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Chad Devereaux works at cleaning up the bricks that fell from three sides of his in-laws home in Sparks, Okla., Sunday, Nov. 6, 2011, after two earthquakes hit the area in less than 24 hours.

Bricks fell from three sides of this home in Sparks, Oklahoma, after two earthquakes hit the area in less than 24 hours in November 2011.

Photograph by Sue Ogrocki, Associate Press

Joe Eaton

for National Geographic

Published July 31, 2014

Customers who stop by Mike Kahn's insurance agency in Oklahoma City are increasingly looking to buy a policy that was unheard of a decade ago: earthquake insurance.

Kahn, who opened the Lynnae Insurance Group in 2002, said he sold earthquake coverage to two homeowners during the first decade he was in business. During the past six months, he sold more than 125 policies.

"We used to get to that part of the policy, and I'd tell customers, 'You don't need that. This is Oklahoma,'" Kahn said, referring to the days when earthquake coverage was an add-on to a homeowner policy. "We used to laugh about it."

But much has changed in Oklahoma, which leads the continental United States in earthquakes so far this year. From 1978 to 2008, Oklahoma experienced an average of one earthquake a year of magnitude 3 and higher, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. As of last week, the state experienced 258 earthquakes in that range, almost twice as many as California.

A growing body of research has tied the spike to wastewater injection, a process in which water from oil and natural gas extraction, including fracking, is pumped into underground wells for disposal. Research has also tied wastewater injection to quakes in Arkansas, Colorado, Ohio, and Texas.

But none of those states have seen as many earthquakes as Oklahoma. Because the oil and gas industry is a major employer in the state, the possibility that drillers might be responsible for the earthquake surge has put industry on the defensive and residents on edge, while sending state and local governments scrambling to respond. (Related: "Scientists Warn of Quake Risk From Fracking Operations.")

"The anger is palpable," said John Wood, a member of the city council in Guthrie, Oklahoma, a small city near the epicenter of a 4.3 magnitude quake that struck in mid-July, one of seven earthquakes that hit in the state in a two-day period. "Our bread and butter is oil and gas, so we have been very slow to question the industry on quakes. But it's becoming a daily occurrence."

Map of earthquake frequency in Oklahoma from 1990- July 28, 2014.
EMILY M. ENG, NG STAFF. SOURCE: OKLAHOMA GEOLOGICAL SURVEY

Although the majority of the quakes have been harmless, they range from temblors that are barely felt to a 5.7 magnitude quake in 2011 that damaged homes. People can feel vibrations of a magnitude 3 temblor. A magnitude 4 quake feels like a heavy truck striking a building. At magnitudes 5 to 6, according to the USGS, dishes break, heavy furniture moves, chimneys fall, and a poorly built home can sustain serious damage.

Map of earthquake magnitude in Oklahoma from 1980-2014.
NG STAFF, JAMIE HAWK. SOURCES: USGS; OKLAHOMA GEOLOGICAL SURVEY

Energy Industry Link?

The surge in Oklahoma earthquakes dates to 2008, and a recent study published in the journal Science bolstered the theory that they have been spurred by injecting wastewater produced during oil and gas development, including fracking, deep into underground wells.

Katie Keranen, a Cornell University seismologist and lead author of the study, also published a 2013 study in the journal Geology that tied wastewater injection to the largest earthquake in Oklahoma history, a magnitude 5.7 earthquake that in 2011 struck the town of Prague, in central Oklahoma. (Related: "Scientists Say Oil Industry Likely Caused Largest Oklahoma Earthquake.")

Despite the growing evidence, Chad Warmington, president of the Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association of Oklahoma, said it's too early to know if injection wells are responsible or if the rise in earthquakes is part of a natural cycle.

"There is going to be studies that say lots of things," Warmington said of Keranen's latest findings, adding that the oil and gas industry is working with regulators and scientists to share data and make sure they are not putting citizens at risk. "We are concerned about it because we live here, but we don't want to have a knee-jerk reaction and have a bunch of regulation put on us that is not effective in minimizing the risk of seismic activity."

The Oklahoma Corporation Commission, the state's oil and gas regulatory agency, also says a direct link between wastewater injection and the rise in earthquakes in the state could not be established.

Ernest Majer, a geophysicist and induced seismicity expert at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, said injection wells rarely cause earthquakes. Majer said the oil and gas industry is as interested as scientists are to learn what conditions cause induced earthquakes and how to prevent them, with an eye toward avoiding increased regulation.

"The great majority are waking up to the question: Do they want to be regulated, or do they want to have best practices to follow?" he said.

