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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theDOCK aims to innovate the Israeli maritime sector. Pexels<p>The UN hopes that new investments in ocean science and technology will help turn the tide for the oceans. As such, this year kicked off the <a href="https://www.oceandecade.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030)</a> to galvanize massive support for the blue economy.</p><p>According to the World Bank, the blue economy is the "sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods, and jobs while preserving the health of ocean ecosystem," <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412019338255#b0245" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Science Direct</a> reported. It represents this new sector for investments and innovations that work in tandem with the oceans rather than in exploitation of them.</p><p>As recently as Aug. 2020, <a href="https://www.reutersevents.com/sustainability/esg-investors-slow-make-waves-25tn-ocean-economy" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Reuters</a> noted that ESG Investors, those looking to invest in opportunities that have a positive impact in environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, have been interested in "blue finance" but slow to invest.</p><p>"It is a hugely under-invested economic opportunity that is crucial to the way we have to address living on one planet," Simon Dent, director of blue investments at Mirova Natural Capital, told Reuters.</p><p>Even with slow investment, the blue economy is still expected to expand at twice the rate of the mainstream economy by 2030, Reuters reported. It already contributes $2.5tn a year in economic output, the report noted.</p><p>Current, upward <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/-innovation-blue-economy-2646147405.html" target="_self">shifts in blue economy investments are being driven by innovation</a>, a trend the UN hopes will continue globally for the benefit of all oceans and people.</p><p>In Israel, this push has successfully translated into investment in and innovation of global ports, shipping, logistics and offshore sectors. The "Startup Nation," as Israel is often called, has seen its maritime tech ecosystem grow "significantly" in recent years and expects that growth to "accelerate dramatically," <a href="https://itrade.gov.il/belgium-english/how-israel-is-becoming-a-port-of-call-for-maritime-innovation/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">iTrade</a> reported.</p><p>Driving this wave of momentum has been rising Israeli venture capital hub <a href="https://www.thedockinnovation.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">theDOCK</a>. Founded by Israeli Navy veterans in 2017, theDOCK works with early-stage companies in the maritime space to bring their solutions to market. The hub's pioneering efforts ignited Israel's maritime technology sector, and now, with their new fund, theDOCK is motivating these high-tech solutions to also address ESG criteria.</p><p>"While ESG has always been on theDOCK's agenda, this theme has become even more of a priority," Nir Gartzman, theDOCK's managing partner, told EcoWatch. "80 percent of the startups in our portfolio (for theDOCK's Navigator II fund) will have a primary or secondary contribution to environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria."</p><p>In a company presentation, theDOCK called contribution to the ESG agenda a "hot discussion topic" for traditional players in the space and their boards, many of whom are looking to adopt new technologies with a positive impact on the planet. The focus is on reducing carbon emissions and protecting the environment, the presentation outlines. As such, theDOCK also explicitly screens candidate investments by ESG criteria as well.</p><p>Within the maritime space, environmental innovations could include measures like increased fuel and energy efficiency, better monitoring of potential pollution sources, improved waste and air emissions management and processing of marine debris/trash into reusable materials, theDOCK's presentation noted.</p>
theDOCK team includes (left to right) Michal Hendel-Sufa, Head of Alliances, Noa Schuman, CMO, Nir Gartzman, Co-Founder & Managing Partner, and Hannan Carmeli, Co-Founder & Managing Partner. Dudu Koren<p>theDOCK's own portfolio includes companies like Orca AI, which uses an intelligent collision avoidance system to reduce the probability of oil or fuel spills, AiDock, which eliminates the use of paper by automating the customs clearance process, and DockTech, which uses depth "crowdsourcing" data to map riverbeds in real-time and optimize cargo loading, thereby reducing trips and fuel usage while also avoiding groundings.</p><p>"Oceans are a big opportunity primarily because they are just that – big!" theDOCK's Chief Marketing Officer Noa Schuman summarized. "As such, the magnitude of their criticality to the global ecosystem, the magnitude of pollution risk and the steps needed to overcome those challenges – are all huge."</p><p>There is hope that this wave of interest and investment in environmentally-positive maritime technologies will accelerate the blue economy and ESG investing even further, in Israel and beyond.</p>
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