Oklahoma Earthquakes Shake Up Scientists, Rattle Politicians

By David Haggith, the Great Recession Blog

By Brian Sherrod, United States Geological Survey (United States Geological Survey Multimedia Gallery) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsOklahoma earthquakes have shoved California out of first-place as the most seismically active state in the union. In fact, Oklahoma has become more seismically active than all lower forty-eight states combined. It is now one of the most active regions in the world, and the danger, according to the USGS, is greater than you think.

Oklahoma earthquakes break new ground

“I have never seen anything like it anywhere in the world,” said a USGS scientist about Oklahoma’s earthquakes, which have increased in number and intensity at an exponential rate:

According to Daniel McNamara, a research geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey, the state has already seen five earthquakes of a 4.0 or greater in 2016, which is double the monthly rate for 2015…. [in less than two weeks] “I don’t know what to say frankly. It’s incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere in the world. The only time you get this kind of activity might be after a very large earthquake, like a seven or eight (magnitude) in a place like Nepal or China or Indonesia or in volcanic regions.”

Geologically tired Oklahoma, however, is not one of those regions. It’s foundation is some of the oldest solid rock on earth; but it’s coming alive now. The state was shaken on January 6, 2016, by two of the largest quakes it has experienced, a 4.7 and 4.8. It is not the present size that is of concern, though, but the awakening … and the fact that the size of the Oklahoma earthquakes keeps growing. The area has had nineteen earthquakes over 3.0 on the Richter scale in the week following that last shake up. Counting all smaller quakes, the state has had seventy quakes in one week. Yet, all of that is just a tiny part of the escalating ground tremors over the past decade.

While those are all fairly small earthquakes compared to west-coast quakes, they are uncommonly large as far as Oklahoma earthquakes go. The 4.8 was the fourth-largest in state history. That and a few other factors lead some scientists to now wonder if “the big one” is about to burst beneath Oklahoma:

When Americans speak of “the big one,” they’re talking about the potential for a super-massive earthquake that could essentially destroy most of quake-prone California. Now some scientists believe something similar could happen in the once geologically placid Oklahoma. (OilPrice.com)

These small earthquakes have crumbled brick facades, toppled columns and chimneys and caused an electrical blackout; but their damage is growing each year and so is concern — politically, legally and financially.

I do think there’s a really strong chance that Oklahoma will receive some strong shaking,” said Daniel McNamara … who has studied Oklahoma’s earthquake history. “I’m surprised [Wednesday night’s quakes] didn’t rupture into a larger event.

The frequency of Oklahoma earthquakes has been rising for nearly a decade and tracks almost exactly with the expansion of the fracking industry — both in the timing of that industry’s work and the locations. They’ve also been building in other midwestern states, but the growth is only where fracking is happening. Originally, the Oklahoma earthquakes were more along the lines of 2.0 or 3.0, so the increase in the number of temblors that are well above 4.0 is becoming politically activating.

Before 2008, Oklahoma experienced fewer than two earthquakes each year. Now there are more than that many each day! Each year since 2008, the number of quakes increased exponentially to where Oklahoma had 842 earthquakes you could feel in 2015 (5,000 that could be detected with a seismograph).

Compared to Oklahoma’s norm, the state experienced a millennium’s worth of earthquakes in one year, raising the Sooner State to become one of the most seismically active regions on the earth, and if that increase continues at the same annual rate, 2016 could see more than 2,000 earthquakes you can feel.

How shaken should you become over Oklahoma’s earthquakes?

All of this is of man’s own making, as will be laid out below. The USGS has stated in a report that waste water injected back into oil wells after fracking is loosening slippery rocks. (Some wells receive as much as 9,000,000,000 gallons of waste water with the median being 671,000 gallons.) This is the first time a government agency has acknowledged human-induced earthquakes along moving fault lines.