Concern for Bridges, Property

As scientists, regulators, and the oil and gas industry search for the causes of the earthquake spike, Oklahoma's state and local governments have begun adjusting to the new seismic reality.

The state began dispatching crews to inspect bridges after magnitude 3 and higher earthquakes in 2010. The department recently changed the inspection level to magnitude 4 and over, after consulting with California officials about earthquake response policies, according to Terri Angier, a spokesperson for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation.

Although Oklahoma is consistently ranked at or near the bottom of lists ranking the country's worst bridges, Angier said inspectors have found only minor bridge damage after earthquakes. But she is concerned about the future and the potential for larger seismic events: "If there is a crisis for us, it's that we're not sure where it's headed."

That concern is echoed in Oklahoma City. Kristy Yager, a spokesperson for the city, said officials are updating the city's disaster plan, which focuses heavily on the tornadoes that traditionally plague the state, to prepare for earthquakes.

So far, residents have been concerned primarily about the potential for property damage, Yager said, adding that Oklahomans are worried about the prospect that the oil and gas industry might be responsible for the earthquakes.

"We hope it's not a byproduct of oil and gas because so many of our jobs depend on it," Yager said. "It's a difficult position to be in."

Photo of a drilling rig near Highway 33 and 74 south of Crescent, Oklahoma.
The injection of wastewater from oil and gas development has been linked with the uptick in Oklahoma quakes, but some in industry and government question the connection.
Photograph by James Pratt, Alamy

Uncertainty in Forecasting

Despite the uptick in Oklahoma seismicity, a recently updated USGS earthquake hazard map does not reflect an increased threat for dangerous quakes in the state. That's because the map, which is updated every six years, does not take into account earthquakes suspected of being induced by wastewater injection or other human activity.

Although Oklahoma is leading the lower 48 states in earthquakes so far in 2014, it is not included among 16 states the USGS says are at the highest risk for hazardous earthquakes.

Austin Holland, a seismologist at the Oklahoma Geological Survey, thinks the state's earthquakes should be included in the USGS hazard map, which is used to set standards for seismic safety in building codes.

"By removing them," he said, "we are underestimating the potential of serious seismic hazard in Oklahoma."

But scientists at USGS say it's difficult to predict future earthquake hazard based on recent temblors that may have been induced by the oil and gas industry.

William Ellsworth, a research geophysicist at the USGS Earthquake Science Center, said his organization uses knowledge of faults and data from earthquakes that occurred over thousands of years to develop hazard maps. The organization set aside earthquakes suspected of being induced by the oil and gas industry because it is unclear why they are occurring and how long they may continue.

If earthquakes are caused by a specific injection well, for example, and the oil and gas industry stops using that well, the seismic activity would likely stop, Ellsworth said, thereby ending the hazard.

Nonetheless, Ellsworth said the USGS is developing a hazard model that takes induced earthquakes into account. "Everyone here thinks quakes, regardless of origin, need to be accounted for in our hazard model," he said.

So far, the largest impact of the Oklahoma quakes might be on the insurance industry. Kelly Collins, a spokesperson for the Oklahoma Insurance Department, said the number of homeowners in the state with earthquake coverage has risen from around 3 percent in 2011 to 15 percent in 2014, according to an informal survey of the top five insurance companies.

In Oklahoma City, insurance agent Mike Kahn recently bought an earthquake policy after quakes knocked a piece of facade from his home and twice crumbled a neighbor's chimney. The policies have a 10 percent deductible, so they are meant for a quake far larger than what Oklahoma has seen in recent years.

And that prospect, Kahn said, is the fear.

"It's scary when they happen in the middle of the night," he said. "It's a weird feeling to feel your house shaking. Your heart is racing, you are running down the hall to check on your kids, then you run back and check on your wife. They make your heart skip."

The story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit "The Great Energy Challenge."

40 comments
Christian Klose
Christian Klose

There is so much more evidence that a few(!) scientists published on for years. The current warnings are too late for may communities. Assess your own earthquake risk - read chapters 2,4,8 in http://frack-this.com/?page_id=2 

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

If there were as many government subsidies for wind and solar power available to the average home owner as there are for the oil industry we could all provide additional power for ourselves AND the Grid, Then we could reduce the reliance on fossil fuels DRASTICALLY!!! I live off Social Security and cannot afford to buy a wind generator or solar panels, Yet I have an abundance of roof area and would LOVE to own either to lower my power bill AND FOOTPRINT!!!

Anyone else agree with this?!

