The seven earthquakes that rattled Oklahoma on November 30 barely made air-time on local and national news stations.
TBR Blog is a space for commentary, opinion and reports on research in progress.
While no major damage was recorded, perhaps justifying the lack of media attention, one Idaho activist was acutely aware of the event: Alma Hasse of Fruitland, Idaho. A local environmental activist and board member of Citizens Allied for Integrity and Accountability (CAIA), Hasse has been eyeing the pattern of recent quakes in what was formerly a relatively neutral seismic zone, and carefully monitoring related legislation nationwide in her efforts to put an end to the increase in well drilling here in Idaho.
What Hasse and many others have observed is a shocking trend of man-made disasters that are escalating in severity. “The big one is on the horizon my friends — mother nature is about to have her laugh(s),” Hasse recently stated on Facebook in regards to a 4.4 magnitude earthquake three weeks ago.
Over the past five years, parts of Oklahoma have experienced record numbers of small to moderate-sized earthquakes occurring on a near-daily basis. In fact, this year alone, Oklahoma has been jolted by approximately 720 earthquakes greater than magnitude 3.0 — this, in a state that experienced fewer than two such quakes per year before 2009.
According to a plethora of recent studies by the U.S. Geological Survey and university scientists nationwide, the oil and gas industry’s increased well activity and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) across the Oklahoma is likely to blame. But Oklahoma isn’t the only state facing the consequences of Big Oil’s unproven and rapidly expanding drilling tactics.
CONTROVERSY AND SECRECY
In its most basic form, fracking is the process of drilling either horizontally or vertically into the earth and using a high-pressure water and chemical mixture to release pockets of natural gas through a well opening.
Research has shown that fracking contributes to earthquake occurrences in two ways. First, an increase in earthquake activity has been documented during fracking in proximity to pre-existing faults. Secondarily, the phenomenon is observed along with the disposal of fracking wastewater via underground injection. A third source, often referred to in conjunction with injection wells, is called “water flooding” — a technique which forces millions of gallons of water underground to re-pressurize oilfields that have been depleted into low productivity.
Recent articles and news clippings shared by hacktivist group Anonymous suggest that fracking has been used to dispose of nuclear waste since the 60s.
For Oklahoma residents — for whom the earthquake trend is palpable — cause for concern stems not just from the seismic events themselves, but also from the lack of support from lawmakers and a noticeable absence of media coverage.
Read the full Stanford study here.
Up until recently, a reliable connection between earthquake activity and fracking had not been clear. However, a new study published by scientists at Stanford University, corroborates recent USGS work and concludes that earthquakes near oil drilling operations are not caused by the fracking process itself, but rather by those operations’ disposal of wastewater in deep rock formations — a process which not only mixes saltwater with deep well oil, but injects hundreds of chemicals into the groundwater, often in close proximity to pre-existing fault lines.
But with the escalating and dangerous situation in Oklahoma’s watery oilfields, the process of hydraulic fracturing is creating undeniable, irreversible changes to earth’s substructure as well. For a better understanding of the oil and gas industry and the threats posed by hydraulic fracturing, check out Josh Fox’s critically-acclaimed personal documentary, GASLAND, or PSR’s recent Compendium on Unconventional Gas and Oil Extraction.According to the study:
Although most of the recent earthquakes have posed little danger to the public, the possibility of triggering damaging earthquakes on potentially active basement faults cannot be discounted.
MORE THAN AN OK PROBLEM
“The global warming impact from methane is 25 times and 72 times that of CO2, for equal amounts by weight, over a 100 year and 20 year timespan, respectively.” — Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Leak report, November 20, 2015
The past few years have seen a dramatic increase in oil and gas operations throughout the country, particularly in New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas and California. There are currently over 500,000 natural gas wells in operation nationwide, led by a combination of small, private operations and mega-corporations like Range Resources and Texas-based Alta Mesa. Yet despite the industry’s growth and clear environmental impact, these companies often face little to no liability during accidents and have legal grounds to negotiate for complete litigation immunity.
