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National study suggests that 5.7-magnitude quake was caused by wastewater injection (manmade)

A report by a team of prestigious scientific experts has rebuked an Oklahoma state-sponsored report claiming that wastewater injection over the last few decades had nothing to do with a record-setting earthquake centered in Prague, Oklahoma.

I. Paid-Off State Officials: Injection is Harmless

Fracking and pressurized injections of wastewater from traditional wells in Oklahoma's Wilzetta oil fields began in the 1990s.  The controversial resource extraction technique involves injecting pressurized sand, water, and chemicals into shale formations, triggering the release of oil and natural gas that otherwise would be hard to extract.

Energy giants like Chesapeake Energy Corp. (CHK), OGE Energy Corp. (OGE) Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM), NextEra Energy, Inc. (NEE), and Devon Energy Corp. (DVN) have made billions in revenue from the process.  However, critics -- including some prominent scientists -- have criticized the process, claiming it creates seismic instability and may contaminate local water supplies.  Those claims seemed prophetic when Oklahoma, a top fracking/wastewater injection state, was hit with a rash of uncharacteristic earthquakes which culminated in a magnitude 5.7 earthquake in 2011 which destroyed 14 homes.

Still, Oklahoma politicians and state-appointed scientists have defended the process.  In a 2011 report entitled "Response to Attacks on Hydraulic Fracturing", the Oklahoma Corporation Commission (OCC) and Oklahoma Geological Survey (OGS) defend the process of fracking/wastewater injection.  

And in a separate study, dubbed the "OGS Prague Statement" [PDF], they directly address claims that pressurized injections into sealed wells caused the quake, suggesting instead that it was caused by a segment of the Wilzetta Fault which was "favorably orientated for earthquakes."  They cite other studies suggesting that such "swarms" of earthquakes are often naturally occurring along fault lines.

II. Following the Monetary Stench

But state politicians who appoint the OGS scientists and OCC officials may have a bit of a vested interest.  Chesapeake Energy, OGE Energy, Devon Energy, and others have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to roll both state and federal Republicans in Oklahoma into office.

Thanks in part to their deep pockets, Republicans own a healthy majority in Oklahoma's legislature.  And the oil industry's "hired help" appears eager to repay the favor.

U.S. Rep. James Lankford received $24,300 USD from Devon Energy, $22,250 USD from OGE Energy, and an additional $113,800 from other oil and natural gas extraction companies, according to OpenSecrets. Sen. James M. Inhofe received a whopping $537,750 USD from oil and natural gas firms.


Here's the contact info for those gentlemen:

U.S. Rep. James Lankford:
Local Phone 405-234-9900 / D.C. Phone 202-225-2132
U.S. Sen James M. Inhofe
Local Phone 405-608-4381 / D.C. Phone (202) 224-4721

Here's a summary of the special interest payouts to the top state-level politicians from the Republican majority:

Oklahoma state republicans
(Click to enlarge)

Notice that every major leader in the state house and senate was paid off by the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Assoc. (OIPA)-- a pro-oil industry group -- and every politician also received healthy contributions from several other oil and natural gas firms.  (Source:

Here's the contact info for those gentlemen:
Sen. Brian Bingman (R, president pro tempore)
Local phone (405) 521-5528 / State capital phone (918) 227-1856
Sen. Mike Schulz (R, majority floor leader)
Local phone (405) 521-5612 / State capital phone N/A
Rep. T.W. Shannon (R, speaker of the house)
Local phone (405) 557-7374 / Asst. Phone (405) 557-7374 
Rep. Mike Jackson (R, speaker pro tempore)
Local phone (405) 557-7317/ Asst. Phone (405) 557-7317

The OIPA's mission statement basically acknowledges that its mission is to pay off polticians, writing:

The OIPA is committed to promoting the interests and welfare of independent oil and gas operators, working interest owners, royalty owners, and those businesses who provide services for the energy industry. Specifically, the association strives to provide its members with outstanding legislative and regulatory representation. 