Richard Guldi
Richard Guldi

When Chad Warmington, president of the Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association of Oklahoma, said it's too early to know if injection wells are responsible or if the rise in earthquakes is part of a natural cycle, he means that even though the number of earthquakes per year increased about 100 times exactly when fracking waste disposal began, his organization wants to wait until there is overwhelming destruction of homes and properties and even some deaths before they get realistic.

bill FORTUNE
bill FORTUNE

It seems reasonable that the potential for earthquakes from injecting water into the earth would be a function of the type of "rock" in the area.  if the "rock" can be softened by the water, then the earth will collapse into the voids that once contained oil and maybe even gas.


All the more reason to start the construction of thorium/plutonium fueled electric generators that will reduce our nuclear waste and make plutonium unusable for making bombs.  Yes, the thorium rods are not as efficient, but what does it cost to store and protect plutonium ?

Heinrich Metz
Heinrich Metz

The energy industry has no fear of consequences in Oklahoma. In Oklahoma, they have the best government that money can buy

Glen Reese
Glen Reese

It's pretty easy to be sanguine about the side-effects of fracking when they are not happening at your house. I would be more impressed by an industry testimonial from somebody who has the flames issuing from their own faucet.

Terry T.
Terry T.

If minor earthquakes are a consequence of fracking, so be it.  Better that, than wars in the Middle East and north Africa and Asia over oil and gas reserves.  We've spent trillions of dollars and thousands of lives in defending foreign oil and gas.  It's time we use our resources and ingenuity to be the world's top producer and exporter, and let the terrorists and dictatorships find another way to make money.

Bob Skully
Bob Skully

On a side note,  growing up National Geo has always provided a great source of insight and knowledge that concerns us as humans both socially and naturally.  I might be getting old but I hate the fact Shell oil is sponsering this article.

Bill Collins
Bill Collins

Let's assume that the seismic activity is caused by fracking. We need the energy. We have no viable substitutes for gas and oil in the next few decades. We need to get out of the Middle East. We can do that by becoming self-reliant. We have enough gas and oil in this country because of fracking to last for decades. Of course we need to focus our efforts on a sustainable energy technology to replace gas and oil, but we just don't have an option right now.


The very slight risk of groundwater contamination and small earthquakes are worth the benefit of maintaining a reliable fuel supply. Renewable energy is great, but it doesn't power trucks, trains, airplanes, or even begin to supply enough electricity to keep us going. Hopefully it will before we run out of current resources.

JW Collins
JW Collins

 C'mon Oklahoma....you elect deny-style politicians, vote deepest RED in every election, hitch your wagon to religion and superstition, and drag the nation down with a backwardness only a very few states enjoy. Live with the consequences of the sciences you seem so willing to nationally deny. Dry up and blow away.....AGAIN, but do it with conviction. Crack the earth for a couple of oil bucks. You seem to enjoy suffering from your own behaviors, even willing to share the suffering with the nation. The rest of the nation, as your D.C. reps vote a persistent no, will watch to see how much character you have in the face of your own convictions

Richard James Reid
Richard James Reid

Watch Colorado go basically completely Blue and Democrat Party represented this midterm election due to the GOP's overt constant rubbing of the inner legs of the oil and gas industry there. The GOP just killed all their farmer and AG constituency support or at least a majority of  that support for GOP candidates in midterms also by killing the funding of new irrigation infrastructure and maintenance of the old.  They recently had two earthquakes in Greeley Colorado that were in the 3.7 magnitude range that were seismically centered at a waste water injection well. The State told the company to shut the well down which they did for two weeks and then discovered that it was more profitable to reopen it and pay the small negligible fine for keeping it open there in Weld County which is run by a monopoly of GOP County Commissioners that are just are essentially the worse biased flagrantly oil and gas owned incompetents and unethical frauds you could ever get for stewardship of your County or for Representation at the County level. That I believe is changing also in the next election cycle as well with the new 4th district electoral/election mapping installed by Judges to overturn biased slanted election districts the GOP made before Hickenlooper got elected there as Governor. Midterms are going to be a big downer for the GOP out there in Colorado from the push back on a bunch of their fascist ideal wing nut nonsense of governing and their covert love affair with unregulated oil and gas drilling that in Greeley is being done 150 feet from public school grounds over the objections of a majority of parents and citizens there. .

Alex C.
Alex C.

Soon the waste water will get into the aquifers and make it all non-potable.

Albert LeBlanc
Albert LeBlanc

Of course the industry's "experts" don't see a connection, whereas independent experts do....money talks louder than evidence.  I'll trust the assessment of a university professor or government scientist long before I would give an industry expert the time of day.