Known as the Halliburton loophole, a provision of the federal Energy Policy Act of 2005, the fracking industry is given exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), as well from portions of the Clean Air and Clean Water acts of 2009. Before taking office, former Vice President Dick Cheney was CEO of Halliburton — the company which patented hydraulic fracturing in the late 1940s. In an unprecedented example of large-scale industry immunity, the clause effectively allows for a drastic reduction in the amount of federal oversight over drilling operations across the nation.
The U.S. Senate voted in January to uphold the Halliburton loophole, leaving regulation of the industry up to the states, and limiting the amount of Underground Injection Control (UIC), particularly with regard to the chemicals used in the fracking process. In Oklahoma, the oil and gas lobby is particularly strong, however, creating a battleground between O&G operations, politicians and concerned citizens.
Just this year, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) signed into law SB-089 — a bill that strips municipalities of their right to regulate oil and gas operations. The bill instead allows for general authority over “oil and gas-related nuisances.”Now, with a total count of 2,171 recorded earthquakes in Oklahoma this year alone (as of November), evidence is mounting that the increase in drilling activity has spawned a surge of fracking-induced seismic events (aka “frackquakes”), which are being documented across a number of websites including the USGS, NewsOK and EarthquakeTrack. What’s more, the seismic activity is taking place across other fracking hotspots, including California, Texas and Kansas, which have seen similar rises in earthquake activity.
The geologic consensus is that earthquakes in Oklahoma, as well as nationwide, will likely increase in magnitude over time as faults become more stressed, especially in areas pumping heavy amounts of wastewater into the ground — often at a rate of 300,000 barrels per minute according to the Stanford study. Video report from StateImpact Oklahoma on the disposal well-earthquake connection.
IS IDAHO THE NEXT OKLAHOMA?
According to data compiled from the U.S. Geological Survey and a recent EnergyWire analysis, in the past five to seven years, Oklahoma has jumped from being ranked 19th in the nation for seismic activity to second, closely tied with fault hotspot California and second only to Alaska. Idaho, a relatively high seismic state, has been sitting comfortably at the sixth spot in the nation for some time.
But as oil and gas talks intensify and with well drilling already in progress en force throughout Payette and Gem counties, the threat of fracking is clearly on the horizon. Along with it comes the risk of increased earthquake activity, decreased property values and a multitude of other documented side effects, including fatal levels of air and water pollution, excessive resource use and large-scale gas fires, flares and leaks.
Mark Waterman of Eagle, Idaho, a seismic enthusiast heavily involved with the earthquake prediction group Stanford Research Institute (SRI), spoke at CAIA’s oil and gas forum in Emmett back in June. He stated that due to Idaho’s unique geologic infrastructure, ” The ground around here is not sub-structured — is not sound enough — to withstand medium-to-large quakes in the Treasure Valley.”
Alta Mesa is currently producing at six different well sites in Payette, and recently requested permission from the Idaho Department of Lands to drill at a seventh – with the additional consideration that the request be kept private due to “security sensitive information.” With operations already running 24/7, and pipelines stretched openly across the Payette River and adjacent to I-84, it seems as though there is little Idaho citizens can do to stem the tide.
To be clear, no fracking has occurred in Idaho yet, and the number of wells that have been drilled so far are only a fraction of those that are in operation in other states. But with tens of thousands of acres already leased throughout Idaho for future drilling operations, the Gem State is quickly catching up to its neighbors. The stage appears to be set for Idaho to move into the age of deep well drilling, despite mounting evidence seen across the nation which cautions against doing so.
Moving forward, as the industry prepares for its next steps and as the back-and-forth tension between well operators, lawmakers, anti-fracking advocates and property-owners intensifies, it is important to consider Idaho’s opportune position as a heretofore bystander in the nation’s politically-charged fracking environment. With our current legislative structure, a shutdown of the oil and gas industry is unlikely. HB 464, which was signed into law in 2012, currently forbids Idaho’s local governments from taking action to prohibit oil and gas drilling.Fortunately, Idaho is uniquely situated to not only be proactive with policy and regulation in the event that current drilling practices expand, but to take a serious look at the volatility of the issue, the potential repercussions and the alternatives based on the examples of other states.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.