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Scare Tactics Of Seismic Proportions

Cushing, Oklahoma City Hall, with structure reading Cushing Okla., Pipeline Crossroads of the World
photo by Roy Luck

Some critics of hydraulic fracturing are really critics of any sort of hydrocarbon development.

While their opposition to fracking shows up in many places and takes various forms, this group is not, by and large, interested in a debate about the various benefits and drawbacks of the process. Instead, they continue to look for the most effective methods to convince others that fracking, or oil and gas development in general, needs to be abandoned outright.

In this context, it is easy to see the claim that fracking in Oklahoma is causing increasingly frequent earthquake activity as one in a long series of arguments that fracking’s opponents have made with varying degrees of validity, blaming the process for phenomena ranging from climate change to surface pollution.

First, a disclosure: Palisades Hudson Financial Group manages several oil and gas partnerships for our clients. These partnerships have engaged in fracking and other forms of drilling technology for many years. While one could reasonably argue that this gives our firm what amounts to an industry perspective on the topic, it also gives us experience with the technological and geological issues at play in this debate.

It is true that Oklahoma has seen increased seismic activity. The small town of Cushing, which is home to the largest commercial oil storage hub in North America, has been within a few miles of several small earthquakes within the past month, with the largest topping out at 4.5 on the Richter scale. Bloomberg reported that Oklahoma’s rise in seismic activity has corresponded to increased oil production and fracking activity.

The evidence is reasonably clear that some processes associated with fracking, particularly the deep disposal of wastewater in what would otherwise be abandoned wells, can produce ground movement readily measurable by machines and sometimes perceptible by humans. In extreme cases, some of this movement may even have cracked a home’s drywall or broken a plate.

But it’s a long way from broken dishes to a national security threat, which is how Bloomberg described the situation.

The tank farms and pipelines in Cushing sit in the middle of the nation’s most active tornado zone. They are also an obvious terrorist target in the post-9/11 era. In the days after the September 11 attacks, the tanks received special attention from law enforcement; they hold approximately six times more petroleum these days than they did in 2001. They are an important resource, and they should absolutely receive protection.

But it is ludicrous to say that seismic activity at the levels scientists say could conceivably result from fracking, or other drilling activity in the vicinity, is a threat to the nation’s physical or economic security.

For context, consider the 4.5 magnitude earthquake, the biggest measured near Cushing. This is classified as a “light” earthquake. While people can and do certainly notice ground movement at this level, these quakes generally cause only minor damage. There are an estimated 30,000 earthquakes measuring between 2.5 and 5.4 on the Richter scale annually. At an average of more than 80 per day, we don’t hear about these events because they are so minor and commonplace.

There were no initial reports of injury or damage from the 4.5 earthquake near Cushing. Despite the elevated number of low-level seismic activity events, injuries have been few. The courts have given at least one woman the chance to try to claim in court that an oil company was responsible for her earthquake-related injuries. The 2011 earthquake in which she was injured reached magnitude 5.0 - higher than the recent event near Cushing, but still on the cusp between “light” and “moderate.”

What about larger events? A study released in October suggested that a moderate magnitude earthquake of about 5.6 is possible beneath the Cushing storage facility. If such an event occurred, it “could cause moderate to heavy damage to the tanks in the Cushing facility depending on the tank height, diameter, and percent full.” Those tanks are very full these days. A 5.6 magnitude earthquake directly underneath the facility could certainly cause some major problems, though the study’s authors make no mention of the probability of such an event.

We should not bury our heads in the oil sands and ignore this issue. Fracking, like any sort of petroleum development, needs to be done responsibly. That includes the disposal of wastewater in rock strata least likely to cause significant damage. The study noted, for instance, that following a 4.0 magnitude earthquake, Oklahoma inspectors found wastewater had been injected below the targeted rock layer. The misdirected fluid was delivered to a more fault-prone one, increasing the potential for earthquakes. Care should be taken to minimize such scenarios. And, if necessary, we should certainly fortify tanks, pipelines and other infrastructure in Cushing and other sensitive areas to withstand increased potential for ground movement.

But to say that fracking in Oklahoma has somehow raised the risk of major earthquakes there to California-like levels is ridiculous. Frequency is not the same as severity, and to argue that the problem rises to the level of a national security concern is essentially to say that tornadoes should be viewed that way too.

The argument does not shed light on the discussion about fracking, and it does not lead to rational policy choices. But when made by some parties, it isn’t meant to. It is simply a scare tactic of seismic proportions.

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