Fracking Industry Conspiring To Cover Up Oklahoma Earthquake Evidence?

Yves here. It’s one thing to suspect that evidence that fracking causes earthquakes is being suppressed. It’s quite another to be able to name the parties behind the cover up.

By Charles Kennedy. Originally published at OilPrice

Are seismologists in Oklahoma being pressured to play down the connection between fracking and the state’s recent uptick in earthquakes?

All of a sudden Oklahoma is one of the most earthquake-prone areas in the country. Last year, with a grand total of 585 earthquakes, Oklahoma far surpassed the notoriously seismic State of California. Seismologists postulate that disposal wells are to blame. Water and brine injected underground at enormous pressure can cause faults to slip, triggering an earthquake.

EnergyWire reported on March 3 that Oklahoma regulators made that connection years ago, but have maintained silence in public due to industry pressure. According to secret emails obtained by EnergyWire, one seismologist with the Oklahoma Geological Survey came out in 2013 and said that there was in fact a link between seismic activity in Oklahoma and drilling operations, quickly earning him a meeting with superiors and industry leaders who were “concerned” about his comments. Afterwards, the seismologist, Austin Holland, began changing his stance on the cause of earthquakes.

Intriguingly, in one specific instance, Holland was called in to meet with his boss, University of Oklahoma’s President David Boren, and the CEO of Continental Resources, Harold Hamm. Continental is a major oil and gas producer in the state and Hamm and Boren have close ties. Boren serves on Continental Resources’ board and Hamm is a major donor to the university. The Harold Hamm Oklahoma Diabetes Center bears his name after a $20 million donation.

Since then Holland has played down the link between earthquakes and disposal wells, instead pointing to natural causes. Those conclusions run counter to what federal seismologists have found.

“This rise in seismic activity, especially in the central United States, is not the result of natural processes,” USGS stated recently. “Deep injection of wastewater is the primary cause of the dramatic rise in detected earthquakes and the corresponding increase in seismic hazard in the central U.S.”

Hamm was shocked that the press saw a problematic connection between his meeting with Holland and the Oklahoma Geological Survey’s reluctance to connect the dots with earthquakes. “The insinuation that there was something untoward that occurred in meetings with Austin Holland is both offensive and inaccurate,” Hamm said in a March 6 email to The Oklahoman.

When reporters asked about industry influence on the science, Holland declined to discuss. “I can’t really talk about it,” Holland said earlier this year. “We’re going to do the right thing.” But he supposedly let his guard down to petroleum geologist Bob Jackman at a conference. When Jackman pushed him on the earthquake link, Holland responded, “You don’t understand – Harold Hamm and others will not allow me to say certain things.”

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  1. kimsarah

    Might as well. Florida is removing all mention of climate change from government documents.
    California might as well close down the U.S. Geological Survey and erase any forecasts of the big earthquake to come. The Environmental Protection Agency and Nuclear Regulatory Commission long ago stopped testing for radiation on the West coast that may be fallout from Fukushima. The EPA and Department of Interior have long forgotten about the Gulf coast after the B.P. spill. And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration might as well stop publishing its drought maps in California, which lead (as Barry would say) “some folks” to believe fracking could harm the water supply.
    Plus the Koch Brothers are financing anti-science curricula at universities.
    The skids are only just beginning to be greased. By the time all the pieces are put together and this makes any sense, it may be too late.

    1. Sufferin' Succotash

      The late John Brunner (ace Brit scifi novelist) wrote three near-future dystopias back in the late 60s and early 70s, one of which–The Sheep Look Up–seems particularly appropriate at the moment. Highly recommended.

    2. different clue

      This behavior can help people who have any choice about where to live to make that choice. Jurisdictions which censor talk about basic reality should be avoided, or moved away from. Jurisdictions which talk about basic reality should be stayed in or moved to. For people who have a choice. Which not all people have.

      Global warming deniers should be encouraged to buy land in Florida and move there. Frack quake deniers should be encouraged to buy land in Oklahoma and move there.

  2. Code Name D

    It’s a fare question, but apparently not every one is convinced its fracking. The main problem is the depth of the epicenters, which is far deeper than fracking operations can possibly reach. And the epicenters do appear to be accruing along known fault lines. And even more entrusting is that similar earthquakes do not appear in other areas with heaver fracking activities. And add on top of this the knowledge that the New Madrid Fault Line is over due.

    Indeed, seismologist don’t seem to have a clue what the heck is going on. It’s made them go back and have a second look at the areas quake history and other geological evidence.

    The fault lines that run under Oklahoma, called stress faults; are different from the fault lines in California, which are called slip faults. While the slip faults actually have two tectonic plates moving past each other, stress faults is more what you might get if you put Styrofoam in a clamp and compress or warp it. It was assumed that these fault lines would produce quakes in a way similar to slip faults. Now they are not so sure.

    One hypotheses is that stress faults may work in reverse. A slip fault will build up pressure, and then release a massive amount of energy in one burst, followed by a chain of smaller after-shocks as the stress translates up and down the fault line. It’s possible that stress faults may actually release smaller earth quakes in advance of the big one, a before-shock if you will.

    That is not to say fracking operations might not still be the cause, because it could. But they tell me that they just don’t know at this point. But other geological activities would easily be at play here. One possibility might be tectonic up-lifting. Oklahoma dose have a very small, and very young mountain range (calling them mountains may be a bit strong.)

    The “conspiracy” appears to be in finding the necessary funding needed to do more research however. KSU recently requested the planting of a hundred new systemic stations and the retrofitting of existing stations currently filled with antiquated equipment which still use carbon drums. (The new ones use lasers and act more like a sonar system rather than just a sensitive shake table.) The oil industry could be standing in their way, not that I have any evidence of this. (Republicans are usually tight fisted ass holes any way. They hardly need any provocation.)

    Turns out that no one thought to update these system until now.

    1. vidimi

      the 0 to 585 earthquake rise in oklahoma is unexplainable by anything other than fracking. while fracking may need a catalyst, such as pre-existing fault lines, these earthquakes would never have happened without it.

    2. art guerrilla

      @ code name d-

      1. thanks for proving that we DON’T know wtf we are doing…
      2. um, given outside, unnatural stimulation, WHERE ELSE would you expect the earthquakes to occur EXCEPT where there were pre-existing faults ? ? ? uh duh…
      3. a HUGE problem in ALL of ‘science’, is that it has been mostly co-opted by big bidness: we DO NOT get the full picture of investigating various phenomena, we get what big bidness decides to release… um, just WHAT do you expect them to release, BUT ONLY papers, etc which are favorable to their needs and interests…
      do you REALLY expect them to ‘do science’ on stuff that will negatively impact their rapacious ways ? ? ?

      from your writing, it is apparent you are an authoritarian, willing to take Big Daddy’s word on anything; but are you really that clueless to not realize how ‘science’ (as in EVERYTHING) has been skewed to represent korporate interests ? ? ?

      1. tomk

        Art G., I found Code Name D’s post reasonable and informative, a positive contribution to the discussion. I agree with you that scientific knowledge is heavily controlled by corporate interests but pointlessly insulting folks who are thoughtful enough to engage in this site doesn’t seem helpful. Holland’s changing stance on the relationship between fracking and earthquakes may be a result of career fear, or tactical move to get funding to obtain better data, as CND seems to be suggesting.

        1. bruno marr

          While Code’s comment may seem reasonable, it is a very simplified view of geologic faulting in the earth’s crust (specifically California’s). While the San Andreas is the best known fault line in CA (a transform slip fault) it is but one of hundreds of large faults that are mostly stress faults (compression/expansion).

          Determining the actual cause of any one earthquake is not a trivial matter, but the USGS has a pretty good record of analysis and determination. They say anytime you place a liquid (like fracking fluid) in rocks under stress you’re likely to get slippage, and possibly a jolt (earthquake).

          While Oklahoma is in the spotlight, California may soon take center stage as the state legislature held hearings with the states Dept. of Conservation and other environmental Divisions and discovered that these agencies were NOT performing required oversight of oil drilling and fracking in CA and that benzene (a carcinogenic element in fracking fluid) is likely being injected in Class 1 underground water sources. Not only did the regulators NOT do any regulating, they didn’t even KNOW that they were allowing practices that violate Federal Regulations! (Dumb, and Dumber, No!)

          Folks, we’re on the glide path to hell.

      2. Jeremy Grimm

        Could your comment be rewritten somewhat? What you wrote is difficult to parse out. Try something like this:
        In my opinion Science has been co-opted to serve the interests of big business. Much of the counterpoint “Science” related to the issue of fracking as a cause for earthquakes in Oklahoma seems little different than the “Science” related to smoking, Climate Change or drug efficacy. Your assertion:

        “The “conspiracy” appears to be in finding the necessary funding needed to do more research however.”

        is remarkably similar to mud slung at climate scientists giving your comment some essence of troll stink.

        While you may doubt whether fracking is the cause for the sudden increase in earthquakes in Oklahoma, your delving into the “Science” involved seems to draw attention away from the main point of today’s post, as Yves clearly stated:

        “It’s one thing to suspect that evidence that fracking causes earthquakes is being suppressed. It’s quite another to be able to name the parties behind the cover up.”

        The cover up and the naming of names are the key issue — not the “Science.”
        I admit my comment to you is a bit “cheeky” as the English might say. I enjoy reading Naked Capitalism for the quality of comments, both the depth of opinion and the care in their expression.

    3. Sufferin' Succotash

      ” the New Madrid Fault Line is over due.”
      Is Oklahoma anywhere close to the New Madrid Fault? Isn’t the NMF in southern Illinois and southeastern Missouri? At least that’s where the 1811-1812 quakes were centered.

    4. pat b

      t’s a fare question, but apparently not every one is convinced its fracking.

      of course it’s not fracking, anyone who says it’s fracking is an idiot. It’s deep level injection
      of fracking water. Thats’ pumped down at high pressure and causes the seismicity. It’s
      been well documented since the 60’s that deep injection causes seismicity.

      1. Lambert Strether

        Systemically, and more precisely raising the question of where the profits from the resource extraction go, and who gets stuck with the “externalities,” it most certainly is fracking.

  3. Carla

    Ohio generously accepts fracking waste from Pennsylvania for injection in Ohio’s bedrock:

    Now Ohio has lots of earthquakes too. But it’s okay, because now the state is requiring monitoring wells in “seismically active areas”:

    Trouble is, I don’t think we had seismically active areas before we had fracking and particularly, injection wells for fracking waste. Pretty smart of Pennsylvania to ship the toxic waste here. Pretty dumb of Ohio to say “send your sh*t over here — we’ll bury it for you.”

  4. Steven Greenberg

    My blog post “EPA to natural gas companies: Give details on ‘fracking’ chemicals” of December 30, 2010 has an excerpt from a page that says:

    “In 1961, a 12,000-foot well was drilled at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, northeast of Denver, for disposing of waste fluids from Arsenal operations. Injection was commenced March 1962, and an unusual series of earthquakes erupted in the area shortly after.

    “During 1968, ten slight shocks were felt in Colorado. Only one, on July 15, caused minor damage at Commerce City. In September of that year, the Army began removing fluid from the Arsenal well at a very slow rate, in hope that earthquake activity would lessen. The program consisted of four tests between September 3 and October 26. Many slight shocks occurred near the well during this period. ”

    So the connection between earthquakes and injection of waste has been known for at least 47 years.

    1. Maude

      I lived through those earthquakes and they were actually pretty strong. We had stuff flying out of the cupboard 25 miles west. It was pretty quickly determined that the injection wells were causing the quakes so they put a stop to it. At the time there was no oil and gas lobby to shut things up and it was all over the news. I was pretty young and even I remember how much of a fuss people made. It took until just a few years ago for them to finally come out and state that they definitively linked the injection wells to the earthquakes.

      As a side note, when they tell you they have been fracking for over 40 years “safely”, what they fail to tell you is that fracking 40 years ago was not as deep and about .001% of what it is today. You can’t increase an activity 1000 fold and claim it is just as safe. It would be like saying taking one aspirin a day is as safe as taking 10,000 aspirin a day. Since 1990 the number of wells has increased from 470 to 14,887 in just one area of Colorado.

