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Spike in earthquakes rattles Oklahoma oil & gas industry

January 30, 2016 at 5:06 PM EDT
Over the past six years, earthquakes in Oklahoma have skyrocketed – from less than a handful of 3.0 quakes before 2009 to well over 900 last year. The likely culprit: salty wastewater that bubbles up during oil and gas drilling. The rash of quakes has led to tough questions for the energy industry that provides one in five jobs in the state and comprises nearly a third of Oklahoma’s economy. NewsHour's Stephen Fee reports.

STEPHEN FEE: When Julie Allison moved to Oklahoma in 2002, she knew tornadoes, ice storms, and droughts came with the territory. But she didn’t expect earthquakes.

JULIE ALLISON, OKLAHOMA RESIDENT: “The sensation of an earthquake is something you don’t forget. It’s a sensation of just really helplessness.”

STEPHEN FEE: Last December, a magnitude 4.3 quake rattled her home in the Oklahoma City suburb of Edmond. That was followed by a flurry of smaller tremors — enough, she says, to crack her foundation and shake up her living room.

JULIE ALLISON: “This entire room was in disarray.”

STEPHEN FEE: Generally speaking, 3.0 earthquakes can be felt. 4.0 earthquakes can be damaging.

Before 2009, there were only a handful of earthquakes in Oklahoma over magnitude 3.0 each year. In 2015, there were more than 900.

TODD HALIHAN, OKLAHOMA STATE UNIVERSITY: “It was a little mysterious at the very beginning.”

STEPHEN FEE: Oklahoma State University geology professor Todd Halihan says the likely culprit is water that’s injected deep into the earth as a result of oil and gas drilling.

TODD HALIHAN, OKLAHOMA STATE UNIVERSITY: “If you look at most oil wells, they’re a salt water well that has a little bit of oil and gas in it. And so you have to do something with that by-product which is sometimes the main product, which is salt water.”

STEPHEN FEE: For decades, oil and gas companies in Oklahoma have been getting rid of that water by injecting it back underground.

In recent years, oil production has been on the rise in Oklahoma — partly due to technologies like fracking, a method of bursting rock formations to extract oil and gas. At some oil and gas wells, for every barrel of oil that’s produced, 20 barrels of salty wastewater bubble up as well.

TODD HALIHAN, OKLAHOMA STATE UNIVERSITY: “The problem is that in recent years, our rates and volumes have increased both the total amount and the intensity at which we pump it into the sub-surface. And we’ve gotten above levels that are causing seismicity.”

STEPHEN FEE: Last year, energy companies in Oklahoma injected 1.5 billion barrels of wastewater back into the earth.

Halihan says all that that water reduces friction between faults — or cracks — deep underground, releasing pent up energy and causing the earth to shake.

STEPHEN FEE: “There’s no question the energy industry has always played a huge role here in Oklahoma. In fact, up until the 1980s, there were active oil wells here on the state capitol grounds in Oklahoma City.”

STEPHEN FEE: But constant quakes are posing tough questions for an industry responsible for one in five jobs in Oklahoma and nearly a third of the state’s economy.

Last year, Oklahoma’s republican governor, Mary Fallin, said she believes there’s a “direct correlation” between the increase in earthquakes and wastewater disposal wells.

And critics of the industry — like Democratic State Representative Cory Williams — say there should be a moratorium on wastewater injections in seismically-active areas.

CORY WILLIAMS, D OKLAHOMA STATE REPRESENTATIVE: “All of the actual science — the peer-reviewed literature that it out there that is getting published in the scientific press, all draws the same conclusions. ‘Yes, you are inducing seismicity. Yes, you are growing to a bigger and bigger seismic activity. And yes, you need to stop.’”

STEPHEN FEE: But Chad Warmington — president of the Oklahoma Oil and Gas Association — hesitates to say the injections are actually causing quakes.

CHAD WARMINGTON, OKLAHOMA OIL AND GAS ASSOCIATION: “Yeah, I think it’s one of those issues where over the last few years, we’ve been really struggling to figure out what the connection is. And there certainly appears to be a correlation, in terms of the amount of wastewater that’s been injected over the last four years and the increase in seismicity.”

STEPHEN FEE: “Correlation though is not cause?”

CHAD WARMINGTON, OKLAHOMA OIL AND GAS ASSOCIATION: “I think that’s correct. I think that there are a lot of things we don’t know. There’s a lot of things that we can’t explain. So what that leads us to believe is there’s just a lot more science that we need to get to. We need to get to the bottom of what’s going on.”

STEPHEN FEE: “The industry still disputes the link. Why do you suppose that is?”

CORY WILLIAMS, D OKLAHOMA STATE REPRESENTATIVE: “Well I think they have billions of dollars — or reasons — why. I mean, I think the incentive for them is to continue to drag their feet as long as they possibly can, so they can inject at the same rates and extrapolate every last possible resource they can out of it before we actually implement real change and real regulation.”

STEPHEN FEE: After an earthquake strikes, the state’s oil and gas regulator — the Oklahoma Corporation Commission — often directs companies to slow or stop wastewater injections at particular wells.

Tim Baker heads the commission’s oil and gas division.

STEPHEN FEE: “Can you say that by just controlling that one lever you can help prevent earthquakes?”

TIM BAKER, OKLAHOMA CORPORATION COMMISSION: “All we can do is manage– help manage the risk. Seismologists tell us what the highest risk scenarios are and that’s what we’re focusing our efforts on. Managing the risk, lowering that risk, and hopefully that will have some result in the number of earthquakes declining over time.”

STEPHEN FEE: Although oil and gas companies aren’t required to follow his office’s directives, they usually do.

But last December, one of the state’s biggest oil companies, SandRidge Energy, refused an order to cut back wastewater injections, saying more scientific analysis needed to be done.

The company relented earlier this month, agreeing to close seven of its wells, but the incident raised concerns about the effectiveness of the commission’s orders.

STEPHEN FEE: “I mean, there is an opening here for companies to say, ‘Actually, we’re not going to listen to your voluntary directives.’ Has the industry been cooperative, and do you think they’ll be cooperative going forward?”

TIM BAKER, OKLAHOMA CORPORATION COMMISSION: “Everyone I’ve spoken to, and we’ve had countless meetings at this point, all want to cooperate. And if someone refuses to cooperate, we still have jurisdiction to file an application and either amend or vacate their permit.”

So far Baker hasn’t had to take that step — which would involve a drawn-out judicial process.

As the number of earthquakes in Oklahoma has increased, the state legislature has cut the budget of the commission — the only state agency with power to regulate drillers — by 14 percent, from $12.4 million in 2009 to $10.7 million last year.

TIM BAKER, OKLAHOMA CORPORATION COMMISSION: “We don’t have the resources to stay up with every earthquake that happens in the state. We focus on– the 4.0’s. At that point we know that’s a trigger in which we can take response. But do we make a scientific assessment of every earthquake that happens in the state? No, we don’t ’cause we don’t have the resources to do that.”

STEPHEN FEE: “They call Cushing, Oklahoma, the pipeline crossroads of the world. And last October there was a magnitude 4-point-5 earthquake near here. And it got folks worried that not only do these earthquakes pose a risk to life and property, but also to the country’s energy infrastructure.”

STEPHEN FEE: Oil and gas companies rely on giant storage tanks in Cushing to hold up to 85 million barrels of oil. If an earthquake were to compromise those tanks, it could disrupt oil markets worldwide.

October’s quake was the fifth near Cushing greater than magnitude 4.0 in just a year. Last fall, the Corporation Commission ordered companies to slow or stop wastewater injections nearby in part to protect those oil tanks.

STEPHEN FEE: “Do you feel that those facilities are able to withstand the increased seismic activity we’re seeing in Oklahoma?”


Michael Teague is Oklahoma’s secretary of energy and environment. He says the industry and federal inspectors regularly check those tanks.

MICHAEL TEAGUE, OKLAHOMA SECRETARY OF ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT: “I’m also comfortable that if there was an area that’s got to focus on it for the Corporation Commission that they’d be very quick to react if there are any earthquakes, it’s Cushing.”

STEPHEN FEE: Teague says he is confident the Corporation Commission’s voluntary directives will keep earthquakes in check in Cushing and elsewhere in the state.

STEPHEN FEE: “But it does, at the end of the day, seem very reactive. They watch a seismic event happen. And then they follow up with a directive. Isn’t there some way to prevent these earthquakes before they happen?”

MICHAEL TEAGUE, OKLAHOMA SECRETARY OF ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT: “It’s very reactive. And I don’t know how to make it proactive, because we don’t know what that trigger is.”

STEPHEN FEE: “The Office of the Corporation Commission, Tim Baker, tells me they don’t have all the resources they need. They’ve seen their budget get cut back. Your head seismologist at the Oklahoma Geological Survey left last year.”


STEPHEN FEE: “Are you equipping your chief regulator with enough resources to do their jobs?”

MICHAEL TEAGUE, OKLAHOMA SECRETARY OF ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT: “I don’t think we have yet. And I think we’ve been slow to get there. I think very, very soon you’re going to see additional resources go to both agencies.”

STEPHEN FEE: As global oil prices have fallen from $100 a barrel to around $30, so have tax revenues in Oklahoma. The state faces a $900 million budget shortfall this year.

State Representative Williams says legislators must provide more funding for regulators and researchers to do their jobs.

CORY WILLIAMS, D OKLAHOMA STATE REPRESENTATIVE: “You’ve got to open up your checkbook. You’ve got to give them the staffing and the resources to be able to actually do the thing that they need to be able to do. Heck, we don’t even have a seismologist on staff anymore in the state of Oklahoma. And nobody seems overwhelmingly concerned about that.”

Oklahoma Oil and Gas Association president Chad Warmington says he and his members are concerned.

CHAD WARMINGTON, OKLAHOMA OIL AND GAS ASSOCIATION: “I live in Edmond. I, you know, I feel these quakes. I live here. It’s not like I’m not a part of this. And I would like it to speed up quicker. But I do believe in the process the Commission has. And we’re getting on top of it. Not as quickly as we’d like is probably not a very good political answer. But it’s the right science-based answer.”

STEPHEN FEE: “You know a skeptic could be sitting here listening to you say this and, fair or unfair, think, ‘This is just the industry covering its butts.’”


STEPHEN FEE: “They don’t wanna say this because they don’t wanna open themselves up to being blamed for earthquakes. What do you say to those people?”

CHAD WARMINGTON, OKLAHOMA OIL AND GAS ASSOCIATION: “Yeah. I think what– what I’ve said is what we’ve said all along. As long as the commission, the state is working to use science-based determinations of what’s causing these quakes, we’re gonna be fine with the outcome. We’re gonna participate in the investigation. And we’re gonna do everything we can to help bring an end to, or definitely slow down the amount and the magnitude of the earthquakes in the state.”

STEPHEN FEE: But geologist Todd Halihan says before that can happen, the state has to invest more in the Commission and scientific research.

TODD HALIHAN, OKLAHOMA STATE UNIVERSITY: “They barely have enough money to analyze the quakes that have happened or to analyze which injection wells are doing what. That’s the funding level. And so the sense that there is analysis going on, that’s not happening.”

STEPHEN FEE: On Thursday, Governor Fallin announced she would direct $1.4 million in state emergency funds to the Corporation Commission and the state geological survey.