiny last month. Yet the quakes continue.
Privately, some companies are cooperating with regulators and scientists by offering proprietary information about underground faults. Publicly, the industry wants Oklahomans to beware of killing the golden goose.
Many in the industry were reluctant to comment for this article. But Kim Hatfield, the regulatory chairman of the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association and president of Crawley Petroleum, warned: “A reaction of panic is not useful.”
Shutting down disposal wells and the industry they serve, he added, “will make ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ look like a cheery movie.”
A Surge in Wastewater
The mechanics of wastewater-induced earthquakes are straightforward: Soaked with enough fluid, a layer of rock expands and gets heavier. Earthquakes can occur when the pressure from the fluid reaches a fault, either through direct contact with the soaked rock or indirectly, from the expanding rock. Seismologists have documented such quakes in Colorado, New Mexico, Arkansas, Kansas and elsewhere since the 1960s.
But nowhere have they approached the number and scope of Oklahoma’s quakes, which have rocked a fifth of the state. One reason, scientists suspect, is that Oklahoma’s main waste disposal site, a bed of porous limestone thousands of feet underground, lies close to the hard, highly stressed rock containing the faults that cause quakes.
The salty, sometimes toxic wastewater is a byproduct of extracting oil and gas, whether by hydraulic fracturing of once-unreachable shale deposits, commonly called fracking, or from conventional wells. Most is pumped out of the ground with oil or gas, then returned to the earth in a so-called disposal well, often at a different location.
The Corporation Commission faces a complicated task. It can order a shutdown or operational change only one well at a time, and only if a well violates its operating permit or is clearly tied to an earthquake risk.
But geologists say the sheer volume of waste being buried in an area with many wells — and not any single well — causes most quakes. It often is difficult or impossible to assess blame to a particular well.
Some other states like Arkansas and, this week, Kansas, have imposed blanket shutdowns or cutbacks on wells near active quake zones. “We don’t have the ability or the legal authority to issue a moratorium,” Dana Murphy, one of the three elected corporation commissioners, said in an interview.
“We do have the ability to take certain actions in emergency situations,” she continued. “But that’s emergencies when they start happening. It doesn’t talk about what happens before the emergencies occur.”
The 2011 quakes that damaged Ms. Cooper’s home in Prague (pronounced “prayg”) illustrate the regulators’ limited reach.
Acting on geologists’ suspicions after the first temblor, regulators tested and pored over operations data from three wells — two small ones and a huge one, called Wilzetta, sunk by the Tulsa-based company New Dominion in 1999. They were seeking some definitive cause of the tremor.
They found none. The wells still pump today, even as worried regulators wave off operators who want to sink new ones. Indeed, by December 2013, Wilzetta had nearly doubled its average monthly volume of waste compared with the months before the 2011 shocks.
Without convincing evidence that a well poses a seismic threat, one official said, regulators are powerless to order precautions, much less shutdowns. “Shut it in? How?” said that official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was barred from discussing specific cases. “Show me the cause. Show me the violation.”
Hamstrung, regulators now may have pushed their authority to its limits. Beginning last May, the commission began tightening permits for new disposal wells, requiring seismicity tests and requiring shutdowns if quakes occurred nearby.
Existing wells were unaffected. But last month the agency required operators of hundreds of wells to prove they were not accidentally pumping wastewater into bedrock, which seismologists say raises earthquake risks.
“We are operating on the assumption that time is of the essence,” a regulatory program manager at the commission, Matt Skinner, said in an interview.
Scientists certainly agree.
Federal seismologists have for a year warned of rising earthquake risks. Last July, researchers stated in Science magazine that wastewater-induced earthquakes were approaching a fault near Oklahoma City capable of producing a magnitude 7.0 shock, though other experts call that unlikely. In January, scientists including Oklahoma’s state seismologist, Austin Holland, cited a rising quake risk and identified three faults capable of “significantly larger” earthquakes.
