Articles Posted in Earthquakes

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The Dallas Morning News has published an excellent, in-depth investigative report — “Seismic Denial? Why Texas Won’t Admit Fracking Wastewater is Causing Earthquakes,” by Steve Thompson and Anna Kuchment — about the Texas Railroad Commission’s failure to recognize or address the relationship between salt water disposal wells and earthquakes in North Texas, and the industry’s influence on the process. Anyone who wants to know how the Railroad Commission really works should read this article.  In an accompanying editorial, the News said:

Not only has the Texas Railroad Commission consistently denied man-made earthquakes in the face of compelling science, it also worked overtime to protect the oil and gas industry from accountability for its role in an earthquake swarm that rattled Azle and Reno [in North Texas] in late 2013 and early 2014.

The editorial remarks on the substantial campaign contributions received by commissioners, all of whom are elected, from exploration companies. The Commission is under sunset review (again) this session and must be re-authorized by the Legislature next year. The editorial continues:

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National press have reported that oil tycoon Harold Hamm, billionaire founder and CEO of Continental Resources, is being considered for Energy Secretary in the Trump administration. Last year, it was reported that Hamm pressured the University of Oklahoma to dismiss scientists who were studying links between disposal wells and earthquakes in Oklahoma. (Google Harold Hamm and earthquakes.)  Since that time, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission has been forced to order severe curtailment of salt water disposal to lessen incidence of earthquakes. Most recently, a 5.0 quake hit near Cushing, OK, the site of the largest oil and gas storage facility in the U.S., forcing shutdown of some pipelines and causing significant property damage in the town of Cushing.

Cushing

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The Oklahoma Corporation Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency have ordered the shut-in of 54 disposal wells in Osage County, Oklahoma, after a magnitude 5.6 earthquake on Saturday, September 3. The wells are in an oval with a 10-mile radius around the center of the quake, a 211-mile area (click to enlarge):

OK quake Sept 2016
The EPA ordered 17 wells shut-in in the blue area above because EPA is responsible for regulation of oil and gas operations in the Pawnee Nation reservation area.

The quake was about the same magnitude as one near Prague, Oklahoma in 2011 that was the largest recorded quake in Oklahoma.

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Last year the Texas legislature passed House Bill 2, including a supplemental appropriation of $4.5 million to fund a study of the causes of earthquakes in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The funds are being used to purchase and run seismic monitoring equipment and analysis of data to test the connection between oil and gas activity in the area and recent seismic activity. The legislation also required the governor to name a technical advisory committee to advise on the project, which is led by the University of Texas Bureau of Economic Geology. Yesterday, the governor named the members of the advisory committee:

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On Saturday, Oklahoma experienced the third-largest earthquake on record in the state, a 5.1-magnitude quake in northwest Oklahoma. It was felt across Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico and Texas, and was followed by 10 smaller quakes ranging from 2.5 to 3.9. In response, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission announced that it would implement a regional plan to address earthquakes in the state, which are linked to the large increase in disposal of produced water. A spokesman for the Commission said that “the plan will involve a large-scale regional reduction in oil and gas wastewater disposal for an approximately 5,000 square mile area in western Oklahoma.” The plan is to be released today. A big loser in the Commission’s plan will likely be Sandridge Energy, a company that has invested heavily in production activities that require disposal of huge volumes of produced water in Oklahoma.

Earthquakes have also been linked to wastewater disposal operations in North Texas, and the Texas legislature last year funded a study now being conducted under the supervision of the University of Texas Bureau of Economic Geology to investigate the causal link between increased seismic activity and wastewater disposal in North Texas. Although the Texas Railroad Commission hired its own seismologist last year, the RRC has so far refused to admit any connection between quakes and disposal operations in Texas. After a study led by scientists at Southern Methodist University linked quakes near Azle, Texas to two disposal wells nearby, the RRC called two “show cause” hearings to require the companies operating those wells to show cause why their disposal operations should not be halted or curtailed; after those hearings, the RRC held that the companies had proven that there was no causal link between the disposal wells and the earthquakes, despite the SMU study.