Perhaps this explains the mystery booms reported many times around Oklahoma when no explosion is known to have happened above ground. Water pumped that deep into the ground may turn to steam. As such vast quantities of water expand, they may create huge pressure that bursts through the stone underground, causing a boom. That’s one theory for the booms that many have suggested. If so, fracking water is doing a lot more than lubricating faults, it’s jarring them and, in some cases, maybe even exploding inside of them

The new concern at the USGS and in the state capital is whether humans are going to trigger a much larger catastrophe upon themselves. Some US scientists see a contagion risk that these smaller Oklahoma earthquakes may be causing structural changes inside the earth that create potential for a massive earthquake:

Jeremy Boak, the director of the Oklahoma Geological Survey, told the Tulsa World that the earthquakes we have been experiencing increase the likelihood that a bigger, more powerful earthquake is on the horizon. “There’s no doubt in terms of induced seismicity, we’re the epicenter of it now…. As we keep adding more earthquakes, there is steadily more and more risk of having a single earthquake at that higher end.

“It’s unclear exactly how high we might go, and the predictions are upper 5-6 range for most things that I’ve seen,” Todd Halihan, a researcher from OSU, told NewsChannel 4 last year. “Underneath any of these urban areas, whether it’s Stillwater, Cushing, Oklahoma City, Guthrie, these cities are not built to seismic standards. They’re not in L.A.”

McNamara told the newspaper in November. “We have as many as 13 different fault zones in Oklahoma with magnitude 4s occurring on them this year alone…. Any one of these looks like it could produce a 5 or 6-magnitude earthquake, so we’re very concerned….”   (KFOR Television)

But the risk doesn’t stop at a magnitude six. That’s the conservative estimate. Elsewhere, McNamara said that it’s possible this very old fault system, which hasn’t been inactive for some time, could produce even larger quakes than that, but that he was keeping his projections to the worst earthquake known in recent history on that main fault line. Recent history, however, has not known fracking all along that fault line.

But there’s more:

According to one source, some seismologists have speculated there could be a connection between this area and the infamous New Madrid Seismic Zone, the colossus of the United States:

The quakes have been attributed, but not confirmed, to the New Madrid fault line, which has become more volatile in recent years. The New Madrid fault zone covers portions of Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi. The zone is 6 times bigger than the San Andreas fault in California. (Christian Post)

I couldn’t find any scientists who actually made that attribution. Whether connected  or not, however, the hazard from the Oklahoma earthquakes is considered equal to the hazard of the New Madrid faults by the USGS:

The U.S. Geological Survey said today that it’s planning to significantly upgrade its forecasts of seismic hazards in places such as Oklahoma…. Mark Petersen, a seismologist … said the ground-shaking forecasts were comparable to parts of California and the New Madrid seismic zone. The New Madrid fault, which runs from southern Illinois through Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee, produced a magnitude 7 earthquake in 1811. (Reveal)

And what would a New-Madrid-fault-sized earthquake look like?

On Dec. 16, 1811, a magnitude 7.7 earthquake hit the New Madrid fault line, which lies on the border region of Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi. It’s by far the largest earthquake ever to strike the United States east of the Rockies. Up to 129,000 square kilometers [50,000 square miles] were hit with “raised or sunken lands, fissures, sinks, sand blows, and large landslides,” according to the U.S. Geological Service. “Huge waves on the Mississippi River overwhelmed many boats and washed others high onto the shore. High banks caved and collapsed into the river; sand bars and points of islands gave way; whole islands disappeared.” People as far away as New York City were awakened by the shaking. (Wired)

Let’s play roulette with something like that! See if we can ring the church bells in Boston like the last big New-Madrid earthquake did. That earthquake was also described as causing the prairies to roll like the ocean while shooting up geysers of sand and yellow, toxic gas. It even caused the Mississippi River to run backwards for several hours, and caused settlers and Indians alike to believe the end of the world had come.

An alternative thought is what happens if the New Madrid Seismic Zone, which badly shook Oklahoma during its last major earthquake, should rupture again while so many faults in Oklahoma are already giving way on their own due to man-made lubrication and pressure? Would such a shaker crack them all loose at once like putting one lit stick of dynamite inside a box of dynamite? Let’s prime the whole system in the midwest with fracking wells, and see if we can loosen it up enough for everything to go at once!

