Path Home Shows 2014 Show Archive October 2014 Show 1442 Oklahoma Tremors & Booms

Oklahoma Tremors & Booms

Oklahoma is topping the charts for the most seismic activity in the nation, and many people are pointing fingers at the oil and gas industry.
Oklahoma Tremors & Booms

Oklahoma Tremors & Booms

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Oklahoma Department of Energy

Oklahoma Geological Survey


OSU School of Geology

Show Details

Show 1442: Oklahoma Tremors & Booms
Air Date: October 19, 2014



Rob McClendon: Well, the growth in drilling is sparking new life in communities around the state. According to the Corporation Commission, 2,600 new wells were completed last year. And amid all that activity, Oklahoma has seen an exponential growth in the number of earthquakes in the state. And whether that’s just coincidence or causal is a common subject of debate. Joining me now is our Courtney Maye.

Courtney Maye: Oklahoma is certainly shaking, passing California and topping the charts for the most seismic activity in the nation. And many people are pointing fingers at the oil and gas industry.

Courtney: Shawn Hull loves his new home but not all the cracks.

Shawn Hull: All right, here you see some of the cracks that have been repaired, and then with the earthquake last week have been unrepaired.

Courtney: A problem that went from bad to worse as the number of earthquakes grew.

Shawn: We were actually sitting in the living room, and people thought that a car hit the house, and I realized we were having an earthquake.

Courtney: The average number of earthquakes over a 3.0 magnitude in Oklahoma has increased from an annual average of less than five to more than 300 in 2014.

Todd Halihan: Now, we are quite seismically active. We actually passed up California for our rate.

Courtney: Todd Halihan is an OSU geologist who studies earthquakes around the globe and says there is increasing evidence that it’s injection well sites – not fracking – that is causing the growth in earthquakes in Oklahoma.

Halihan: Injection-induced seismicity is a very reasonable hypothesis for generating those. And they’ve done that with data analysis and with modeling of those phenomenon.

Courtney: And Halihan says this is not new news. Researchers have known since the ’60s that water injection produces seismic activity.

Halihan: That process was first shown to be a problem with causing seismicity back in the 1960s at a place called the Rocky Mountain Arsenal and followed up by an experiment where Chevron teamed up with the USGS to test the concept, and in the early ’70s they made their own earthquakes. And so they could show beyond a reasonable doubt that you could make an earthquake by injecting water.

Courtney: And that’s why Gov. Mary Fallin announced the launch of a Seismic Activity Council consisting of members from the oil and gas industry, the Oklahoma Geological Survey, the Corporation Commission and university researchers.

Mary Fallin: Basically, we know that Oklahoma’s always had seismic activity, but over the last couple years we’ve seen more seismic activity in our state, and that’s concerning to our citizens.

Courtney: And the governor says by linking scientists and energy experts already studying the issue together, the state can develop sound regulatory practices and policies.

Fallin: We think it’s important that we deal with factual information, accurate data, and to be able to collaborate and to share that information so that we can be able to tell the public what is going on in the state of Oklahoma and to address those concerns.

Halihan: We’ve never pumped this hard and this long into injection well system. And so we, we have some things we can go off of, but we’ve not done this experiment before to say absolutely what the risks look like.

Courtney: So while the scientists study, insurance agents like Barry Patton are keeping busy writing new earthquake policies.

Barry Patton: Originally there was probably less than 1 percent. Now, I would guess probably around, between 5 and 10 percent have either gotten it or asked about it -- one of the two.

Courtney: A growing demand for a policy that was once unheard of in this state.

Patton: About everybody that I do a review on or talk to asks about that. We’ve got to the point now where we just tell ’em about it anyway.

Courtney: A problem that Halihan says may not be going away anytime soon.

Halihan: The U.S. Geological Survey and the Oklahoma Geological Survey put out an announcement at the beginning of May saying our risk for something greater than a 5.5 had increased significantly.

Courtney: Not good news for homeowners like Hull.

Hull: This here is the garage.

Courtney: Who just keep finding more cracks.

Hull: And, uh, what you see is previously repaired cracks and also brand new cracks that are contributing to the old cracks as well. And a brand spankin’ new one right over there.

Courtney: Creating an environment that Halihan believes is not good for the industry either.

Halihan: It’s actually risky for both the citizens and the industry. And people look at it as citizens against the industry, but it’s actually risky for both of them. When they looked at which wells might be causing this, it’s typically a small number. Almost all injection wells operate aseismically – meaning they don’t cause earthquakes. It’s a small number that are at a really high rate. And so it doesn’t mean you have to shut the whole thing down; you have an option of pulling back part way. But the process that Oklahoma’s developed is being banned at various places around the world because of concerns about whether they can operate safely. And so without having a framework to do that here, where we have trouble trying to deal with people that are not operating as responsibly as they could, what happens is both people are put at risk and the industry is put at risk for people that are spending a lot of effort to make sure they’re doing it properly when other folks aren’t.

Rob: Now, Courtney, I think Dr Halihan’s comments were particularly interesting because, I was at the governor’s energy conference, and I had someone from the industry say the exact same thing to me -- that the industry needs to look at that relationship between the two and if there is something there, mitigate it.

Courtney: Well, changing how and how much water is injected into the ground could definitely affect a company’s bottom line. But at the same time, so could a class action lawsuit from a person who thinks that they’ve been harmed by the earthquakes.

Rob: What about the assertion that we hear that there is just more seismic activity worldwide?

Courtney: Well, according to Dr Halihan, he says that there’s no peer-reviewed research that suggests that from a global standpoint that we are more seismically active.

Rob: Final question. Does anyone know how strong these earthquakes could get?

Courtney: Dr Halihan said that a recent study just came out that said an injection induced earthquake could produce a 6.0 on the seismic scale. And he warns that that could be even stronger if a fault were already set to go off, and it pushed that over.

Rob: All right. Thank you, Courtney. Certainly something that I’m sure we’ll be talking about later. Thank you so much.

Courtney: You’re welcome, Rob.

Rob: Now, if you’d like to hear more from Todd Halihan on everything from the history of seismic-induced quakes to the false equivalencies we’re often guilty of here in the media, go to our website at and look for this week’s video blog where I’ve included more of his comments.