Unnatural Disasters: Oklahoma seismicity tied to injection wells

AGS Director Scott Ausbrooks points out the an area of seismicity in the Fayetteville shale. (KATV Photo)

A 5.6 magnitude earthquake shook Oklahoma over Labor Day Weekend. Our newsroom even received reports of shaking in Cabot, some 275 miles away.

In March, the US Geological Survey released this report addressing man-made earthquakes caused by wastewater injection, a process that happens at the end of drilling and fracking. The report warns six states, including Arkansas, would experience damage if the induced earthquakes continues.

In spite of this, Oklahoma continued to see multiple earthquakes a day... Including the one the morning of September 3rd, the largest in the state's history.

The 5.6 Quake

Homes without siding, historical buildings in shambles, grocery stores in disarray... A state, now in a state of emergency.

Arkansans experienced their share of damage six years ago when earthquakes shook our state."

"You could hear them coming," recalls Emily Lane. "It would be like a big rumble, then it would hit your house like a boom, shake, rattle."

It was 2010 when activist Lane's family began feeling earthquakes. She lives with her brother and his family in Greenbrier.

"So I'd be sitting at home, reading the newspaper, eating lunch, playing with my niece and nephew, and we would feel an earthquake," says Lane.

In 2010, Arkansas experienced 772 earthquakes, up from just 37 the year before. That number continue to climb in 2011. "We started hearing the rumors that it was related to drilling and fracking," remembers Lane.

Arkansas' Boom

Arkansas' natural gas boom began in 2007. Companies—both big and small—began fracking operations across north central Arkansas in the Fayetteville Shale.

Fracking is the process of drilling down into the earth, then injecting water, sand, and chemicals in order to release natural gas from the rock.

The process results in millions of gallons of contaminated water which must be disposed of. Disposal wells are used to inject that water back into the earth's rock formations.

Arkansas' Earthquakes

We reached out to the Oil and Gas Commission they sent us to Arkansas Geological Survey Director Scott Ausbrooks.

He explains earthquakes are not necessarily related to fracking, but rather the waste water injection that happens after. And they don't happen at all disposal locations especially when energy companies inject into horizontal faults.

"The majority of the wells... there are no activity associated with [them]. no earthquakes, no links," says Ausbrooks. "It's only in these specific areas that you have it."

But here in Arkansas, there was a history of seismicity near Guy and Greenbrier.

There was also a faultline that was discovered after injections began. It's massive and vertical… Ausbrooks explains that injecting water into the vertical faults can cause them to slip, resulting in earthquakes: "The underlying geology, the orientation of the faults, the faults being near failure... those are the drivers."

The Damage

The worst earthquake was a magnitude 4.7 earthquake followed by some serious aftershocks. Emily Lane's home was damaged.

"It starts right here and goes all the way down all the way down to the ground. We have several of these around the house," she says, pointing to a crack in the foundation of her home.

Indoors, a crack runs throughout the home: "You can see it's very obvious this crack right here from this end of the living room to the other. and it's just progressively gotten wider."

There's a similar crack in her floors: "Right here, huge crack that's about four inches wide it runs alll the way from the length of the house."

Just three percent of Arkansans have earthquake insurance. The Lanes did not... They're responsible for fixing their home.

Scott Poynter is the lawyer representing dozens of Arkansans—some of whom saw upwards of $100,000 in damages.

"You can even see... It looks crooked. It's going like that," he says, pointing to a slanted part of the house. Poynter shows a photo under neath the house, "Some of this is just Tony make-shifting holding it up." Inside the house, "Right in there, tons of water came down and just really... Just mold everywhere."

Poynter got involved with the issue after he felt the earthquakes in West Little Rock: "I thought a transformer had exploded... 'Cause there was a sound associated with it."

Who knew?

Poynter believes that the oil and gas industry's message is partially to blame for the damage: "They have changed their logos to pretty yellows, greens, and blues, and they say we're environmentally sound... They deny, deny, denied when the earthquakes in Guy/Greenbrier hit... We're not causing earthquakes. No one's ever scientifically linked us to earthquakes."

However, scientists actually began linking earthquakes to wastewater disposal as early as the sixties—with the case in the Rocky Mountain Arsenal in Colorado.

And a transcript from a hearing in 2008 shows that the Oil and Gas Commission and Arkansas Geological Survey were aware of the potential for earthquakes in the region.

Once the correlation was confirmed, a moratorium was issued for parts for the Fayetteville Shale and surrounding areas. Since then, earthquakes across the region have dramatically decreased down to just 64 in 2015.

"The pendulum has swung from one end to the other in saying, yes, there are man-made earthquakes."

Statements from Oil and Gas Companies with Operations in the Area

BHP Billiton: “Reported linkages between the injection of water generated during shale oil and gas production into deep disposal wells and the occurrence of seismic activity are being studied by the scientific community and industry alike. BHP Billiton will continue to dispose of water only in approved wells and facilities and comply with relevant legislation where we operate. We will work with regulators and other stakeholders to better understand the issue and communicate our operating practices.”

Southwestern Energy: "Southwestern Energy’s subsidiaries do not own or operate any injection wells within the moratorium area. We recycle the vast majority of the water that returns to the surface from completing a given well, using it in completing subsequent wells. When we no longer can reuse the water, we arrange for its treatment or disposal in a lawful and environmentally sound manner. We are continually testing new technologies to enable the water to be returned to nature. In fact, in our Arkansas operations, SWN is freshwater neutral, meaning our operations do not take out more water than our treatment and conservation projects generate."

We also reached out to XTO Production drilled in the area until 2015. Their communications advisor indicated that it would be "inappropriate" to comment since they, "do not have wastewater wells in the moratorium area."

KATV furthermore placed calls to Chesapeake Energy on multiple occasions. They did not return our voicemails. Emails were sent to Clarita Operating, and those were not returned. The number listed online for Deep-Six, a subsidiary of Hurst Oil Investments, is inactive.

To view Pt 2 of this story, click here.

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