Oil and Gas Industry Rewrites US Earthquake Map

The US Geological Survey today issued earthquake hazard maps for the central and eastern United States. For the second year running, the maps show the once-staid prairie of Oklahoma and southern Kansas as even more quake-prone than fault-ripped California. The spike in temblors east of the Rockies, driven by oil and gas industry waste-water injection wells, has led federal seismologists to differentiate between “natural” earthquakes and the “human-induced” temblors.

Nowhere have seismic swarms been more strongly correlated to energy industry practices than the fuel-rich region that includes Oklahoma and southern Kansas. Before the millennial fracking boom, the area experienced an average of two earthquakes per year greater than magnitude 2.7. In 2015, there were more than 4,000. Federal seismologists with the USGS moved authoritatively in 2016 to adapt hazard reporting to include Oklahoma’s oil and gas patch quakes and explicitly categorize them as “human-induced.”

The publication this week of the second federal hazard map of human-induced quakes is a “story of generally good news in terms of potential damage,” says Mark Petersen, USGS Chief of the National Seismic Hazard Mapping Project. Rates fell sharply in high populated areas near Dallas and Fort Worth, he said today, while risk remained substantial for the roughly three million Americans in Oklahoma and south Kansas.

There his team found good news and bad. On the positive front, quakes equal or greater to magnitude 2.7 in the Oklahoma-southern Kansas area were down to right around 2,500, be it because of industry reforms or simply a slump in oil and gas prices. However, the fall was accompanied by a worrying new fillip.  Last year Oklahoma experienced a spate of high intensity quakes with 21 registering more than 4.0 and three more than 5.0. The 5.8 temblor that struck Pawnee last September was the strongest ever recorded in the state.

Earthquake damage in Cushing, OK. Source: USGSFrustrated homeowners in Pawnee have been joined by residents of Cushing, where a 5.0 quake hit in November, in a lawsuit against dozens of oil and gas companies. Reporting in the Atlantic, Robinson Meyer noted that then Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt could have intervened on behalf of the homeowners, as attorneys general have in other states, but didn’t.

Few men are more synonymous with energy interests in Oklahoma than Scott Pruitt, whose campaign manager for his 2014 run for the state’s attorney general was Continental Resources energy baron Harold Hamm. The same year he shepherded Pruitt to office, Hamm reportedly pressured the University of Oklahoma to fire seismologists connecting the state’s earthquake swarms to injection wells.

As AG, Pruitt dismantled the Sooner State’s environmental enforcement division and issued multiple lawsuits against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on behalf of energy companies. Confirmed recently as the Trump administration’s administrator for the EPA, Pruitt’s indebtedness to the energy sector has been revealed in thousands of his e-mails released last week in response to a public records request by the Center for Media and Democracy.

In anticipation of the new federal hazard map, long after injection-well rates were capped by other states, last week Oklahoma regulators issued new rules that they say will further reduce human-induced quakes, reports the Oklahoman.

Recommended reading:

Drilling for earthquakes, Scientific American, 3/28/16

Induced Earthquakes, US Geological Survey

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