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House damage in central Oklahoma from the magnitude 5.6 earthquake on Nov. 6, 2011. Wikimedia Commons

Oklahoma Quakes Linked to Wastewater Injection Depth

The alarming string of earthquakes that have shaken Oklahoma for years has long been tied to the large volume of fracking wastewater dumped into the state's injection wells. And while state regulators have taken numerous measures to reduce wastewater disposal volumes to prevent such "induced" earthquakes, they might want to consider another measure—restricting how deep wastewater gets sent underground.

A new study, published Thursday in the journal Science, finds that Oklahoma's earthquakes can also be triggered by wastewater injection depth.

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Driller in Oklahoma Explosion Has History of Deadly Accidents, Safety Violations

The drilling company involved in Monday's natural gas rig explosion in Pittsburg County, Oklahoma that killed five workers has a long record of deadly accidents and numerous safety violations.

Ten workers have died within the past ten years at well sites linked to Houston-based Patterson-UTI Energy, the Associated Press reported, citing data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

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Magnitude 4.2 earthquake shakes central Oklahoma on Wednesday night. USGS

8 Earthquakes Shake Oklahoma in 24 Hours

Several earthquakes have struck Oklahoma this week, including a magnitude 4.2 that hit the central part of the state on Wednesday night.

"The past 24 hours have had an uptick in earthquake numbers, with 8 quakes ranging from 2.6-4.2 magnitude occurring in Oklahoma," USGS tweeted.

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The Arbuckle Mountain Wind Farm in southern Oklahoma. Brian Hardzinski / KGOU

Massive Wind Farm in Oklahoma Set to Become Nation's Largest, Second Biggest in the World

American Electric Power (AEP) will invest $4.5 billion in a wind energy project in Oklahoma that could become the largest wind farm in the U.S., the utility announced Wednesday.

AEP will develop a 350-mile transmission line for the 2 GW farm.

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A 5.8-magnitude earthquake that rattled Pawnee, Oklahoma in September 2016 was classified as largest in state history. USGS

Erin Brockovich Helps Pawnee Nation Sue Fracking Companies Over Induced Earthquakes

Environmental activist Erin Brockovich is helping Oklahoma's Pawnee Nation take on several fracking companies in a lawsuit alleging that damages to its tribal buildings and reservation property was the result of man-made, or induced, earthquakes.

National Geographic reports that the Native American tribe has retained the law firm Weitz & Luxenberg, with the aid of Brockovich, to sue Eagle Road Oil LLC, Cummings Oil Company, and 25 other oil and gas companies.

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Wind Power Gives Oklahoma Schools a Lifeline During Budget Cuts

By Greg Alvarez

The Oklahoman recently took a look at what the Sooner State's growing wind industry has meant for rural school districts.

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Wind farm in Weatherford, Oklahoma.

Oklahoma Ends Wind Subsidy Despite Generous Tax Breaks for Fossil Fuel Industry

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin signed a bill into law Monday that will end a state tax credit several years early for electricity generated by wind power.

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Earthquakes with a magnitude of 3.0 and higher that struck Oklahoma in 2016. Photo credit: Earthquakes.ok.gov

Oklahoma Remains Nation's Human-Induced Earthquake Hotspot

Despite a crackdown on wastewater injection volumes, Oklahoma has once again been named the state with the highest risk of human-induced earthquakes, according to new seismicity maps released Wednesday by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

Damage to buildings in Cushing, Oklahoma from a 5.0-magnitude earthquake on November 6, 2016. Dolan Paris, USGS

Geologists believe that these man-made quakes are triggered by wastewater from oil and gas operations being injected into deep underground wells. These fluids can cause pressure changes to faults and makes them more likely to move.

This process has been blamed for the Sooner State's alarming rise in seismic activity. Between 1980 and 2000, Oklahoma averaged only two earthquakes greater than or equal to magnitude 2.7—the level at which ground shaking can be felt—per year.

But in 2014, the numbers jumped to about 2,500 in 2014, 4,000 in 2015 and 2,500 in 2016.

The USGS said that the decline in 2016 quakes could be due to injection restrictions implemented by the state officials. According to Bloomberg, "State regulators aiming to curb the tremors have imposed new production rules cutting disposal volumes by about 800,000 barrels a day and limiting potential for future disposal by 2 million barrels a day."