Michael Thomas
Michael Thomas

Yep, the oil and gas industry in the hip pockets of legislators, corporation commission and scientists.....it is obvious that these quakes are caused by the injection wells and fracking....come on people, demand that this stop....who is gonna pay for your house damage when the insurance companies deny the coverage or claim or sell you a policy you cant afford.....

travier chavers
travier chavers

what we are trading is temporary profit for the future of the Midwest they really think that foul whatever it is toxic fluid will stay underground it will seep back up and pollute our water tables and eventually poison our land do we really want to turn the Midwest into a desert wasteland?

KENNETH LANE
KENNETH LANE

Cause and effect is a tried and true means of discovering culprits------not lie and deceive!

Earnest Beauvine
Earnest Beauvine

Gotta love how the only people denying the fracking connection are the ones making billions from it....

Helen Altman
Helen Altman

Fracking is wrong on an epic scale, perhaps on even a greater scale than what was pronounced as 'clean' nuclear energy. There is no Yucca mountain to store the fracking waste water, which no one seems to know the exact ingredients  of  or now toxic that fluid truly is. 

They (we) are trading 'gold'  aka clean groundwater and aquifers for 'lead,' nothing more cheap gas.... 

The only good thing about....no wait there is nothing  good about fouling the water systems that we depend on. They say can do it safely...who really knows...ask them to prove it since the cities and states that have caved in...literally ...

Deep Water Horizon will pale in long run.


Lorena M.
Lorena M.

@Richard Guldi this is easy they should stop for 3 months then if the earth quakes continue they can say they are not the cause.

Henny Bogan
Henny Bogan

@Heinrich Metz Nail on the head, sir. 

Richard Guldi
Richard Guldi

@Terry T. The best energy source is conservation.  After that, solar and wind don't cause earthquakes, don't exacerbate climate change, don't make people sick, don't pollute aquifers, and don't permanently waste precious water.  But they do create American jobs.

We pay $0.035 per kwhr for our solar panel electricity.  The price is fixed for 20 years.  Guess what electricity from natural gas will cost when the US starts exporting natural gas to six billion people in China and India.

Bob Skully
Bob Skully

@Bill Collins Your a great example of how stupid people can be about what we are doing to this planet. The fossil fuel industry,  who would be the ones causing these earthquakes,  would love for you to keep thinking that way.  Cause that industry never lies about the details of what it does.  I mean look what companies like Chevron,  Arco,  BP ect… have done for the communties where they work in.  Just a few earthquakes aint no biggie.  Oil is priced fixed daily to keep us atticts at the pump but no to much to chase is away and into the arms of green energies. They have us over a barrel and will continue to as long as we think this way. 

Want green energies sooner? double or triple the price of a barrel of oil and you will see how fast renewables develop.  


Bill Collins
Bill Collins

@JW Collins 

What? How is the character and beliefs of people in Oklahoma related to the science involved in connecting earthquakes and fracking? Many states frack, red & blue. We need oil and gas. You use them. We were running out of cheap methods to extract them, now fracking gives us an option. It may just keep us out of a Middle East war where we feel the need to protect our national interests.The minimal risks from groundwater tainting and some seismic activity are worth allowing another 30-50 years for us to develop sustainable energy technologies.

Bill Collins
Bill Collins

@Richard James Reid 

And if we stop fracking, then what? Where will we continue to get the oil and gas that we are going to need for decades to come?

Silky Jackson
Silky Jackson

@Richard James Reid dopey "governor" Hickey looper rubs off the frackers just like the best republicans money can buy.  He even proudly claims to have once drunk a glass of fracking fluid.  Talk about a money shot! 

Bill Collins
Bill Collins

@Earnest Beauvine 

I am not making any money off of it nor am I denying the possibility of connection. I contend that we do not have a choice. We need the energy and we do not have viable alternatives. Do you have an answer?

A J
A J

@Helen Altman Everyone knows the exact ingredients. The ingredients are required to be provided on MSDS sheets for the safety of emergency response workers. This has been repeatedly debunked. Do your research and keep the conversation honest.


http://fracfocus.org/chemical-use/what-chemicals-are-used


There has also, as of yet, been no confirmed groundwater contamination from a fracking operation. It's extremely unlikely. It is, however, possible from normal oil and gas drilling (whether or not fracking occurs). Fracking, itself, is extremely unlikely to increase the risk of groundwater contamination. This has been published in the pages of top journals by independent geoscientists.


The big issue is what to do with all the wastewater, and the injection wells are clearly creating a problem. The main reason we know about these quakes is because geoscientists actively monitor injection wells for seismic activity. At present it has not cause major issues, but it's also not something that is supposed to occur. For example, in Ohio, when they detected earthquakes related to injection wells they ceased injecting in that location.


