Concern Growing For State's Response To Earthquakes

Tuesday, March 29th 2016, 6:53 pm
By: Alex Cameron

When the ground shakes here, it no longer catches people by surprise.

But the fact that it shook twice overnight seemed to add an exclamation point to the release, just a few hours earlier, of the USGS's new hazard map -- the first to include the risk from induced seismicity, and the first to officially lift Oklahoma into the same overall risk category as California and Alaska.

The quakes, rated magnitude 4.2 and 3.6, were both centered near Crescent and are not believed to have caused any significant damage. Still, the fact that they came on the heels of the USGS report helped focus new attention on the state's response to what most agree is induced seismicity -- earthquakes caused by the injection of large volumes of produced water underground.

"We know we have an earthquake problem," said Oklahoma Energy & Environment Secretary Michael Teague, "it's what we're all working towards."

Teague says the new USGS map validates the regulatory actions the state is now taking, echoing the sentiments of Gov. Mary Fallin, summarized in this statement from her office:

“Oklahoma remains committed to doing whatever is necessary to reduce seismicity in the state," said Fallin. "The report supports the actions that we are taking.”

Teague says those actions -- forcing hundreds of disposal well operators to reduce volumes in earthquake-prone areas -- are already having a positive impact.

"We are seeing declines in the earthquake activity," said Teague, "both in Kansas and Oklahoma."

But the two Crescent quakes, the strongest felt in the area in a couple of months, raise the question of whether such statements are premature.

In a story published this week in Scientific American, a USGS seismologist who has been studying the Oklahoma earthquakes, suggests the amount of energy already in the system (underground) is such that, even if ALL wells in the state were shut down immediately, the increased level of seismicity would continue for a long time.

"It's hundreds of years," said Daniel McNamara.

Statements like that feed into criticism that, in truth, the administration's response is not validated by the new hazard map, but rather exposed for its inadequacy.

"What the governor fails to mention," said Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City, in a statement, "is that her administration was more than a year late in responding to all of the seismic activity in Oklahoma."

Former oilman Mickey Thompson says the administration's wake-up call should have been the 5.6 magnitude Prague earthquake, more than four years ago.

"There is a groundswell of reaction to these earthquakes at this point," said Thompson, in an interview last month, "and the people at 23rd and Lincoln Boulevard really ought to pay attention."

Leaders at 23 and Lincoln say they are paying attention. But, if that's the case, many wonder why the Oklahoma Geological Survey (OGS) has yet to hire a replacement for Austin Holland, the research seismologist who left for the USGS last August.

The Oklahoma Corporation Commission (OCC), which has been given the de facto responsibility for getting the induced seismicity under control through regulation of disposal wells, relies heavily on OGS to provide the scientific guidance for its actions.

The lack of a qualified research seismologist has made it difficult, at times, for OCC fulfill that responsibility.

Jeremy Boak, OGS Executive Director, explained today in an email that they recently interviewed a strong candidate for the job and could have the position filled by the summer.