Why Oil Companies Caused 7 Earthquakes This Weekend

There were seven earthquakes in Oklahoma over the weekend. Crazy, right? Not when you consider that, as of June 2014, there have been more earthquakes in Oklahoma than anywhere else in the continental United States, including California. It's not by a narrow margin, either. Just taking quakes with a magnitude of 3.0 or greater into account, the most recent numbers have them "winning" 207 to 140, a beating the likes of which hasn't been seen in an Oklahoma vs. California match-up since this year's NBA Western Conference Semifinals.


Sorry, FCC requirements demand that we make at least six sports references each year.

If this seems odd, that's because it totally is. From 1978 to 2008, Oklahoma averaged two magnitude 3.0 earthquakes per year. Again, just through the middle of last month or so, they're already at 207. At least half the country will probably be buried under a pile of rubble before anyone really admits it, but the cause of this epidemic is hydraulic fracturing, which everyone just calls "fracking" now, because one-word phrases make for simpler Twitter protests.

In 2008, the number of natural gas wells in the Devonian Woodford Shale in Oklahoma increased to 750 from just 24. That's the last year Oklahoma had anything approaching a "normal" yearly earthquake average. It's not a difficult correlation to make, except for one thing -- as the oil and gas companies who swear they aren't going to kill us all like to point out, earthquakes are still on the rise in Oklahoma even though drilling for resources by way of fracking has been scaled back significantly in the area.

oildrum.com
As this chart so clearly indicates.

Is that supposed to be reassuring? Think about it for a second. Clearly, these earthquakes started when fracking started, but they're only getting worse, even as fracking is on the decline. That doesn't mean fracking isn't a problem, it means fracking has caused a problem that we don't know how to stop.

See, as it relates to earthquakes, the fracking process itself isn't the cause, but rather the waste water it leaves behind. That has to go somewhere, and in this case that somewhere is in thousands of disposal wells deep beneath the Earth's surface.

Creatas/Creatas/Getty Images
Drown ye, Satan!

As these wells fill, they put additional pressure on local fault lines. Seismic activity in Oklahoma has increased steadily over the years as those wells have filled. That water is there now, and it, much like Oklahoma's new status as the earthquake capital of the contiguous 48 states, is not going anywhere anytime soon. Earthquakes are just going to be a way of life in Oklahoma now, as one expert has already pointed out, and it's the exact same story in Texas, Ohio, and any other state where fracking is allowed. The more water pumped into the ground below, the more the ground shakes.

So, there's Part 1 of the problem. We've allowed thousands of these disposal wells to populate the middle section of America, worried only about whether or not it would turn our water faucets into flamethrowers.

Now, let's talk about temblors. That's basically just another word for earthquakes, but for our purposes, it refers to the subsequent, smaller quakes that the larger ones eventually cause in other places. These disposal wells guarantee that any large earthquake that happens anywhere in the world has a decent shot at also reaching and destroying the states where those wells are located.

For example, an 8.8 magnitude earthquake in Maule, Chile, in February 2010 sent seismic waves around the world, eventually triggering a 4.1 magnitude quake near disposal wells in Prague, Oklahoma, 16 hours later. This was followed by months of smaller temblors before finally triggering the largest wastewater induced quake so far in the country, which measured 5.7 on the Richter scale, in November 2011. In other words, one earthquake in Chile caused almost two years worth of earthquakes in Oklahoma. That same quake caused similar problems near disposal wells in Trinidad, Colorado. The 9.1 magnitude earthquake that hit Japan in March 2011 set off a series of quakes near disposal wells in Snyder, Texas. The list goes on.

Now, considering that a quake as far away as Chile is capable of triggering a 5.7 magnitude earthquake in Oklahoma, let's look at an unsettling comparison.

maps.google.com
This will be a big problem someday.

Right, San Francisco is a whole lot closer to Oklahoma and the various other fracking states than Chile or Japan. When "the big one" that everyone knows and expects will hit the West Coast finally does, how bad is the ensuing damage in the rest of the country going to be? Even worse, a large quake in California isn't even the most terrifying possibility. While the West Coast and the San Andreas Fault get all the apocalyptic press, there's an even more troubling situation smack dab in the middle of the United States.

Wikipedia
This will be a way bigger problem someday.

It's called the New Madrid Seismic Zone, and in 1811 it triggered one of the largest and most destructive quakes in our nation's history. The epicenter was in Arkansas, and its effects were felt strongly for approximately 50,000 square miles, with moderate effects reaching another 1 million square miles. The earthquake that famously destroyed San Francisco in 1906, by comparison, was felt moderately over an area of just about 6,200 square miles.

Is anyone expecting the New Madrid zone to turn violent again anytime soon? Sure! In 2011, FEMA issued a request for information to vendors for 140 million MREs (meals ready to eat) to accommodate the potential need for earthquake relief in the area. Relax, they eventually canceled the request (but only because they realized getting them was the responsibility of a different government agency), and it doesn't necessarily mean disaster is imminent. They were more curious as to what a relief effort of that scope might cost. Still, the fact that they were looking into it at all suggests that a massive Midwestern earthquake is a real possibility at some point.

Unfortunately, that's no guarantee that disaster isn't imminent, either. Remember, a magnitude 8.8 quake in Chile caused temblors in Oklahoma, including the most powerful waste-water-induced earthquake in history, for nearly two years afterward. So, with that in mind, what should we expect from the 7.1 magnitude quake that just hit Mexico in April?

maps.google.com
Fuck.

That's a whole lot closer to Oklahoma. Is what happened this weekend related to that quake? We literally don't know yet. Seismologists release their findings on this kind of stuff only on a monthly basis. If it is, though, things are about to get terribly unruly in Middle America. It took more than a year for that Chile quake to eventually cause a 5.7 magnitude temblor in Oklahoma. Mexico is almost 4,000 miles closer. If what we're seeing now are the ripple effects from that, how much worse will it get?

The scariest possibility is that, seeing as how the New Madrid Seismic Zone ends in Arkansas, a massive quake right next door in Oklahoma could, in turn, remotely trigger another New Madrid quake, which would devastate the Midwest. Estimates put potential casualties at more than 86,000, and that was before Oklahoma started flooding the neighboring fault lines with fracking water. Those damage estimates don't take into account that, in the states surrounding the New Madrid Seismic Zone, underground disposal wells are now everywhere, waiting to cause all sorts of destruction of their own.

Not to sound like an alarmist or anything, but what happened in Oklahoma this weekend could, literally, be the beginning of the chain of events that leads to the largest, costliest, and deadliest disaster in the history of the United States, and there is nothing we can do about it now.


Of course I'll tell you more!

It's not like we can just stop the drilling and make the problem go away, because, again, the drilling isn't the problem. Those disposal wells exist now. Whether we keep drilling holes into the core of our planet or not is irrelevant. At least in terms of earthquake prevention, it's a discussion that isn't even worth having anymore. The kind of fracking damage that leads to earthquakes is done, and it is permanent, at least as far as we know now. It is literally set in stone, and that 2010 quake in Chile gave us a teaser trailer of how bad the situation can get.

Simply put, if what happened in Oklahoma this weekend is related to the the April quake in Mexico, a good portion of this country is fucking doomed.


Adam hopes you don't die before you have a chance to follow him on Twitter or come see him tell jokes in person sometime.

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