Oklahoma Earthquakes: Bombshell Doc Reveals Big Oil's Tight Grip on Politicians and Scientists
"You almost feel like the ground is going to open up underneath of you or something. And then you think, 'Am I losing my mind? This is the third one today and they've only reported one!'"
Al Jazeera America correspondent Josh Rushing and the Fault Lines team recently traveled to the state and spoke to several Oklahoma residents, seismologists, oil and gas industry officials, and lawmakers, including Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, who has been slow to acknowledge the connection between the earthquakes and the oil and gas industry.
The bombshell documentary, which EcoWatch has previewed, explores the mounting scientific evidence that links earthquakes to injection wells, as well as the maddening hurdles and bureaucracy that state scientists and regulators face in their efforts to halt the potential crisis and national security threat.
more than 2,100 earthquakes of magnitude 1.5 or greater in the past year in frack-happy Oklahoma. Photo credit: Al Jazeera America
As EcoWatch has extensively reported, the Sooner State is experiencing a frightening spike in seismic activity. Before 2009, Oklahoma had two earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or greater each year, but now there are two a day. Oklahoma now has more earthquakes than anywhere else in the world, a spokesperson from the Oklahoma Corporation Commission (OCC), the state’s oil and gas regulatory body, said earlier this month.
Scientists have identified that the injection of large volumes of toxic wastewater left over from oil drilling and fracking operations into underground wells has triggered the state's now daily earthquakes.
While state regulatory agencies have ordered changes and the shut down of several wells to slow the earthquake rate, as you can see in the image below, thousands of these wells are still in operation, literally dotting the map.
In an interview with Cory Williams (D-Stillwater), the state representative reveals that state legislators have done little to address Oklahomans’ concerns. From 2009 until 2014, no earthquake-related bills were introduced, he said.
"You know some days I come to work and I feel like I work in the ‘Devon Energy House of Representatives,’" Williams tells Al Jazeera, referring to the Oklahoma City-based natural gas and oil producers.
“We show a tremendous amount of deference to the [oil and gas] industry,” he continues. “They’re the number one job producer in the state, and people have become loath to do anything that might appear to harm oil and gas."
"We’re jeopardizing life, safety and property in the state solely for the profits of oil and gas,” Williams claims.
In August, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin finally admitted that there was a “direct correlation between the increase of earthquakes that we’ve seen in Oklahoma [and] disposal wells” after denying the link for several years.
Fallin is said to be weighing the pros and cons of fracking in her state. The state is one of the top natural gas-producing states in the nation. One-quarter of all jobs are either directly or indirectly tied to the energy industry.
However, as state officials voice intentions to reduce seismicity, Oklahoma has cut the budgets of the two agencies dealing with the earthquake pandemic: the Oklahoma Geological Survey (OGS) and the OCC, according to Fault Lines.
Fault Lines spoke with former OGS head seismologist Austin Holland on the pressure he's faced for drawing a connection between earthquakes and wastewater disposal.
In 2013, federal scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the OGS issued a joint statement linking the earthquakes to injection wells. As it happens, OGS is based at the University of Oklahoma, which relies heavily on private funding largely from the oil and gas industry, Al Jazeera reports.
Soon after the report's release, Holland says he was summoned into a meeting with university president David Boren and Continental Resources oil executive Harold Hamm, who has contributed more than $30 million to the university, according to Al Jazeera.
"[Hamm] basically said to me, 'You have to watch how you say things,'" Holland says.
Holland also described pressure to sign a 2014 position paper by former dean Larry Grillot, concluding that the majority of Oklahoma’s earthquakes were natural.
"This is one of those areas where current science meets political and social realms, very similar to climate change,” Holland says.
Holland resigned as head seismologist at OGS in August. “I’ve infuriated people within the university, I’ve infuriated people within the oil and gas industry,” he told Fault Lines on his last day on the job.
This means, as earthquakes grow in frequency and intensity, Oklahoma is now without a head state seismologist.
Meanwhile, the oil industry appears indifferent to the shaking. “Having a 3 [3.0 magnitude earthquake] is kind of a so-what," Kim Hatfield, spokesperson for the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association, told Al Jazeera.
He said that earthquakes have always occurred in the state, adding, "If I was sure that there was never going to be anything bigger than a 3.0 that wasn't naturally occurring ... my blood pressure would probably go down a lot.”
In the end, it's the rattled Oklahoma residents who could potentially have the biggest sacrifice if a damaging earthquake ever hits.
Additionally, as NPR reported last month, if a strong earthquake strikes the northwestern city of Cushing—one of the largest crude oil storage facilities in North America—it could disrupt the U.S. energy market and become a national security threat.
Noble County farmer and retired electronics expert Mark Crismon, who has voluntarily monitored the earthquakes since 2014, told Fault Lines how earthquakes have “destroyed” his home, including one night when he observed 52 seismic incidents in two and a half hours.
“If a [fault] slips 10 or 15 or 20 miles, you’ve had it," Crismon says. "This state will go back to the Stone Age in about 3 seconds.”
Earthquake State will air on Al Jazeera America on Sunday, Dec. 13 at 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT and again on Tuesday, Dec. 15 at 6 p.m. ET/3 p.m. PT.
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By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>