People living in central Oklahoma should be grateful EnergyWire reporter Mike Soraghan continues to investigate and write about the dramatic surge of earthquakes here.
I’m one of those central Oklahomans whose property and safety have been threatened almost daily by manmade earthquakes, which scientists claim are caused by a component of the hydraulic fracturing or fracking process. I appreciate and I’m grateful for Soraghan’s insightful and well-researched reporting.
Our local media, in particular The Oklahoman, which is owned by Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz who made his money in the fossil fuel drilling industry, has shamefully abdicated its journalistic responsibility when it comes to the relationship between fracking and earthquakes. It seems obvious why this is the case. The oil and gas industry spends advertising dollars here to depict itself as vital, benevolent and neighborly, and it has a powerful, well-financed political lobby.
The oil and gas industry here isn’t going to let several hundred earthquakes a year get in its way. The local media complies. This makes all mainstream media reporting here seem suspect, which isn’t exactly a new phenomenon.
In recent weeks, Soraghan has reported on the earthquake crisis after going through “thousands of pages” of documents related to how state officials have responded to our earthquake crisis. These documents were obtained through the Oklahoma Open Records Act. He has written about the cozy relationship between University of Oklahoma President David Boren and Harold Hamm, the chief executive officer and founder of Continental Resources, an Oklahoma City-based energy company. This relationship, as Soraghan has reported, may have influenced how the Oklahoma Geological Survey, which is affiliated with the university, responded to the crisis.
Now Soraghan has reported how Gov. Mary Fallin and her staff were slow in their response to the issue after the 5.6 or 5.7-magnitude (it’s been reported differently) earthquake near Prague on Nov. 5, 2011. Soraghan writes that the documents “show a team in the governor’s office that moved slowly to address the quakes even as the earth rumbled more and more frequently.”
Soraghan outlines how a Fallin aide contacted a Devon Energy lobbyist who sent “talking points” to the governor’s office about the earthquake issue. One of those talking points goes like this: “There is no current evidence that oil & gas operations had anything to do with the recent large earthquakes in Oklahoma.” That tells the story succinctly and obviously.
In the fracking process, water laced with chemicals is injected by high pressure into underground rock formations that create fissures, which release fossil fuels. The wastewater is then injected again by high pressure into what are called disposal or injection wells. An increasing number of scientists and studies claim the injection well process is to blame for the state’s huge increase in earthquakes over the last few years.
Oklahoma, which just a few years ago had extremely minimal seismic activity, now leads the contiguous United States in the number of 3.0-magnitude or higher earthquakes. The state experienced 585 such quakes in 2014. It’s on track to experience more than 800 this year.
It’s not unusual to feel two or three earthquakes in central Oklahoma each day. This has produced a great deal of anxiety among many residents here. They’re obviously concerned about their safety and their property. Even if there’s never a major quake, say, in the 6.0- to 7.0-range here, what is the overall impact on buildings that shake and rattle almost every day for, literally, years and years? What if you own one or more of those buldings?
The state’s earthquake surge has paralleled the fracking and horizontal drilling energy boom here in Oklahoma and elsewhere.
The larger answer to the problem is to develop renewable and cleaner energy sources, but that’s not the immediate solution that’s needed in this case. What really needs to happen now are moratoriums on injections wells in certain areas of the state and more regulations on how they operate. Could the state require recycling the wastewater? We need substantial action.
What Soraghan’s reporting tells us is that important state leaders here have shown at the very least an appearance of bias towards the oil and gas industry on this issue. Maybe that’s changing now. Fallin’s office and the Oklahoma Geological Survey have now noted the strong link between injection wells and earthquakes. Boren is adamant geologists at OU have complete academic freedom to study the issue. But is it too late?
As I’ve noted before, if the earthquakes continue to rattle us here in central Oklahoma the issue will be politically contentious in the 2016 general election. Many of the quakes are near the relatively wealthy suburb of Edmond, which is a conservative bastion. “Drill, baby, drill,” the conservative mantra, has turned into “shake, baby, shake.” The anxiety over property values and personal safety will surely trump political ideology.
A personal note: I’ve written about the earthquake issue for several years now. It’s not unusual for me to feel an earthquake as I’m actually writing a post about earthquakes and injection wells. We’re living through this crisis on a daily basis in central Oklahoma. It’s time for people to speak up.