What the frack?

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.

Collaboration
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.

STAY INFORMED

> 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.

Angela Chambers

This material falls under the archives category because it was imported from our previous website. It will eventually be filtered into the proper category as time allows.

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