All Shook Up in Oklahoma

I live about 30 miles from the San Andreas Fault, so I’m used to the idea that at any moment my world could be rocked by a shake-and-bake-quake. That’s true of a lot of Californians. But Oklahomans? Check out this scary report from WaPo’s Lori Montgomery:

What to do about the plague of earthquakes is…very much an open question in Oklahoma. Last year, 567 quakes of at least 3.0 magnitude rocked a swath of counties from the state capital to the Kansas line, alarming a populace long accustomed to fewer than two quakes a year.

Scientists implicated the oil and gas industry — in particular, the deep wastewater disposal wells that have been linked to a dramatic increase in seismic activity across the central United States. But in a state founded on oil wealth, officials have been reluctant to crack down on an industry that accounts for a third of the economy and one in five jobs.

With seismologists warning that the spreading earthquake swarms could trigger something far bigger and potentially deadly, pressure is building to follow the lead of other oil and gas-producing states and take more aggressive action.

Read the whole thing. Industry spox and their political allies are bobbing and weaving and trying to pretend that maybe it’s a coincidence that the quake epidemic has occurred during a rapid expansion of new exploration techniques. But that’s a mite unlikely, and even in a state where nobody wants to kill the golden goose, people are getting alarmed.

Both the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the Oklahoma Geological Survey have confirmed a connection between the recent oil and gas boom and a sharp uptick in seismic activity in Texas, Colorado, Arkansas and Ohio, as well as Oklahoma. New extraction techniques, such as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, generate massive amounts of wastewater, which are then injected deep underground to avoid contaminating clean water near the surface.

Under the right geological conditions, those injections can trigger quakes.

“An earthquake that was sitting there waiting goes kaboing. Then things shake,” said John Armbruster, a geologist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, who studied manmade quakes in Youngstown, Ohio.

Montgomery discusses one pending bit of litigation that could result in establishing legal liability for earthquake damage with the oil and gas industry. However it happens, something’s got to give, including the widespread assumption that the risks associated with fracking are some sort of hippie fantasy.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.