9 Investigates: How Arkansas Stopped Its Earthquakes

<p>Two packed public hearings last week seem to have served notice that Oklahomans are, not only worried about the hazard posed by man-made earthquakes, but frustrated that state leaders haven't done more to stop them.</p>

Thursday, January 21st 2016, 10:55 pm

By: News 9

Two packed public hearings last week seem to have served notice that Oklahomans are, not only worried about the hazard posed by man-made earthquakes, but frustrated that state leaders haven't done more to stop them.

Other states that have experienced recent earthquake swarms have successfully reduced, or even ended, the temblors through aggressive regulation of disposal wells, which, under certain circumstances, scientists say, do cause seismicity.

In one of those states, Arkansas, the earthquakes had caused minor damage.

"Started out, it wasn't that bad," said Tony Davis, standing outside his rural Arkansas home last week.

Davis says he first started feeling the earthquakes in the fall of 2010.

"Yeah, you'd be sittin' there watching TV," Davis said, "and all the sudden it'd start shaking."

Davis lives in Faulkner County, which is in central Arkansas, 40 miles north of Little Rock and close to Enola, where a swarm of naturally occurring earthquakes were recorded in the early 1980s.

"So, we were thinking, 'Okay, this is probably natural seismicity'," noted Scott Ausbrooks, the Assistant State Geologist at the Arkansas Geological Survey.

But Ausbrooks says they also knew that some disposal wells had recently gone online in the area, and the seismicity was increasing, drawing increasing attention.

"People were beginning to wonder what was going on," said Ausbrooks.

In the capital, Little Rock, members of the Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission wanted answers -- the state had gone from 37 total earthquakes in 2009 to 772 in 2010, and most of them were centered in and around the small, normally quiet, towns of Guy and Greenbrier.

"It went from a novelty to a nuisance, and then," Ausbrooks explained, "when the 4.7 happened, that's where it became a nightmare."

February 27th, 2011 is the day, some say, Arkansas got a wake-up call. Tony Davis had just gone to bed-- "I believe it was at 11:45 at night, if I'm not mistaken," Davis recalled.

Davis says it was scary.

"I took the mattress and immediately threw it over my wife," Davis exclaimed. "I didn't really know what was going on."

Davis's home, it turns out, was just 250 yards from the epicenter of a 4.7 magnitude earthquake. It brought fixtures down from the walls and literally split the home in two.

"I could actually see the separation from the house," Davis said.

But there was no longer any split among scientists over the cause: "Oh yeah, there was a strong correlation that it was a induced--it was induced earthquakes," said Scott Ausbrooks, "and based on that, the Oil and Gas Commission acted accordingly."

On July 27, 2011, the Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission voted unanimously to create a moratorium area around the earthquakes where no new disposal wells could go in, and where all those that had been operating were shut down.

One of the wells, Edgmon No.1, belonged to a small Oklahoma-based oilfield services company, which, as a result of the regulatory action, was forced into bankruptcy.

"It was pretty devastating to our little company," said Mickey Thompson, who was a co-owner of the company.

Thompson, who was president of the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association from 1994-2005, thought the action was unfair at first. But he has not only came to accept it, he now praises it.

"I have been saying for three years to my friends in the oil and gas business, who I used to work for," Thompson told 9 Investigates, in a recent interview, "they should look at Arkansas."

With a moratorium in place and wells shut down, the earthquakes started to fade. After peaking in 2011 at 790, the number dropped to 98 in 2012, and officials at the Geological Survey say there have been no felt earthquakes in that part of the state now for two years.

"No more earthquakes," remarked Thompson. "That's enough, I think, for more substantive action in Oklahoma than what we've seen."

Thompson says he completely understands the differences between Oklahoma and Arkansas, both in their respective geologies and the relative importance of the oil and gas industry. But he believes, as do a growing number of Oklahomans, that it's long past time that protecting public safety take precedence over protecting oil and gas, and Thompson says voluntary directives from the Oklahoma Corporation Commission aren't enough.

"We have an epic fail on this seismicity issue," Thompson stated. "It's time for the leaders to lead, and to do some things that may be unpopular with their supporters."

Scientists in Arkansas aren't trying to suggest what Oklahoma should do about its earthquakes-- "It's much more complicated [in Oklahoma] than here," said geologist Ausbrooks.

But Ausbrooks says he is proud of the way scientists and state government worked together to solve a problem.

Thompson says Oklahoma can and should learn from the Arkansas example.

"They shut down several major disposal facilities -- permanently," Thompson said, "The industry didn't collapse. The industry adjusted. The industry hauled its water somewhere else."

Tony Davis, meanwhile, wishes government in Arkansas would have acted even faster. If it had, his house might never have been damaged.

But Davis says, at least, they finally got it, that the citizens are the top priority.

"Because people like myself work hard every day for what we have." said Davis. "It's my dream, ya know, and when something's whittling away at your dream, it hurts."

Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin has said that she does not have the authority to shut down disposal wells or impose a moratorium.

Likewise, officials with the Oklahoma Corporation Commission have said they also lack the authority to unilaterally shut down wells. In the alternative, the OCC, since the summer of 2015 has been issuing directives, requesting the operators of disposal wells in the state's most seisically active areas to reduce their injection volumes and, in some cases, stop injecting altogether.

Compliance with the OCC directives is voluntary.

9 Investigates requested interviews with both Governor Fallin and Corporation Commissioners for this story, but were turned down. A spokesman for the OCC cited legal reasons the Commissioners could not comment, while a spokesman for Governor Fallin said that she is too busy.


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