Debate over effects of oil-gas exploration not about to subside

The Oklahoman Editorial Published: March 29, 2013

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.

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