AN oft-heard term in the shakedown that characterizes the workers' comp system is “dueling doctors.” What's shaking now at the University of Oklahoma is more along the fault lines of “dueling seismographers.”
A noisy debate over whether oil and gas exploration causes earthquakes is getting louder. An OU scientist came to the conclusion that a record-setting central Oklahoma quake in 2011 had “a strong correlation” to activity involving wastewater wells in Lincoln County. But the Oklahoma Geological Survey, which is based at OU, has said the 5.7 temblor was a “naturally occurring event.”
Oklahomans still talk about where they were on Nov. 6, 2011, the day the Big One took place. Unlike most seismic events around here, this one did considerable damage and stirred fears that an even bigger quake was just around the corner. Hasn't happened. Yet. But any scientific conclusion that the 2011 quake is related to human activity gives people reason to question whether increasing that activity will also up the frequency and strength of local earthquakes.
The dueling doctors scenario refers to physicians rating the severity of workers injured on the job. Those hired by law firms representing the workers tend to come to one conclusion and those hired by employers or insurance providers come to another. This is why we say medical arts instead of medical sciences.
OU seismologist Katie Keranen co-authored a report published in an academic journal that explores the suspected correlation between oil and gas activity and earthquakes. Those who oppose fossil fuels in general and certain drilling practices (hydraulic fracturing, for example) in particular will trumpet this report. Those who celebrate one of the state's heritage industries and who support fracking will continue doubting that people can cause earthquakes.
It's not lost on the cause-and-effect True Believers that OU's School of Geology and Geophysics bears the name of a major U.S. energy firm. But skeptics are right to note that the environmental lobby and friendly media push the theory beyond what it deserves, based on what we now know. In this regard the duel is much like the one involving climate change, with firm believers in anthropogenic global warming on one side and skeptics on the other.
Count us among the skeptics who aren't convinced that oil and gas exploration is responsible for an increase in earthquakes in this region or for the Big One in 2011. After a two-year spike in seismic activity in 2010 and 2011, earthquakes declined in Oklahoma last year despite a continuation of the drilling activity supposedly associated with the spike.
Skepticism, though, isn't a warrant to denigrate the conclusions Keranen reached or the lessons we can draw from those conclusions. The question is what to do with the information. Should certain sensitive areas be off limits to the type of drilling activity taking place around where the 2011 earthquake happened? Oil and gas activity has always involved a trade off between its benefits and its detrimental effects. Will tolerance for the occasional tremor become part of that trade-off?
Earthquakes continue to rattle this area, but most of them are barely noticeable. When the next Big One hits — assuming that it will — Keranen's study will draw more attention. It may even lead some skeptics to the wastewater well even if they're still loath to drink from it.
This duel is a draw so far, but the swordplay is far from over.