A research seismologist here at the Oklahoma Geological Survey who has spent the last four years looking into central Oklahoma's unusual, but ongoing swarm of earthquakes, is proposing a study that could actually trigger more earthquakes.
Austin Holland is hoping to establish, with some scientific certainty, whether a lone disposal well in south central Oklahoma is responsible for a sudden onset of tremors last month. At least, one of the quakes caused significant property damage, while others were just startling.
"I thought we were being attacked or something like that," said Dick Pieper. "I mean, it was like a bomb had gone off."
Pieper owns a ranch just north of Marietta, in Love County. The ranch's normally serene setting was broken frequently between Sept. 13 and Oct. 3 – seismic monitoring equipment recorded 142 earthquakes in that period.
"We've lived here 26 years," Pieper stated, "and we've never – ever – felt an earthquake, and then we, all of the sudden, get this huge series of them."
The most powerful of all the earthquakes – a magnitude 3.4 -- hit on the morning of Sept. 23.
"Boy, it just about shook me out of bed," Pieper exclaimed.
At Pieper Ranch, the walls shook, picture frames broke, glass trophies fell and shattered, and walkways developed cracks.
One house over, the chimney tumbled off the roof and broke apart in the front yard. There were other reports of damage – a window shattering, brick façade cracking, and foundations compromised.
Pieper says he and his neighbors had a pretty good idea what the culprit was. A new disposal well -- just a mile down the road, and the only one in the county -- had started operating about two weeks before they started feeling the ground shake.
Pieper says there's no question in his mind -- and his neighbors' -- that there's a connection.
"I know they're convinced," Austin Holland admitted, "and certainly there's reason to look at this and have concern."
Holland says science has shown that, in rare instances, injection wells, even hydraulic fracturing, can cause earthquakes -- mostly very small ones. He says, with careful monitoring of the data, he could establish if the Love County quakes are also a case of induced seismicity.
That's what we're trying to get to," Holland said, "is this actionable data set that can allow us to make decisions about these things."
What Holland wants to do is get the operator of the well, Ardmore oil and gas man Tom Dunlap, to begin operating the well at a minimal level of about 1,000 barrels a day. Holland believes, if the well was causing all the seismic activity in September, earthquakes will resume, and then they will shut down the well for good.
If the earthquakes don't start up again -- something Holland does not expect -- they would then allow the well to operate at higher volumes. The goal is to safely determine whether the disposal well operation can stay in business, and learn more about the relationship between fluid injection and seismicity at the same time.
Pieper says he's game.
"If we have a few more booms, and it's proven that [the well's] the cause," said Pieper, "then we can all learn from it, and everybody will be better off."
Holland says what they do learn could help the Oklahoma Corporation Commission better regulate disposal wells across the state. But his plan will need the approval of the Corporation Commission first, in order to proceed.
Holland will present this proposal and his findings thus far on the Love County quakes, to the National Academies of Science in Washington, D.C. on Monday.