AS you read this, chances are that an earthquake will have rattled some parts of Oklahoma in the past 48 hours or so. The odds of it being a significant quake are quite long, but not nearly as long as they were just five years ago.
And also not necessarily any shorter than the odds were in the 1950s. Therein lies a part of Oklahoma’s seismic history that rarely gets mentioned.
We have shaken this way before.
No one then looked for something to blame other than nature itself. Today, the blame game is apace. The betting is the oil and gas industry is the cause. The narrative is similar to the anthropogenic global warming mantra — speculation turns into theory and theory morphs into “settled science.”
But more than just the ground is unsettled in the great quake debate. Concrete evidence is lacking that the recent earthquake swarm is traceable to specific human activities, particularly wastewater disposal wells.
As Adam Wilmoth reports in Sunday’s Oklahoman, the phenomenal rise in recorded seismic activity remains a mystery. Scientists are trying to unravel this mystery. Until they do, let’s keep our conclusions to what we know.
One thing we know is that a swarm producing more than 200 earthquakes of 3.0 or greater intensity so far this year is thought by some to be definitely linked to disposal wells and thought by others to be entirely natural. A third view is that the swarm traces to a combination of factors.
The problem comes with incautious media reports. Terms such as “growing body of evidence” are used. A National Geographic report late last month said, “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.”
The reference to fracking is unfortunate. No one is claiming that hydraulic fracturing itself is the culprit. Instead, it’s an underground disposal process that’s been around for seven decades. That’s 70 years, so why all the earthquakes now?
No one really knows, but the hunt is underway. Some of the interest in man-made causes is spurred by anti-fossil fuel sentiments. But some seismic scientists who have no such sentiments are taking this matter seriously. They should.
Regulators, state and federal geological surveys and the industry itself are pursuing this line of inquiry. It may be that their conclusions will coalesce around a belief that disposal wells should never be sited in some areas or should be limited in size.
On the other hand, earthquake swarms have emerged, peaked and gone away in regions where disposal wells weren’t a factor. Good science demands that initial reports of the disposal well-earthquake linkage be thoroughly vetted. The alleged linkage makes for sexy headlines, but it’s no substitute for knowledge.
As University of Texas seismologist Cliff Frolich notes, “Science is a dialog.” Skepticism is not just appropriate. It’s essential.
An industry that has done so much to create this state’s fortunes is an easy target for outside groups that have no interest in our prosperity. Seismologists seeking to make a name for themselves may jump to conclusions that are later deconstructed.
This is a serious dialog. It’s not a waste of time. Should any “growing body” of evidence finger disposal wells beyond a reasonable doubt, we must decide what to do about it — just as we’ve decided how to live with oil and gas exploration activity that’s messy and noisy and just as we’re now deciding how to resolve conflicts involving wind energy turbines.
But let’s stay calm. Needed is a cautious, responsible and thorough examination. Not needed are knee-jerk reactions that assume heightened oil and gas activity is increasing the odds of damaging, frequent earthquakes.