According to Oklahoma’s most recent geological survey data — to paraphrase the song made famous by amateur seismologist/underage-cousin-marrier Jerry Lee Lewis — “There’s a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on, not as much shakin’ as was goin’ on in previous record-setting years, but still, historically speaking, a relatively whole lotta shakin’.”
“Earthquakes magnitude 3.0 and greater have dropped for the fourth straight year in Oklahoma,” Tulsa World staff writer Corey Jones reported Jan. 6. “There were 62 such quakes in 2019, down from 203 a year ago and the peak of 903 in 2015, according to Oklahoma Geological Survey data. … However, the state’s quake hazards remain elevated, with the seismicity rate well above the historical average of two or three 3.0s a year. The last time that average hit was in 2008 with two.”
You might be tempted to blame this seismic activity on hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” — using a highly pressurized mixture of water, sand and chemicals to drill for oil and natural gas deep within the earth — but the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) says slow your roll, Johnny Greenpeace.
“Only a few of the over 2000 magnitude 3 and larger earthquakes since 2009 that have occurred in Oklahoma have been connected to hydraulic fracturing,” according to the USGS website. “The majority of earthquakes in Oklahoma are caused by the industrial practice known as ‘wastewater disposal’ … a separate process in which fluid waste from oil and gas production is injected deep underground far below ground water or drinking water aquifers.”
So it’s not our harmful, irresponsibly shortsighted means of extracting oil and gas that’s the problem; it’s our harmful, irresponsibly shortsighted means of disposing of the byproducts of that extraction. According to a Scientific American article from September, Oklahoma’s earthquake rates, which have increased 900-fold since 2008, “fell sharply” after 2015, “when oil demand fell as prices dropped and Oklahoma instituted new wastewater-disposal rules,” but recent studies suggest that “the effects of wastewater disposal can persist for years after injection rates slow or stop, as pressure from the wastewater continues to spread belowground and rupture ancient faults.” So we have that to look forward to. In Oklahoma, the moneymaker shakes you.