However, even if there were fewer tremors last year, Oklahoma felt more 4.0+ quakes in 2016 than in any other year. Of the earthquakes last year, 21 were greater than magnitude 4.0 and three were greater than magnitude 5.0.

Some of the biggest quakes include a 5.0-magnitude temblor that struck Cushing, one of the largest oil hubs in the world, on Nov. 6. And the largest quake ever recorded in the state was a 5.8 that hit near Pawnee on Sept. 3.

Even with a decrease in wastewater injection volumes, the USGS determined that the 3.5 million people who live and work in areas of the central and eastern U.S. (CEUS) face significant potential for damaging shaking from induced seismicity in 2017. The majority of this population live in Oklahoma and southern Kansas.

Remarkably, man-made temblors have put this area's earthquake risk on par with another notoriously earthquake-prone state.

"The forecasted chance of damaging ground shaking in central Oklahoma is similar to that of natural earthquakes in high-hazard areas of California," the USGS said.

The researchers also found that an additional half million people in the CEUS face a significant chance of damage from natural earthquakes in 2017, bringing the total number of people at high risk from both natural and human-induced earthquakes to about four million.

"The good news is that the overall seismic hazard for this year is lower than in the 2016 forecast, but despite this decrease, there is still a significant likelihood for damaging ground shaking in the CEUS in the year ahead," said Mark Petersen, chief of the USGS National Seismic Hazard Mapping Project, in a statement.

"The forecast for induced and natural earthquakes in 2017 is hundreds of times higher than before induced seismicity rates rapidly increased around 2008," said Petersen. "Millions still face a significant chance of experiencing damaging earthquakes, and this could increase or decrease with industry practices, which are difficult to anticipate."

The USGS also identified the Colorado/New Mexico area known as the Raton Basin as another high hazard area in 2017.

"Most of the damage we forecast will be cracking of plaster or unreinforced masonry. However, stronger ground shaking could also occur in some areas, which could cause more significant damage," Petersen said.

In a statement published in the Los Angeles Times, Oklahoma Geological Survey's director Jeremy Boak said that both regulatory actions as well as falling petroleum prices "should result in further declines in the seismicity rate and limit future widespread seismic activity."

The Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which regulates oil and gas wells in the state, credited disposal rules for the drop in quakes, telling Bloomberg that it "serves to confirm the validity of the work done in Oklahoma to reduce earthquake risk, as well as the need for the effort to continue."

Katie Brown, a spokeswoman with a research and education program of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, told the Los Angeles Times that the reduced number of earthquakes "is a clear sign that the collaborative efforts between industry, scientists and regulators are working."

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Weatherford Oklahoma wind farm.

Oklahoma Governor Seeks to Set Nation's Highest Tax on Wind

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin's executive budget proposal, released this week, seeks to set the nation's highest tax on wind power and phase out tax incentives for the wind industry ahead of schedule.

The budget proposes a $0.005 per kilowatt-hour tax on wind energy—five times the wind tax in Wyoming, which along with South Dakota are the only states that tax wind energy—and accelerates the end of a tax credit, currently set to expire in 2021.

A separate piece of legislation seeking an early end to wind tax credits is currently working its way through the House. The Oklahoman reported last year that state fossil fuel executives, including Trump advisor Harold Hamm, had formed a coalition to lobby for the end of wind tax credits in the state.

"Creating a less competitive energy environment via taxation only hurts consumers while reducing the competitiveness of one of Oklahoma's most viable industries," said Jeff Clark, executive director of The Wind Coalition, told NewsOK. "Raising electricity rates and ending the state's commitment to renewables also drives away needed investment in Oklahoma by manufacturing and high-technology facilities, who also provide jobs and pay taxes."

For a deeper dive:

Budget: The Oklahoman, Energywire, Utility Dive, Tulsa World

House bill: Tulsa World

For more climate change and clean energy news, you can follow Climate Nexus on Twitter and Facebook, and sign up for daily Hot News.

Correction: This article originally stated .05 cents per kilowatt-hour for the proposed tax. It's been updated to the correct $0.005 per kilowatt-hour as outlined in the governor's proposal in her official Executive Budget Book on page 10.

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