Last month, a South African geophysicist delivered the most specific warning yet: Another magnitude 5-plus quake could occur by 2016, and one fault running through Stillwater and two other cities potentially could yield up to a magnitude 6.5 shock.
While scientists worry, political leaders have been slow to recognize the threat.
First elected in 2010, Governor Fallin appointed the earthquake advisory council last September. “Oklahoma has always had seismic activity, but the reality is we are seeing more,” she said then. “It’s important that we study this issue and have sound science that can inform decisions.”
She allowed only last week that wells accidentally drilled into rock containing faults could “potentially” set off shocks. Scientists say that is only one factor at play in the quakes.
The governor’s 12-member earthquake advisory council, drawn from industry, government, the Legislature and academia, works as an information clearinghouse, said Mr. Teague, her energy and environment secretary and the group’s chairman.
“The whole idea of the group,” he said, “is what are you working on? What are the gaps that you’ve got, and is there somebody else that can fill that gap?”
The most glaring gaps, however, remain mostly unfilled.
Last month the state promised a clerk, two technical experts and $50,000 to help regulators assess wells, but a $600 million-plus budget deficit makes significant aid unlikely. The Legislature could grant the commission greater authority, but legislators say that is not an option in a state where regulation is deeply unpopular, and the oil and gas industry holds political and economic sway.
Residents File Suit
The industry has worked on several fronts to contain concern about the quakes.
In October 2013, almost two years after the Prague quakes, Dr. Holland, the state seismologist, issued a news release warning that the earthquake risk in Oklahoma City, about 50 miles west of Prague, had increased. Wastewater disposal wells, he added, may be “a contributing factor.” Two weeks later, he was summoned to the office of the University of Oklahoma’s president, David L. Boren, to meet Harold G. Hamm, the chairman of Continental Resources, one of the state’s biggest oil and gas companies. Mr. Boren sits on Continental’s board, for which he has been paid more than $1.6 million in stock awards and directors’ fees since 2009, according to proxy statements.
Continental officials did not respond to a request for comment. Last month, after the newsletter EnergyWire reported the meeting, Mr. Boren called the session “purely informational.”
Dr. Holland said that Mr. Boren assured him his academic freedom as a scientist was unchallenged. Then, Dr. Holland said, Mr. Hamm told him that public discussions of disposal wells “are unnerving — they can dramatically affect the industry.”
Continental is seeking to shape that public discussion, arguing in newspapers, on television and to regulators that the earthquake epidemic is not man-made, but part of an unusually active period for quakes worldwide.
Still, in public meetings and in courtrooms, some residents have begun to demand an accounting. In August, Sandra Ladra, a Prague resident injured by a collapsing fireplace during the 2011 earthquakes, sued the Wilzetta well’s operator, New Dominion, and the Spess Oil Company, which operates the two smaller wells nearby.
Then, in February, came a class-action lawsuit against the two companies by Ms. Cooper, whose house in Prague was heavily damaged. Her suit seeks compensation for quake damage not only to her home, but to any homes in nine counties surrounding Prague.
That case has yet to be heard. But Ms. Ladra’s suit, now before the State Supreme Court, previews the industry response: The wells operate legally, and regulators should hear complaints against them. Letting juries decide their culpability in earthquakes invites financial disaster.
“I don’t want to belittle the public’s concern about earthquake swarms. I live here, too,” Robert G. Gum, a lawyer for New Dominion, said at an October hearing. “But it’s no more important to the people sitting in this courtroom and the people in this state than the state’s economy. It’s no more important in recognizing how important the oil and gas industry is to that economy.”
If juries hold the companies liable for Prague’s earthquakes, he added, “I doubt if this is the last lawsuit that will get filed. These wells will become economic and legal liability pariahs. They will be shut down.”
To Ms. Cooper, that message is clear. “People need to just take their losses for the greater good of the oil and gas companies — you know, do your part,” she said.
She does not buy it.