  5. wbgonne

    The reason why the federal government is charged with protecting the environment is that the states and local officials are too beholden to local business powers. In other words, local authorities are routinely captured by powerful local industries. The problem we face today is that even the federal authorities are now captured by powerful industries, and Big Oil is among the most powerful, if not the most powerful. Obama and the EPA are the ones who ahould be invetigating these issues, and fracking should be halted until those investigations are complete and the findings known. But that hasn’t happened and it won’t happen under President Frackenstein and a Democratic Party that is all in on fracking and sees fracking as its tap into the Big Oil money that has historically flowed to the GOP.

    Expect Obama to continue ignoring all the evidence regarding the dangers of fracking — not just earthquakes but methane leakage, groundwater contamination, water waste — until his final six months in office when, to burnish his progressive credentials, he might propose some regulations that will never see the light of day.

  6. Mark

    I’m surprised the article didn’t say more about who David Boren is. I recognized the name, so I looked him up in Wikipedia. In addition to being the President of the University of Oklahoma, he is a former Oklahoma governor and U.S. Senator. The Wikipedia mentioned that he supported nationwide deregulation of natural gas prices in the 1970s and opposed the windfall profits tax for the oil industry in the 80s.

  7. Rosario

    This reminds me of the robust denialism with respect to climate-change. With a good science education one can understand many of these problems intuitively. With respect to climate change, the process: carbon is extracted from the ground, carbon is released into the atmosphere via industrial process, scientists verify massive increase in CO2 levels correlating to growth of industry (via atmospheric testing, ice samples, etc.), CO2 retains solar radiation via carbon atom, the global atmosphere as a chemical/thermal system will be altered. For fracking: pipes pump pressurized fluids deep underground, fluids along faults decrease friction (the controlling factor in earthquakes), earthquakes happen in correlation with increased fracking. Many people have a poor intuition regarding material processes because many people have poor scientific education. Thus the endless “debate” around things that should be obvious. Scientific process should be rigorous (data based experimentation) rather than intuitive, no doubt, but our understanding of those processes must require a minimum of experience/education based understanding (intuition if you will) to allow us to approach the issue without having to have the whole damn thing explained end-to-end.

    1. downunderer

      Good comparison of denialisms, Rosario.

      Just before coming to your comment I was thinking about the smoking -> lung cancer denialism I saw through much of my life.

      It was the focus on purported mechanistic details in Code Name D’s post, while ignoring the overwhelming evidence of the timing of events that struck me. Rephrasing slightly: “We may see correlations between fracking [smoking] and earthquakes [lung cancer], but correlation is not causation. Consider this swarm of complex details that all require explanation before we can accept that the correlation is indeed due to causation.”

      In other words, More Research Is Needed (TM), so back off for a few years until all the results are in. Meanwhile, of course, as the main article makes clear, the *real* effort will be to derail that research, either at the financing stage or the publication stage.

  8. Michael

    I moved to Oklahoma City 2 years ago. I’ve only briefly read all the comments above. What I will share is the link to the USGS who have produced a short video of all earthquakes in Oklahoma since Jan. 2, 2008. Its hard to say this is just random. Check it out here.

    Take a look apply some common sense and say that fracking or injection wells have nothing to do with this.
    Yes, they can drill as deep as a few kilometers. Then think about the thousands of wells that have been drilled and the cemented tubing to protect the water table being shaken daily, hard to think they won’t eventually crack as well.

  9. Bagehot-by-the-Bay

    I happen to live now in Oklahoma, but grew up and spent many years in California. The little earthquakes here in Okla. are nothing compared the real thing we had in California. It’s too easy to try and score a point against fracking by talking about the number of quakes, ignoring magnitude. The anti-fracking folks are doing themselves a disservice trying to force this talking point. There are better issues.
    P.S. David Boren is a breath of fresh air in this otherwise hopelessly red state.

    1. Code Name D

      The problem is that local building codes do not have any provisions for earthquakes. So even quakes that are too small to be noticed can have an cumulative effect over housing foundations and footings. Also keep in mind that some areas are prone to liquefaction, likely adding more issues. I have noticed new cracks in my house so I can personal observe this problem. In my case at least, the damage is mostly super-fiscal. But if small quakes keep happening, this will become a growing issue.

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