From that lovely little thought, consider that eight states spread across the midwest are dealing with a huge increase in earthquakes caused by the injection of waste water left over from fracking operations, though Oklahoma tops them all. Consider that the New Madrid Seismic Zone, when one of its faults breaks lose, is known to shake the entire midwest. Does the presence of hundreds, if not thousands of lubricated and ready-to-go faults within the shaking area compound the risk by creating a possible cascade of events ready to go?


Consider also that, while a 7.7 earthquake on the Ricther scale, like the one that happened in New Madrid, is smaller than the size of earthquakes than can happen along the San Andreas, the monolithic rock under the midwest allows seismic shock to affect much larger areas. California is broken up and rumpled with fault lines and mountains that diffuse the shock waves; but the midwest is more like shield of solid rock underneath so the shock waves are not interrupted. The difference looks like this:


Notice how a smaller earthquake covers a far bigger area. As a result, the New Madrid Seismic Zone (longer than the San Andreas) caused the largest earthquake in the history of the United States in terms of the extent of area that shook and the amount of shaking in areas far from the epicenter.

But another fault lies within Oklahoma itself

Oklahoma earthquakes fault zone

The Nemaha Ridge Fault, which runs from Nebraska, through Kansas, to Oklahoma — ending right in the part of Oklahoma where most of the earthquake swarms are happening — has the 2nd-most potential for earthquake damage in the Midwest. It is bounded by numerous now-active smaller faults (where the fracking quakes are happening).

So, really, Oklahoma doesn’t need any help from New Madrid to cause great damage if the Nemaha breaks loose. Sure, that fault only ruptures about every 10,00o years; but, hey, lets see if we can rouse Oklahoma style so that it comes Sooner rather than later.

On Shaky Ground: Eye-witness accounts of the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812 (MISSOURI HERITAGE READERS)

Whose fault is it? Oil companies sued over Oklahoma earthquakes

Now comes the part where I tie in to the economic theme of this blog with something that could be a black swan as dark as oil even if no great quake ever happens due to fracking.

As if the fracking oil industry is not in enough economic trouble right now due to the Arabian oil price war, it has just been held legally responsible for earthquake damage, something no one envisioned when issuing bonds to frackers. That rise on the Richter scale directly corresponds to a volcanic rise in political and legal heat. For the first time in the history of the world, people are suing corporations for earthquakes that come from the movement of natural fault lines, and the Oklahoma State supreme court has said they can be held guilty.

This week, a group of 14 homeowners in Edmond, Oklahoma filed a lawsuit against 12 energy companies…. The lawsuit targets the companies’ wastewater disposal wells, claiming that the injection of fracking wastewater into these wells “caused or contributed” to earthquakes and constituted an “ultrahazardous activity….” The plaintiffs say they suffered damage from the earthquakes, and that the energy companies were “negligent, careless, and reckless” in their treatment of the earthquake risks…. This damage includes “cracked and broken interior and exterior walls” and “movement of the foundations beneath their dwellings.” These damages have taken a toll on the residents psyches, too, causing “mental and emotional anguish, fear, and worry.” (Think Progress)

Now that the supreme court has cleared the way for people to sue corporations for earthquakes that happen along natural fault lines, what will this do to the insurability of those companies when fracking quakes are cracking plates on a daily basis according to US scientists? How long before actuaries say, “Hmm, by insuring this one oil company, we could be liable for all the damage that happens in 100-mile radius or larger, depending on the size of the quake?”

That pressure doesn’t stop with just the Oklahoma supreme court’s recent decision. Some Oklahoma politicians are pressing legislation to prevent injecting waste water into fracking wells. State officials have said fracking-caused earthquakes are a potential risk to citizens. (Who would have thought ten years ago such a world was even possible?) So, the risk is now publicly acknowledge at both a scientific level and an official state level.