In a recent post it gripes, "Since President Obama’s election to office in 2008, the nation’s oil and natural gas producers have faced constant scrutiny from the federal regulatory agencies under White House control."

III. Unbiased Research Contradicts Oil-Industry Funded Findings

So the oil companies paid the politicians, and the politicians hired scientists and appointed officials who were willing to claim fracking/wastewater injection is safe.  But what do unbiased national scientists say?

The answer came in a peer-reviewed study published [abstract] in the journal Geology, which rebukes the biased reports from state-sponsored researchers.  The new article entitled "Potentially induced earthquakes in Oklahoma, USA: Links between wastewater injection and the 2011 Mw 5.7 earthquake sequence' was written by Prof. Katie M. Keranen of the Univ. of OklahomaProf. Heather M. Savage and Prof. Geoffrey A. Abers of Columbia Univ., and Dr. Elizabeth S. Cochran of the US Geological Survey (USGS).

It finds:

We use the aftershocks to illuminate the faults that ruptured in the sequence, and show that the tip of the initial rupture plane is within ∼200 m of active injection wells and within ∼1 km of the surface; 30% of early aftershocks occur within the sedimentary section. Subsurface data indicate that fluid was injected into effectively sealed compartments, and we interpret that a net fluid volume increase after 18 yr of injection lowered effective stress on reservoir-bounding faults. Significantly, this case indicates that decades-long lags between the commencement of fluid injection and the onset of induced earthquakes are possible, and modifies our common criteria for fluid-induced events. The progressive rupture of three fault planes in this sequence suggests that stress changes from the initial rupture triggered the successive earthquakes, including one larger than the first.

In other words, it traces the earthquakes to sealed well sites near their epicenter, which were injected with toxic pressurized wastewater from the oil extraction process.  

The study finds that wastewater injection-- injecting pressurized liquid to extract deep oil/natural gas deposits -- destabilizes local sediments and likely caused seismic activity.

Note, that while the study does not directly implicate fracking (which involves fluid injection as well), it does raise concerns about the the process, as it implicates similar wastewater injections in creating seismic activity.

The authors determined that the volume of the sealed wells changed over time, causing stress that appears to have triggered at least two quakes of magnitude of 5.0, and then the biggest quake -- a magnitude of 5.7.  These quakes were felt in 17 states.

Fluid injection in the wastewater wells began after 1993, according to the current paper and the authors suggest the risk could have been adverted if the well owners had followed the criteria for injection established by Davis and Frohlich (1993), which suggests locating injection wells away from seismic faults.

The findings correspond to a previous 2011 report [PDF] by the US National Research Council (NRC), which showed that fracking caused smaller quakes (although failing to definitively show whether or not it caused larger quakes).  A 2012 USGS report also links fracking to earthquakes.

Note that the difference between fracking injection and wastewater injection is that fracking typically injects the pressurized fluid deeper under the ground, so more research is needed to determine just how much commonality in seismic risk there is between the two practices.

IV. Lawsuits, Legal Challenges to Future Fracking Loom

The study raises serious questions.

First, given the blatant payouts to state politicians by oil and gas interests, it seems pretty interesting that an unbiased team of experts would come to the conclusion that wastewater injection did cause the earthquakes, while a team of state-sponsored researchers whose pay is dependent on politicians paid by special interests would claim that it wasn't the cause.

Aside from questions of scientific integrity regarding the researchers at the OGS/OCC, the report also raises questions of liability.  If the quakes were indeed directly correlated to the wastewater injection processes and the causative mechanism was properly determined in the new report, then homeowners or business owners whose properties were damaged could (in theory) sue NextEra Energy, Chesapeake Energy, Exxon Mobil, Devon Energy, OGE Energy, et al. for damages.

Fracking regions
Fracking projects are being considered in a number of states.
[Image Source: U.S. Energy Information Agency]

Of course don't be surprised if state politicians try to author some sort of legislation to exempt their energy industry "sponsors" from such litigation, given that they already appear to have tried to cover up the damage done.

The report is also of keen interest as various other states, such as Illinois and Pennsylvania are considering new fracking or wastewater injection projects or expanding existing ones.  Overseas in England, fracking/wastewater injection is also a major topic of debate, where special interests are similarly trying to sway the discussion.

The new study is critical as it's the most definitive, clear, and detailed document to date indicating that fluid injection can cause seismic activity.  Citizens in states with fracking or wastewater injection projects should consider this carefully.  

If earthquakes occur, consider suing your local oil and gas companies for damages -- science supports you.  And in the meantime look into (on VoteSmart or other sources), which of your local politicians are taking money from big oil and gas companies -- the results may surprise and disturb you.

In all though, this shouldn't be terribly surprising -- a recent University of Kansas School of Business study [PDF] revealed that for $1 given to a federal politician as a business, you get $243 USD in kickbacks -- either indirectly (via lesser taxation) or directly siphoned off citizens taxes.

An earlier version of the story erroneously refered to the wastewater as being from fracking, where as the wastewater that researchers suggest caused the quakes was, in fact, from traditional drilling.  Several other publications -- including a Wired piece on the topic make similar errors or offer somewhat ambiguous statements -- and remain uncorrected.  

Nonetheless, the issue of cash payments to state legislators to allow injection/fracking remains, as does the issues surrounding special-interest endorsed research that suggested the quakes to have occurred naturally (when they appear to be energy-industry/wastewater caused).

Sources: Geology [abstract], VoteSmart, Opensecrets [campaign funding info], OCC [PDF]

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RE: Source was not fracking
By JasonMick on 3/28/2013 4:01:57 PM , Rating: 2
The scientists did not actually link fracking to the earthquakes as your story claims, nor did they rebuke prior researching disavowing a link. The scientists who published the report in Geology linked wastewater injection to the seismic events, and the wastewater came from conventional oil wells that were not hydraulically fractured.
The wastewater may have been from traditional sources, but it implies that fluid injections can cause seismic activity. The other studies I link to implicate fracking in smaller quakes.

The wastewater injection is still on the shoulders of the oil industry which you represent. If the study's results are not disproved, it would suggest your clients may have substantial liability regarding seismic activity damage near closed wells, correct??

I agree there's great financial gains to be had for oil extraction, but if the gains outweigh the costs, wouldn't it be better to let the merits of the process stand on their own and not pay off local politicians as the money trail clearly shows??

RE: Source was not fracking
By energyindepth on 3/28/13, Rating: -1
RE: Source was not fracking
By JasonMick on 3/28/2013 4:49:38 PM , Rating: 3
Thanks for the reply and headline adjustment Jason. However, your story still leads with this:

"National study suggests that 5.7-magnitude quake was caused by fracking"

Fixed, thanks!

I appreciate the need for clarity, so I appreciate the clarification regarding fracking injection versus wastewater.

That said, I hope you can appreciate that your comments raise more questions/concerns as to why a practice the industry has long known/considered to be dangerous was done as recently as a decade ago, causing substantial damage.
We do not dispute the fact that wastewater injection has been linked to seismic activity.
But the study states that the injection occurred between 1993 and 2002 (see graph, page 4 of Geology paper).

If the practice would knowingly create seismic instability, why did the well owner(s) (the paper does not clearly identify them) seek to inject near a seismic fault and why did state officials grant a permit to do so?

You say this has been known since the 1960s to be a destructive process, but as recently as 2002, industry sources were pumping wastewater into the wells in OK. How do you justify that?
Bill Ellsworth, lead geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey: "We find no evidence that fracking is related to the occurrence of earthquakes that people are feeling."

Ellsworth, again: "We don’t see any connection between fracking and earthquakes of any concern to society." (subs. req'd)

National Research Council: "The process of hydraulic fracturing a well as presently implemented for shale gas recovery does not pose a high risk for inducing felt seismic events."

Thanks so much for your time and willingness to discuss this, Jason. Really appreciate it.
True, but the recent study suggests that it make take decades for the expansion of sealed deposits.

From my understanding post-fracking, the void is filled with pressurized fluid, correct? So doesn't it stand to reason that fracking (a relatively new process) could potentially pose similar dangers to wastewater injection, years down the road?

Either way it sounds like you agree wastewater injection is a bad idea -- so why are companies applying for wastewater injection permits and injecting near known fault lines?

And why isn't the industry releasing a statement clearly elucidating who the companies/individuals responsible for this known bad practice are, if indeed it is considered as such (as your comment suggests).


RE: Source was not fracking
By energyindepth on 3/28/13, Rating: 0
RE: Source was not fracking
By taichou on 3/28/2013 6:18:08 PM , Rating: 2
Thank you Steve and Jason. It was a pleasure to read informed debate from both sides of the issue without this devolving into partisan yelling.

RE: Source was not fracking
By Belard on 3/28/2013 10:34:38 PM , Rating: 2
Aa you say...the fracking is fine. But the most profitable industry (which gets handouts) should be 200% responsible for the damage they cause. I'm in Dallas and last year... We had an earthquake.

RE: Source was not fracking
By BRB29 on 3/29/2013 2:26:04 PM , Rating: 2
I'm sure the scientists at USGS will disagree with you. Please feel free to contact the USGS for confirmation.

RE: Source was not fracking
By Reclaimer77 on 3/28/13, Rating: -1
RE: Source was not fracking
By sulu1977 on 3/29/2013 12:49:49 PM , Rating: 3
Reclaimer, you need to go home and relax. A tree hug and a glass of prune juice will help. You sound like a right-wing nut case trying desperately to convince the world that clean industry is bad and dirty industry is good. Your statements are so ridiculous it's laughable to any thinking person.

RE: Source was not fracking
By Spuke on 3/29/2013 2:39:03 PM , Rating: 2
I haven't seen you post anything that refutes his claims though so if his statements are ridiculous, so are yours. Saying someone is wrong without actually stating why holds no more weight than the other person that states he's right. It only shows that you have a larger ego.

RE: Source was not fracking
By Solandri on 3/28/2013 10:49:55 PM , Rating: 2
The wastewater may have been from traditional sources, but it implies that fluid injections can cause seismic activity. The other studies I link to implicate fracking in smaller quakes.

Whoa whoa whoa, slow down. Conservation of energy still applies. For fluid injections and fracking to cause seismic activity, you have to use as much energy during the injection/fracking as is released during the quake. That's a ludicrous assertion.

The energy is already there, stored as stresses in the rocks by movement of the North American plate. Fluid injection may lubricate a portion of it and release that energy sooner, but that just means that energy is no longer around to be released in the future in a naturally-occurring quake. i.e. Bunch of small quakes now = no big quake in the future. It's the exact same principle used when they shoot cannons at mountainsides to trigger small avalanches - releasing the snow in small avalanches prevents a big natural avalanche in the future.

The only human activity of this sort which causes earthquakes (as in more quake energy is released than would have been released naturally) is draining groundwater and oil reservoirs. e.g. If you drain an underground cavern, that lowers the potential energy floor, essentially "raising" the above rocks and "giving" them more energy to release by falling into the now-vacated cavern.

RE: Source was not fracking
By Captain Orgazmo on 3/30/2013 8:38:35 AM , Rating: 2
Your logic is mostly sound, only oil and gas isn't found in caverns. Think of rock like a sponge, full of water, oil, and gases. The rock is still there after the oil or whatever is removed (and just a fraction of the total amount can ever actually be recovered); nothing can collapse.

You are right about the fracking or fluid injection being able to lubricate existing faults. Micro-quakes are common, usually too small to notice, never more severe than what you feel when a big truck or train goes by.

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