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Could Oklahoma Benefit From Advance Earthquake Warnings?

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Seismologists now know what many have suspected for years -- waste water injection wells used in oil and gas exploration are triggering more earthquakes in Oklahoma - according to news released by the Oklahoma Geological Survey. Seismologists now know what many have suspected for years -- waste water injection wells used in oil and gas exploration are triggering more earthquakes in Oklahoma - according to news released by the Oklahoma Geological Survey.

Seismologists now know what many have suspected for years -- waste water injection wells used in oil and gas exploration are triggering more earthquakes in Oklahoma - according to news released by the Oklahoma Geological Survey.

4/21/15 Related Story: OGS: Earthquakes Likely Triggered By Disposal Well Injections

"There are a lot of wells and the earthquakes are often occurring in between them where there are preexisting faults that are ready to slip," said Austin Holland, a seismologist for the OGS. "With the increased number of small to moderate earthquakes, the potential for a more significant earthquake has increased."

A fact Sharon McDonald of Guthrie worries about on a daily basis.

"We were getting at least one a day, sometimes two or three earthquakes a day," she said.

Intense earthquakes are occurring, she says, that have caused significant damage to her home, such as cracks in her foundation and walls. She recently had her home surveyed by a home inspector. The report listed earthquakes were to blame in for the damage.

"You can see where it's separating from the house," McDonald said. "My house is crumbling around me and there's nothing I can do about it."

Since 2009, Oklahoma has had 300 times more earthquakes than in previous decades. The latest study by the U.S. Geological Survey says 300 million-year old fault lines have been reactivated and are capable of triggering a 6.0 quake. We traveled to Cal Tech in Pasadena California, where seismologist Dr. Thomas Goebel is researching the earthquake outbreak in our state.

"What happens in Oklahoma is very interesting," said Dr. Goebel. "We can compare where the earthquakes occurred before 2009 and where they occur after 2009 and they are significantly closer to waste water injection sites."

4/21/15 Related Story: OGS: Oil, Gas Wastewater Disposal Wells Likely Trigger For Most Oklahoma Earthquakes

Kim Hatfield, the regulatory committee chairman with the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, says there are 4,500 permitted disposal wells in Oklahoma, with roughly 3,200 of them active. The wells are used to hold the waste water collected in oil production, a method the industry has used for 60 plus years.

"The only thing that has changed is the volume of water that is being injected," Hatfield said.

In fact, oil production has nearly doubled in the last five years, from nearly 69,000 barrels of oil collected in 2009 to just over 128,000 barrels in 2014. For each barrel of oil produced, 10 barrels of waste water goes back into the ground. Last year alone, that equaled more than a million barrels of waste water being injected into Oklahoma soil.

Oklahoma Field Production of Crude Oil

"With the increase in activity, the Corporation Commission and the operators said 'okay, we're going to go back and review all these wells," Hatfield said.

And what the OCC found, along with an increase in waste water, is that the depth at which operators are injecting this waste water is also playing a role in triggering seismic activity.

"Injecting into the basement is a bad idea and so injecting into a fault in the basement is a worse idea," he said.

The OCC is reviewing around 380 wells in the area where there's been increased earthquake activity with the primary focus being the high-volume wells disposing below the Arbuckle formation. The Arbuckle formation encompasses almost all of Oklahoma, and is the most commonly used formation for disposal well operation. Many seismologists agree that injecting below the Arbuckle poses the highest potential risk of triggering earthquakes in Oklahoma.

"We're not trying to get away with anything, we want this to be done right," Hatfield said. "Any wells that has penetrated into the top of the granite, we're going to plug that back to make sure there is not chance we're injecting into the basement."

Back in March, directives were issued by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission's Oil and Gas Conservation Division (OGCD).

OCC DIRECTIVES CHANGING DISPOSAL WELL OPERATIONS

To date, under the directives:

· More than 50 disposal wells have had to shut down operations and reduce total depth to provide disposal into only the Arbuckle formation to mitigate the potential risk. *

· Approximately 150 other disposal wells have reduced their volumes by 50 percent.*

· Other wells are keeping volumes below 1,000 barrels a day.

*Totals are revised regularly as response continues.

The OGCD says this is not a final answer just a necessary step to do now with hopes that ongoing research will result in a more permanent plan. Meanwhile, researchers in California are testing an advanced earthquake warning system.

"This warning will give people between 10 seconds to sometimes up to a minute of time to prepare for the larger seismic wave to arrive," said Dr. Goebel.

Once they detect where the earthquake has hit, the warning would come through a computer or smartphone to warn people in nearby cities.

"We're on a plate boundary like California, you know, early warning is probably in the future," said Holland.

A warning people like McDonald fear won't come soon enough.

"It's not just affecting people in Guthrie, not even just Oklahoma," said McDonald. "It's across the United States now where these injection wells are really doing some damage to the earth.

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