Skip to Content
Everything Else

The Tulsa World produced a great series on Oklahoma earthquakes…

12:55 PM EST on February 10, 2015

earthquake oklahoma

Journalism in Oklahoma isn't dead... yet.

Earlier this week, the Tulsa World released an in-depth, thorough, expansive, and probably award-winning investigative series over the earthquake crisis in Oklahoma.

There's a lot of information in the report, and it can be hard to follow at times thanks to the complicated mess that is the Tulsa World website, but it basically confirms a couple of things that most of us have suspected:

1. The earthquake swarm in the state is being caused by wastewater injection wells.

2. Nothing is being done about it because the energy industry and their deep pockets control all levels of Oklahoma state government.

I know, I know, that's not exactly breaking news or anything, but it's refreshing to see a legitimate media organization have the balls to acknowledge and report the truth. Remember, we're used to seeing reports on "new theories" blaming the earthquakes on rising and falling water levels at area lakes.

According to the World, their investigation has found:

• (Mary) Fallin and key state officials, joined by energy industry groups, are publicly casting doubt on the scientific consensus. Dozens of studies and government reports since the 1970s have found that wastewater injection wells, and in some cases hydraulic fracturing, can trigger earthquakes.

• An earthquake committee appointed by Fallin is meeting outside of public view and plans to issue no reports or recommendations. Five of 12 members have energy industry connections, including both lawmakers who serve on it.

• The Oklahoma Geological Survey has not issued final studies on the most damaging quakes, including the 2011 Prague earthquake. The office's seismologist acknowledged that he has been pressured by some in the energy industry.

• Since 2010, the volume of oil-field wastewater injected annually in Oklahoma increased 35 percent to 1.1 billion barrels. That is equal to the amount 576 petroleum supertanker ships or 23,000 Lake Yaholas could hold.

• The state Corporation Commission oversees a "traffic light" system covering injection wells in a quake-prone section of central Oklahoma. As of Wednesday, the agency has issued 27 directives to well operators, including injection wells operated by SandRidge Energy in Alfalfa County and Devon Energy in Payne County that were shut down.

• At least five insurance companies have excluded earthquakes triggered by fracking and wastewater injection from Oklahoma policies. While about 25 percent of Oklahomans with homeowners insurance have earthquake policies, the majority of claims filed last year with the state's largest insurers have not been paid.

First of all, this would probably be a good time to remind you that The Oklahoman is owned by Philip Anschutz, a Colorado billionaire who made his first fortune in the drilling industry. Also, we should probably mention that a who's who list of local frackers – Chesapeake, Devon and Continental Resources – spend a lot of money advertising in The Oklahoman. In fact, Devon even provides its employees with free subscriptions to the paper. I'm telling you this so that you won't expect anything this brutally honest to ever appear in "The State's Most Trusted News." Instead, they'll probably have a report out later this month that confirms earthquakes are caused by Barack Obama and can only be stopped by construction of the Keystone Pipeline.

Anyway, my favorite part of The Tulsa World report is how they basically call out Oklahoma Geological Survey as being a shills for the energy industry – a group that simply drags its feet and does everything possible to not name waste water disposal wells as the main cause and trigger for Oklahoma's earthquake epidemic.

Take for example this snippet via the World:

Dozens of studies since the 1970s have shown a convincing connection between earthquakes and fluid injection. After fluid injection was thought to have triggered earthquakes at the Rocky Mountain military arsenal well, scientists conducted a lengthy experiment in which they literally turned seismicity off and on by varying injection volume and pressure.

Some studies, including two in Oklahoma, have also found a connection between earthquakes and hydraulic fracturing, which uses high-pressured fluid and sand to blast open rock and free trapped energy deposits. Those earthquakes tend to be weaker and don’t last as long as those believed to be induced by wells used to dispose of oilfield wastewater.

Oklahoma has more than 3,200 active wastewater injection wells permitted and overseen by the state Corporation Commission. As new drilling techniques have reopened areas of the state for oil and gas production, the volume of wastewater coming up with that oil and gas has ballooned....

About 60 percent of the state’s wastewater is injected into the Arbuckle geologic zone. Well operators prefer the Arbuckle because it is considered porous and able to accept seemingly endless amounts of wastewater.

However that zone of rock is just above the granite “basement” layer, the most susceptible to fracturing under pressure.

According to a 2012 workshop presentation by the Oklahoma Geological Survey’s chief seismologist, Austin Holland, the “Arbuckle is near the basement where faults may be stressed to near failure — Fractures and faults in basement may be poorly if identified at all … There could be many old faults lurking in the basement.”

