Debate continues: Updated study claims earthquake swarm tied to water disposal wells

High-volume wastewater disposal wells likely have contributed to the swarm of earthquakes experienced in central Oklahoma over the past few years, according to an updated report from a team led by former OU researcher Katie Keranen.
by Adam Wilmoth Published: July 3, 2014
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High-volume wastewater disposal wells likely have contributed to the swarm of earthquakes in central Oklahoma over the past few years, according to an updated report from a team led by former OU researcher Katie Keranen.

Now a professor at Cornell University, Keranen’s latest research shows that wastewater disposal wells can cause quakes more than 18 miles away, far more than the previously understood range of about three miles. With that range and pressure, the disposal wells could be responsible for the earthquake swarm the state has experienced over the past three years, the report published Thursday in the journal Science stated.

“The disposed fluids are capable of contributing to the seismic activity,” Keranen said in an interview with The Oklahoman. “These wells are capable. That doesn’t exclude anything else from contributing, but we have no reason to think these are tectonic. They don’t match tectonic activity in other areas. It does seem these are just linked to wastewater. Our research focuses on wastewater and shows it is sufficient.”

Oil and natural gas industry leaders, however, expressed some skepticism.

“Dr. Keranen’s study is just one part of continuing research into the increase of seismic activity in Oklahoma,” Mike Terry, president of the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association, said in a statement. “Others have focused on the state’s ongoing drought and previous seismic activity in the 1950s similar to recent seismic trends. The OIPA and the oil and gas industry as a whole support the continued study of Oklahoma’s increased seismic activity, but a rush to judgment based on one researcher’s findings provides no clear understanding of the causes.”

Industry leaders also have pointed to their ongoing cooperation with researchers and regulators.

“As an industry, we’ve been saying we need more data and we need to work with regulators and others to help determine what is causing the significant increase in seismic activity,” said Chad Warmington, president of the Oklahoma Oil and Gas Association. “But to unequivocally link it to wastewater injections, I think there still needs to be more research. “

Some attendees at a town hall meeting in Edmond last week called for a moratorium on injection wells or all oil and natural gas activity. Keranen said such steps are unwarranted.

“The vast majority of wells in Oklahoma are operating benignly. There would be no basis for changing their operation,” she said. “The goal is to figure out if there is something we can identify to focus on monitoring, policy and best practices that will bring all the wells to safe operating practices. The ultimate goal is safety. We don’t need extreme action.”

The study focused on 89 disposal wells in central Oklahoma. The report stated that four high-volume wells could have contributed to up to 20 percent of the recent outbreak.

“They might consider drilling more wells with less pressure each,” Keranen said.


More stories about wastewater disposal wells and earthquakes in Oklahoma:

Geologist: History shows Oklahoma earthquakes aren't new phenomenon


by Adam Wilmoth
Energy Editor
Adam Wilmoth returned to The Oklahoman as energy editor in 2012 after working for four years in public relations. He previously spent seven years as a business reporter at The Oklahoman, including five years covering the state's energy sector....
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