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What the frack?

What is hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”? Is the practice contributing to the spike in Oklahoma earthquakes? Scientists’ conclusions differ.

Angela Chambers March 25th, 2014

With the state’s earthquake swarm and national exposure adding a heavy workload to the Oklahoma Geological Survey, a new colleague joined the once-solitary seismologist at the survey last month.

Amberlee Darold, who previously worked as a contracted geophysicist for the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, was added to the University of Oklahoma-based state agency to conduct research with fellow seismologist Austin Holland.

Even having a second seismologist on the staff — which also includes scientists studying water, coal and other geological pursuits — hasn’t seemed to ease the workload.

Darold admits she has no time available for anything other than “all the earthquake activity around us.”

But Randy Keller, OGS director and OU professor who studies seismic data, could speak about the two seismologists’ research.

“We have so many earthquakes, so just processing them and dealing with them is overwhelming,” Keller said.

“She (Darold) is very experienced and capable and has made a difference.”

They’re currently studying potential reasons for the significant increase in Oklahoma quakes. Since 2009, the OGS finds seismic activity is 40 times higher than the previous 30 years. An EnergyWire analysis in December reports in the last four years, Oklahoma was No. 2 in the contiguous United States for earthquakes, with 10 percent of activity.

One cause could be the disposal of drilling wastewater by injecting it underground.

These fluids are used for hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” which is a proc

ess that breaks up rocks underground to extract oil and gas through a high-pressure injection of water, sand and chemical additives. It’s the disposal wells (not the actual fracturing) that scientists believe might be related to the earthquakes.

Researchers are currently working with the oil and gas industry to receive the necessary data from and access to disposal sites so they may find a more concrete answer.

In our backyard
Just months after Tyler Moss and his wife Denise became first-time homebuyers last June, they began experiencing regular earthquakes in their Edmond house.

“They come in bunches,” Moss said.

“From the first weekend we had them, in a three- or four-day span, we had six. Sometimes, when we’re lying in bed, we’ll feel one. It’ll wake you up.”

While they haven’t had any damage, Moss said one in January shook the house so much

that he thought someone hit the side of the house. And his wife was thrown off balance while walking in the house during another quake.

As a native Oklahoman, 28-year-old Moss grew up with tornadoes, not earthquakes. He experienced the earthquake following the 2011 Oklahoma State University vs. Kansas State University football game in Stillwater. Last December, Stillwater had another football quake (magnitude 4.5) during the Bedlam OU-OSU game, just as the Pokes’ Ben Grogan made a field goal.

Typically, earthquakes at 3.5 or above can be felt.

“A lot of the guys I work with and people in every corner of Edmond are experiencing their walls shaking,” Moss said. “Everyone is getting concerned. I go outside daily to check the exterior of my house.”

Like Moss, Michael Dean was on Twitter March 5 to share his experiences with the 3.9-magnitude quake in Edmond that day.

“My earliest memory of an earthquake was around the early 1950s,” said Dean, who is a producer for OU sports broadcasting. “We lived in Norman, and I was about 4 years old. The house shook violently. My mom grabbed me, and we ran outside. It’s one of my earliest memories.”

While he can’t remember the exact year, Dean was likely talking about the 5.5-magnitude quake in 1952, which was centered in El Reno but could be felt through most of Oklahoma and parts of Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Texas.

But it has only been within the last few years that Dean has experienced more frequent earthquakes while living in Edmond.

“A little more than a year ago, we were standing in the doorway with the door open, and all of a sudden, a roar came up,” Dean said. “It sounded like a (Boeing) 747 was going to land in front of our house. It was really unnerving.”

While they haven’t had home damage, with so much seismic activity, both Moss and Dean are adding earthquake insurance to their homeowners’ policies. Derek Stephens, a Farmers Insurance agent in Edmond, said he has received a steady flow of clients seeking earthquake insurance in the last year.

“We get about 20 or 30 calls about this insurance the day after an earthquake,” he said.

Stephens notes that if a potential insurance client is within the range of a 4.0-magnitude earthquake or above, they have to wait 60 days before receiving coverage. After the 4.5-magnitude quake during the Bedlam game in December, he added 80 new clients last month following a wait period. Any quakes below the 4.0 mark don’t require the 60 days.

“In Oklahoma, we have a lot of brick homes, and once it cracks, it can be a big problem,” Stephens said.

Oklahoma Insurance Commissioner John Doak, in response to the increased interest, released tips on finding the right policy. Along with understanding the wait periods (between 30 to 60 days), Doak’s statement noted that homeowners are likely going to pay about $100-$150 annually for the insurance. The deductible is a percentage (commonly 5 to 10 percent) of the home’s property value. So, for a $100,000 home, expect to pay a deductible of $5,000 to $10,000. Doak also advised checking whether the policy covers brick or stone veneers.

Dean is skeptical whether the disposal wells have a relation but says he will be satisfied with the findings of the Oklahoma Geological Survey.

Moss, who has seen earthquake activity at his home become increasingly regular, believes the oil and gas industry and seismologists should work together and find answers quickly.

Multiple studies
In February, OGS released an official statement covering what it knows about the seismic activity.

So far, the scientists haven’t found a definitive answer, but the statement notes that OGS hasn’t “ruled out that some earthquakes may have a relationship to oil and gas activities such as disposal well/injection, and examining these issues remains a major focus of ongoing research.” At the same time, the agency

believes the “majority, if not all, of the recent earthquakes appear to be the result of natural stressors.”