Again, let's keep the conversation honest and fact-based.

Philip Rutter
Philip Rutter

@Bob Skully @Bill Collins Bob; you'll be happier the sooner you learn to recognize paid professional astroturf when you see it.  It's recognizable, very definitely.  You can be pleased to know, though, that in the present case you were fooled by a highly paid and trained expert disinformation specialist.  They usually  assign good ones to the Geographic.

Terry T.
Terry T.

@Bob Skully @Bill Collins You're a great example of intolerance and inability to read and respond to an intelligent comment.


In reality, fossil fuel dependence is decreasing.  But better that we should be the ones selling it, rather than Muslim dictatorships and Russia.  We need the employment and the foreign exchange.  Our foreign policy is distorted by energy imports.


As for the tired argument that raising oil prices will spur green/renewables--don't worry, it's already happening.  When renewables are actually affordable and practical, everyone will switch.  You're free to buy an electric car right now, and put solar cells on your roof--who's stopping you?  Just spend the $50,000 and leave the rest of us alone. 

John Moore
John Moore

@Bill Collins @Richard James Reid We've been mucking around on this planet for a few million years. We've had an oil and gas economy for about 100 years. It's a bit strong to say we need oil and gas. To survive? To reproduce? To grow food?

Bob Skully
Bob Skully

@Bill Collins @Richard James Reid We suffer,  thats what. Like taking a baby off the boob. Lots of crying and fussing but it is for the good of the baby.  The longer we think we have no choice but to suckle from mommy the  longer big oil makes excuses to keep making money while destroying the planet. Oil companies will milk this for another hundered years do to their power and influence supported by small minded sheep.  

I Learn
I Learn

"Everyone knows the exact ingredients"  To be honest, the link you provided is a partial list of chemicals used by the industry - it is not definitive.  Neither is it specific: FracFocus does not report the chemicals used in any fracking operation. 


And, to be honest, please don't imply that the chemicals are safe because they are accompanied by a safety sheet - many of the chemicals used in these operations are extremely toxic and some are known carcinogens: This is a less... biased list: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_additives_for_hydraulic_fracturing


"There has also, as of yet, been no confirmed groundwater contamination from a fracking operation."


If you use the term "operation" in a fact-based manner, you have to include the entire shooting match, and fracking is a big one.


The EPA has reported groundwater contaminated as a result of fracking.  This article discusses the EPA's report:  http://arstechnica.com/science/2011/12/how-the-epa-linked-fracking-to-contaminated-well-water/3/


The EPAs report is here: http://www2.epa.gov/region8/pavilion

Donald Inks
Donald Inks

@A J 
"The ingredients are required to be provided on MSDS sheets for the safety of emergency response workers."

Good.

They will be handy evidence in all the up and coming long string of Federal lawsuits when the natural aquifers are all polluted.

"Again, let's keep the conversation honest and fact-based."

Agreed.

Why don't you scroll down that list and chemicals...
and tell us ALL

that most all of them are all found naturally in the Earth where these idiots are pumping them:

and just how they pass health and human standards for absorption rates and human ingestion when your "fracking": experiment turns into the Frankenstein monster it WILL in the immediate future.

I know:
for NOW,
out of sight out of mind.


Bill Collins
Bill Collins

Thank you for the complement Philip, but I do not get paid to comment. I work in IT at a world renown university in Silicon Valley. It did give me a good laugh though. Please respond to anything that I said that was not true.

Bill Collins
Bill Collins

@John Moore @Bill Collins @Richard James Reid 

John, You are right. We could survive without oil and gas. We would need to drop a few billion people off of the population rolls.We could try to live on the 11% that renewable energy affords us now. So as a species we could survive, but not all of us. We could not grow anywhere near the amount of food that we do now. Fertilizers come from natural gas. All of the equipment used to grow and transport food uses oil. 

We are at a place where the technologies that we need are on the horizon. There are some fundamental physics issues still to be solved. I have complete confidence that we will get there, but until then to sustain our population and our dependence on oil and gas, we have to frack. 

 

Henny Bogan
Henny Bogan

@Bill Collins I also work in IT at a world renown university in Silicon Valley. And this is the internet. See what I did there? 

John Moore
John Moore

@Bill Collins @John Moore @Richard James Reid

Bill - I suspect the consequences of burning all of this planet's fuels will be greater than doing without. No evidence, no science, just a hunch. What if the discussion was about using up another resource: All the trees? All the animals? All the water? Crazy talk, isn't it.

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