Holland noted in another research paper: “Some of the largest magnitude earthquakes associated with SWD injections were centered in the states of Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.”

However, when it comes to official conclusions, the Oklahoma Geological Survey continues to recommend more study while issuing no final reports on whether injection wells have triggered earthquakes.

Larry Grillott, dean of the University of Oklahoma's Mewbourne College of Earth and Energy, said the Geological Survey is currently working on a study of triggered earthquakes as part of a $1.8 million federal grant. The study began last summer and is expected to take two years.

“We can say scientifically very general things but that’s quite different than putting it into a regulatory framework that might have side effects that you didn’t think about,” Grillott said.

The Geological Survey is housed at OU within the Mewbourne College, named after oilman and benefactor Curtis Mewbourne.

“We do get a lot of support from the energy industry," Grillott said. "Most of the budget of the Oklahoma Geological Survey is state funding. We get some support from the industry.”

Grillott said energy industry funds went toward seismometers and some matching funds for the federal grant.

“We feel comfortable that we have the right balance and that we are objective in this. I worked in the oil and gas business for more than 30 years. We are looking to do the right thing. … There’s room in all of this for honest differences and sometimes that gets lost I think.”

Hmmn. Let's review one more time that quote by Mr. Grillot, the Dean of the OU's Mewbourne College of Earth and Energy, which just so happens to house the Oklahoma Geological Survey:

I worked in the oil and gas business for more than 30 years. We are looking to do the right thing.

So you worked in the oil and gas business for more than 30 years and are looking to do the right thing? I'm sure that's great news for the industry that supported you, your family and the University you work for for all these years! It's good to know you have our back.

I also like how the World called into question some of the statements and apparent denial by Oklahoma Seismologist Austin Holland. Every time Austin is interviewed on TV or in the newspaper, he seems to go out of his way to distance the energy industry from earthquakes. It almost feels like he's following the script of a corporate directive. I first noticed this about a year or so ago when he helped News 9 give credence to that ridiculous Lake Arcadia theory.

Holland says there are known cases of seismicity being caused by the filling or draining of nearby reservoirs, and that could be the case here.

"There's oftentimes quite long delays," Holland explained, "three to six months between filling of reservoirs or large rainfall events, and these earthquakes that potentially get tied to those events."

Holland says there are couple of ways that Arcadia could have triggered the quakes. The sheer weight of the water this summer, or the sudden decrease in weight, as water was released. Either could have impacted a sub-surface that is already under stress.

Yes, despite overwhelming evidence that earthquakes are tied to waster water injection wells, Austin Holland helped promote an energy industry-pitched theory that water levels at a small lake could be part of the problem. I'm sure the tobacco executives who told people that cigarettes strengthen your lungs and Exxon scientists who perpetuated the idea that global warming is a myth agree with that 100%.

For giggles, I got curious and did some digging on Austin Holland. I noticed a couple of notable things:

1. He was hired in January of 2010, several months before earthquakes swarms started rattling our state.

2. When he was hired, he only had a master's degree from UTEP.

Think about that for a second. Since OGS hired Austin Holland in 2010, Oklahoma has basically gone from an earthquake afterthought to the most seismically active state in the U.S. It kind of makes me wonder if Holland is qualified for the job. In 2009 / 2010, I seriously doubt the nation's top seismologists and earthquake experts were knocking down the door to come work for the Oklahoma Geological Survey. That's probably why we ended up with a guy from Idaho who only had a master's degree.

In all fairness, Austin did recently finish up his doctorate in geosciences from the University of Arizona. According to his LinkedIn page, it only took him 8-years to complete it...

austin holland linkedin

Listen, Austin Holland may be the geological version of Albert Einstein. I have no clue. But what I do know is that we hired this guy before Oklahoma became the most seismically active state in the country, and now that we're an earthquake hotbed, we're suddenly counting on him to research and explain a potentially dangerous, complicated mess that can affect us all. Maybe, just maybe, Austin's not the right guy for the current job. Has anyone brought that up? Perhaps we need to bring in one of the leading earthquake research teams in the country, have them analyze the situation, and then give us recommendations on what needs to be done. Wouldn't that be nice?

Haha, yeah right. Like the energy industry will ever let that happen. As long as Austin and the OGS keep on dragging their feet, they'll fully support what the OGS is doing.

Anyway, do yourself a favor and check out the full report on The Tulsa World's website. Once again, it's good to see real journalism being done in Oklahoma. Hopefully they'll keep it up before an earthquake hits and wipes us all out.

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter