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Oklahoma links earthquakes to oil and gas industry wastewater

There has been a sharp increase in the number of earthquakes in Oklahoma in recent years. Some observers have suggested the rise of oil and gas drilling is responsible. The state’s government, however, hasn’t acknowledged that link until now. Gwen Ifill talks to Joe Wertz of StateImpact Oklahoma about the connection.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    For several years now, there's been a sharp increase in the number of earthquakes in Oklahoma. And many observers have said the rise in oil and gas drilling is responsible for much of it.

    Throughout the energy boom, Oklahoma's state government has not bought into that answer, until now.

    Gwen looks at what's known, and what's changing, in the state.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    These are often smaller earthquakes, registering a magnitude of three or higher. But, on YouTube, you can see their impact, as residents capture the moments when the quakes hit, at a warehouse in Prague, Oklahoma, or a college campus bar in Norman, even at home watching television.

    This new map shows just how frequently they hit in Oklahoma, 585 last year, compared with 109 in 2013. Before 2008, there were just two a year.

    Yesterday, state officials acknowledged the quakes are likely caused by disposal of wastewater that's a byproduct from oil drilling and sometimes fracking. Nationwide, more than 100,000 such wells are in operation.

    Joe Wertz has been reporting on this for StateImpact Oklahoma, a project of NPR member stations.

    Joe, the government of Oklahoma, and in particular the Oklahoma Geological Service, they have not always admitted that there's a connection between these wells and these earthquakes.

  • JOE WERTZ, StateImpact Oklahoma:

    Yes, that's right.

    So, you know, why federal and university seismologists and scientists have been more definitive on the link to oil and gas activities and these earthquakes, the state — state agencies, state officials have been less decisive and have, you know, up until pretty recently, spoken a lot more about natural earthquakes and talked about natural causes for these earthquakes.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    This is not limited to Oklahoma, though. There are other states affected by this, right?

  • JOE WERTZ:

    That's right.

    There's lots of states that are getting these so-called induced earthquakes, Oklahoma certainly, Texas, Colorado, Arkansas, Ohio. A lot of states have had these earthquakes linked to oil and gas activity, Oklahoma among the most. And that's sort of where the researchers are focusing all of their study on, on finding out what's going on in Oklahoma and applying that sort of to other states.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    We saw some pictures just now of some of the shaking and the damage, but describe the scale of these earthquakes. When we think about earthquakes back East here, we think of big — a lot of wide-scale destruction and collapse. Is that what we're seeing here?

  • JOE WERTZ:

    No.

    It's important to note that most of these quakes are relatively small. Most, you don't even feel. So you were talking about magnitude-3.0 earthquakes earlier in the — coming up to this. And that's really the threshold at which most people can feel it. So, prior to 2013, we averaged less than two of those a year. In 2013, we were getting two of those a week.

    Now we're averaging about two of those every single day. So they are relatively small, but people can feel them. Now, in 2011, we did get a 5.6, 5.7 that some scientists have linked to oil and gas activity, and that did cause damage. That injured two people, damaged a lot of homes and businesses, toppled a tower at a nearby university.

    So while there's not the sort of widespread destruction you might see in a plate, you know, tectonic-style that would see in California, people are noticing cracks in their homes and cracks in their walls and foundations and have experienced some damage.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Has there been a lot more of this type of drilling that has caused this? Is that what we're seeing now, that this has been a new technology which has brought on this damage?

  • JOE WERTZ:

    So, disposal wells have been around a long time. And they're really integral to the oil and gas production process.

    In Oklahoma, you get a lot of water when you drill for oil and gas. It just comes up with the oil and gas. And if you're an oil and gas company, you don't want oil — or you don't want that water. You want the oil and gas. You have got to do something with that water.

    And you inject it deep underground in these wells to keep it out of the drinking water. You don't want it getting out near the surface. So, the safest place to put it, historically, has been deep underground in these wells. So the technology for a disposal well is nothing new.

    Now, there's been a big boom, drilling boom in Oklahoma in recent years, lots of oil and gas activity, so you do see a big spike in water production, along with the oil and gas production.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And let's be clear. This isn't necessarily caused — in fact, mostly caused by hydraulic fracturing, which is the fracking debate we have been having.

  • JOE WERTZ:

    Yes, that's right.

    The fracking, combined with horizontal drilling, is certainly something that's been relatively new to the oil and gas industry, at least in widespread use. But, no, scientists say most of the earthquakes in Oklahoma, this big surge of earthquakes that we have seen, is really tied to wastewater injection.

    And while you do get some of this wastewater when you frack and use water and fluid in the fracking process, it's still a relatively small portion of the total wastewater that has to be disposed of in Oklahoma. It's pretty small.

    So, it's a part of the equation, but a relatively small one.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So, assuming that we have agreed on what the cause is, do the oil and gas industry, does the governor, does anybody agree on what the solution is? Can you just cap these wells?

  • JOE WERTZ:

    No, nobody agrees on what the solution should be. You can't really just cap the wells. I mean, you could cap the wells. Technologically, that's not difficult to do.

    There's a couple of questions. One, the oil and gas industry doesn't want a moratorium on these disposal wells. They're really key to producing oil and gas. Seems unlikely that regulators or lawmakers here would impose any sort of widespread ban on disposal wells.

    The question is, what — are there wells, a certain type of well, a certain area that might be riskier? And that's really what regulators are trying to hone in on. And they're hoping that scientists will give them some more details on that. And so that's where they hope the science will head, is to give them more direction on maybe there are certain wells that are riskier, and they could focus their regulatory efforts on a smaller number of wells.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Joe Wertz of NPR's StateImpact Oklahoma, thank you so much.

  • JOE WERTZ:

    Thank you so much.

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