“We’re not convinced, but we have a lot of data and are working as fast as we can to analyze it,” Keller said.

Since Oklahoma’s seismic activity has only been closely studied within the last 50 years, OGS finds that it’s difficult to place current earthquakes in a proper context.

Along with the state agency, the U.S. Geological Survey is studying the 2011 Prague earthquake, registering 5.7 in magnitude, the largest ever recorded in Oklahoma. A USGS release notes that there appears to be a connection between wastewater disposal and that quake, as well as the magnitude 5.3 in Raton Basin, Colo., within the same year. The U.S. agency revealed that the original 5.0 Prague earthquake, located near wastewater disposal wells, might have triggered the larger 5.7 quake less than a day later.

“The observation that a humaninduced earthquake can trigger a cascade of earthquakes, including a larger one, has important implications for reducing the seismic risk from wastewater injection,” said Elizabeth Cochran, USGS seismologist and coauthor of the study, in the statement.

The great majority of Oklahoma’s quakes haven’t caused damage, as only 10 percent have been large enough to be felt. But in Prague, a small town with a population of 2,400 near the Wilzetta fault line, a few people close to the epicenter were injured. More than a dozen homes were damaged, as well.

While the USGS reports a stronger belief in this connection to disposal wells than OGS has to date, both agencies still don’t have complete certainty and are continuing to study a possible relation.

Beyond Oklahoma, Columbia University seismologists studied the 2011 New Year’s Eve 4.0-magnitude quake near Youngstown, Ohio, and found that it is likely linked to wastewater disposal wells, causing the governor to shut down the injection well and put four others on hold.

Injection wells have increased over the last few years, as President Obama and multiple backers of all political persuasions push for energy independence in what’s called a “frack boom.”

After gas is removed through the hydraulic fracturing/fracking process, the wastewater is recycled or injected in underground wells. When the pressurized water seeps through underground cracks, it might create seismic activity on fault lines.

Oklahoma’s oil output last summer, thanks in large part to the Woodford shale, reached the highest level since January 1990. From 2010 to fall 2013, the oil output doubled from 160,000 to 320,000 barrels a day, reported an Oct. 2013 analysis by Reuters.

Oklahoma currently has about 11,000 oil and gas production (or class II) injection wells, with 4,000 of those as disposal wells, according to Matt Skinner, spokesman for the Oklahoma Corporation Commission (OCC), which regulates the oil and gas industry. The wastewater is injected thousands of feet underground.

Oil and gas companies, well operators and the corporation commission are working to provide the OGS with proper data.

Seismologist Holland previously mentioned a desire to study whether an earthquake may be triggered near a disposal well. Keller said so far, they haven’t been able to conduct that research.

“It’s an opportunity to do a needed experiment, but at the same time, the people invested in many hundreds of thousands of dollars in injection wells have to decide if they’re willing to take on the potential risks involved,” Keller said. “I understand the operators’ concern because it could backfire.”

Currently, Keller said the OGS is receiving “better information and cooperation from the industry.”

“Everyone is concerned about what’s going on and wants to figure it out,” he said.

Chad Warmington, president of the Oklahoma Oil and Gas Association, which includes some of the largest drilling companies, said that oil and gas companies are working alongside the scientists to get more information.

“The safety of all Oklahomans and employees is important. Regulation is really critical to us as an industry,” he said. “We continue to work to provide the data the geologists need to find any correlation. Right now, it’s very unclear, and we don’t want anyone jumping to conclusions. But that doesn’t mean we’re not going to keep looking and have the data available.”

In mid-March, the OCC voted to adopt its first data collection and monitoring rules relating to the potential link of disposal wells and earthquakes in central Oklahoma’s Arbuckle Formation. Well operators in that region must now record daily injection pressure and volume measurements. Previously, only monthly data was required. If requested, operators are required to give the information to the commission. Before the new rules become official, the Oklahoma Legislature and Gov. Mary Fallin must provide final approval.

Seismologists believe studying the injection pressure will help them under stand how much pressure may be used before the risk for seismic activity increases. Holland spoke with National Public Radio’s local reporter Joe Wertz of the StateImpact Oklahoma project in January 2013 about the need for additional data on how much pressure is building in disposal wells underground. Currently, the commission only requires data from surface pressure.

When asked if he has received more data one year later, Holland replied via email, “Yes, but things at the moment are only slightly better than before.”

Skinner from the commission said the Underground Injection Control staff wasn’t aware of anyone making a request for bottom hole pressure monitoring in the current rules released this month. However, whenever the next round of rules are proposed (starting this summer, with votes happening early next year), “the commission will obviously give it the same consideration given the increased monitoring and testing rules approved this year.”

The UIC doesn’t provide permits for new injection wells in areas with recent seismicity, and the commission is exploring whether to further restrict permits as additional stress and fault maps are developed by OGS and Stanford University.

The commission required a disposal well operator to reduce operations in Love County (south of Ardmore) last September after the geological survey believed it could have triggered multiple earthquakes. The OGS installed five seismometers in the area to continue its research.

Along with studying the disposal wells, seismologists are also looking into whether the changing levels of Arcadia Lake (east of Edmond) could be responsible for some of the activity. Last June, the lake almost doubled in size, which added extra weight and might have induced seismicity. A sudden decrease in weight also could create a similar phenomenon.


> Oklahoma Geological Survey created a Twitter account, @OKearthquakes, on March 6 to share daily earthquake data.

> The Red Cross offers an earthquake alert phone app to send alerts when earthquakes occur and provide information on how to best prepare your family and home.

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