At a recent forum of Republican candidates for the open RRC seat, no candidate was willing to admit any causal link between recent quakes in the DFW region and increased wastewater disposal activities in that area.

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Oklahoma oil and gas regulators are scrambling to deal with increasing seismic activity. The Oklahoma Corporation Commission ordered six wastewater disposal wells shut down after the state’s strongest earthquake since 2011, a magnitude-4.7 quake near Cherokee, close to the Kansas border. The quake was felt from Dallas to Kansas City. A second 4.0- quake was centered near Crescent, close to Oklahoma City. There were a total of eight earthquakes. The Commission also ordered the owners of 23 other wells to reduce injection rates by 25 to 50 percent.

Oklahoma regulators have now conceded that earthquakes there are caused by disposal wells, after much earlier debate. Oklahoma is now the most seismically active area of the country. The state has had more than 790 quakes of magnitude 3 or greater this year, compared to 585 last year.

Cherokee is in Alfalfa County, where 225 million barrels of waste water was disposed of last year, more than 10 times what was injected in 2010. It sits over the Mississippi Lime, an oil play that requires disposal of 10 barrels of water for every barrel of oil produced.

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Recent earthquakes near Cushing, Oklahoma have caused a seismic shift in the state’s response to induced quakes in that state. The reason – Cushing is a major hub in the U.S. for storage and shipments of crude. Below is a snapshot of some of the giant storage tanks just outside the town (click to enlarge):

cushing
Some of these tanks are large enough to hold a Boeing 747. Cushing’s storage can hold more than 10 million barrels of oil; it is the largest commercial storage depot in the U.S.

A flurry of quakes have recently hit near Cushing. On October 10, a quake measuring 4.5 on the Richter scale hit about three miles from the town.  Scientists have linked increased seismic activity in Oklahoma to increased waste water injection.  3.3 billion barrels of waste water were injected under Oklahoma from 2011 through 2013.

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The Oklahoma Corporation Commission, the regulator of oil and gas in Oklahoma, has directed operators of 23 injection wells in a designated area to reduce rates of injection by 38% by October 2, 2015. The order covers a 15-mile-by-40-mile “area of interest,” stretching northwest from the outskirts of Oklahoma City. The Commission’s letter may be viewed here: Oklahoma Corp Commn quake letter

Earthquakes in Oklahoma have increased from 2 in 2012 to 359 in 2014; so far in 2015, 253 quakes have been detected.

Dana Murphy, one of the three elected members of the Corporation Commission, said “This is an issue completely outside the scope of the experience of not only this agency, but all our partner agencies and stakeholders, as well. There was a time when the scientific, legal, policy and other concerns related to this issue had to first be carefully researched and debated in order to provide a valid framework for such action. That time is over.”

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Energywire has been following the political implications of the University of Oklahoma’s study of the causes behind the huge increase in earthquakes in Oklahoma, and OU’s relationship with Harold Hamm, CEO of Continental Resources. In a recent investigative article, Energywire reported that “University of Oklahoma officials were seeking a $25 million donation from billionaire oilman Harold Hamm last year, records show, at a time when scientists at the school were formulating the state’s position on oil drilling and earthquakes.” OU initially “came up with a position that squared with Hamm’s, saying most of the hundreds of earthquakes rattling the state are natural and not caused by the oil industry.” Hamm turned down the donation request, and OU’s Geological Survey subsequently changed its position and now says that most earthquakes in Oklahoma are “very likely” triggered by oil and gas activities.

Earthquakes in Oklahoma have increased from 20 with a magnitude of 3.0 or greater in 2009 to 585 in 2014, and Oklahoma is now expected to have more than 800 such quakes this year.

OU’s president, David Boren, a former senator, serves with Hamm on Continental’s board of directors and according to Energywire has received $1.6 million from the company since 2009. Hamm has pressured OU to avoid linking quakes to injection of produced water in Oklahoma.

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