In doing so, state officials are attacking Oklahoma’s leading industry, which accounts for 10% of the state economy and a major source of employment in the state. Bound to be a large political fight, I think. Crashing international oil prices and rising legal, political and regulatory expenses are enough to make frackers go crackers; so, of course, they are fighting back:

Last month, a financially troubled producer in the northern oil and gas fields struck by Wednesday’s quakes, SandRidge Energy Incorporated, broke industry ranks and refused the commission’s request to scale back its underground waste disposal. The two sides are scheduled to meet on Friday in a final attempt to avert a court battle over the commission’s authority. (The New York Times)

Those that refuse state requests to be careful, open themselves to even greater liability. Beyond that, the already damaged fracking industry could be shut off at the well heads if it has no way to dispose of its waste water due to new government restrictions or if the companies become uninsurable because they can be held liable for all the damage created by earthquakes that happen years down the road.

As if a new world in which people can legitimately sue others for earthquakes is not strange enough, there are the new problems people are having with their well-water becoming flammable! After fracking operations have happened in their area, some have been able to light their well water on fire due to the methane gas suspended in the water that was not present prior to the fracking. That’s because the cracks created by fracking explosion may extend up into aquifers, and the damage to aquifers that life depend on can never be undone.

Oh, for the good ol’ days when the only water we could burn was Lake Erie and the Ohio River. There is nothing like a flaming cup of water to spice up a meal. This human-adjusted water adds a whole new Okie interpretation to the now literal possibilities of “being baptized with fire and water.” Brave new world.

Has human greed extinguished the last of common sense? When your well water burns, it’s past time to stop what we’re doing. How can one even bring himself to attempt an argument that flammable well water is no big deal?

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  • MrLiberty

    Outstanding article. As I went through it I kept coming up with points to make in the comments section and then you covered all of them from New Madrid to the bells ringing in Boston. It is bad enough the economic and human costs that will be involved when a massive “natural” earthquake eventually strikes California (I put natural in quotes because there is no doubt that the depletion of underground aquifers, redirection of natural water sources, etc. in that mostly desert state has changed even their earthquake issues) but clearly disgusting that a massive quake on the New Madrid fault that could cause wipe out most major cities on the Mississippi and for hundreds of miles around might be caused by human behavior completely in violation of the property/water rights of millions. Even more disgusting that the EPA and other government agencies that Progressives, liberals, and others claim we MUST HAVE in order to keep us safe, are turning a blind eye to big oil as always.

    • goingnowherefast

      The regulatory agencies brought into being to oversee industry on behalf of the public are now staffed by industry insiders using the regulatory capture revolving door between industry and government. Many industry higher ups receive bonuses for doing a stint in government. It’s not that regulation is a bad idea, it’s all in who is doing the oversight. Our so called “big government” has been privatized to a much larger extent than most people realize.

      • MrLiberty

        The very first “regulatory” agency – the Interstate Commerce Commission – was proposed by the big railroads specifically for the purpose of creating the kind of “regulatory environment” that would put their superior upstart competitors out of business. It worked like a charm. Oversight, independent assessments, ratings, etc. can NEVER be put into the hands of politicians or government bureaucrats. The “value” of the service they perform is NEVER accountable to the market, customers, etc. and so will forever be unaccountable. Decisions will be political, driven by graft and corruption, and will achieve the complete opposite of what the citizens likely desire. UL, Consumer Reports, TUV, the NON-GMO Project, and numerous others all live and die based on their reputation, quality, integrity, etc. The private market, property rights, legal accountability for crimes, etc. are the ONLY appropriate way to hold anyone accountable. Government has been bought and paid for since before the ink was dry on the Constitution.

        • goingnowherefast

          Funny how other countries are able to regulate business much better than the US. Many countries have mandatory GMO labeling and many others ban them outright as well as other hazardous products that are unregulated here. How do they manage to do that?

          • diogenes

            Wall Street doesn’t control their governments as directly and forcefully as it does America’s.

  • diogenes

    Thanks to our boughten governor Brown and corrupt state legislature California too is fracking. Greed makes people crazy and power makes them psychopathic.