EARTHQUAKES:

Victims think drilling triggered shaking, and that's OK

First of two stories.

PRAGUE, Okla. -- Jerri Loveland sees a connection between the oil drilling that surrounds her home and the earthquake last November that upended her life.

The magnitude-5.6 convulsion toppled her chimney and buckled her tornado cellar. It inflicted about $50,000 in damage to the farmhouse she shares with her husband, John, and their two young children on a gravel road about 45 minutes east of Oklahoma City.

They had no earthquake insurance, so they don't have the money for repairs. But if they don't fix the damage by September, they fear they'll lose their homeowners insurance.

"I'm not sure what we're going to do. Hope for the lottery, maybe," she said as she showed a visitor how a decades-old addition split from the house.

Some of her neighbors in this rural patch dotted with cattle and oil wells blame "fracking," or hydraulic fracturing. But coming from an oil industry family, she sees the connection as having more to do with the millions of gallons of salt-laden water that comes up with the oil and gets reinjected in deep wells nearby.

In rare cases, that wastewater can lubricate faults and unleash earthquakes. Loveland didn't know before the earthquake that her house sits nearly on top of the Wilzetta Fault, the one that ruptured in November.

"I don't think it was the fracking. I think it was the injection wells," she said, pointing over trees toward an injection well about half a mile away. "But what do you do?"

What people have done in other states -- Arkansas, Ohio and Texas -- is file class-action lawsuits, push for stricter seismic rules and shut down injection wells.

But not in Oklahoma. State officials here are taking a slower approach than their counterparts in Ohio and Arkansas and continuing to let the companies inject near the active fault. The Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which oversees drilling, is working with the Oklahoma Geological Survey to determine whether the quake was triggered, or "induced."

"We're continuing to look at it. It's a little different than what's happened in these other states," said Corporation Commissioner Dana Murphy, who leads the panel. "There's been injection activity in this area for a long time. And there's naturally occurring earthquakes here."

The oil companies that operate the nearby wells say they couldn't have triggered the quake. But scientists say injection certainly can unleash earthquakes. University of Oklahoma seismologist Katie Keranen, who has been studying the earthquake since the day it happened, says there's evidence to back up Loveland's hunch.

"There's a compelling link between the zone of injection and seismicity," Keranen said at a seismological conference in April. She's one of a handful of scientists who see evidence of such a connection.

Like Loveland, people who see potential connections between the quake and drilling activities are resigned rather than resentful. Most seem ready to wait while the state gathers information.

"I assume many people in town think it's the injection. I don't doubt they caused it," said Jim Greff, city manager in Prague, the city closest to the quake's center. "Until the Corporation Commission steps up or someone at the [state] Geological Survey steps up, I don't know that anything can be done."

'Shaking, shaking, shaking'

It was just a few minutes before 11 on a Saturday night when the earthquake struck. John and Jerri Loveland had just finished watching Oklahoma State University beat Kansas State in football.

"They had won and everything was going on and the house started shaking," Loveland recalled. She ran upstairs to get their daughter, a toddler. John got their son, and they ran out the door.

After a solid minute of shaking, they stepped back inside and heard a hissing sound. Their pipes were broken. They turned off their water well, got in their car and drove 70 miles to stay with relatives.

About 2 miles away, Joe Reneau said it sounded as if a plane crashed into his yard. The convulsions crumpled, split and tilted the solid concrete slab his home was built on. It would take 33 steel piers driven into bedrock to right it.

"It was just shaking, shaking, shaking," Reneau recalled.

Then the top half of his chimney crashed through the roof of his den.

Farther south, toward Meeker, the quake buckled the blacktop of U.S. Route 62. To the west, in Shawnee, a turret atop the stately administration building at St. Gregory's University severed and crashed to the ground.

The upheaval cracked walls for miles around, knocked over dressers, bounced plates off shelves and broke open cracks in the flat, red earth. At least two people were injured by falling bricks, and state officials tallied up damage to nearly 200 homes and businesses.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency declined to provide disaster aid, but the U.S. Small Business Administration issued about $2 million in low-interest loans in the area.

Aftershocks continued for weeks after, as strong as magnitude 4. Six months later, in early May, a magnitude-3.9 quake struck the same area.

As frightening as it was, Loveland thinks the "foreshock" was scarier. In the early morning of that Saturday, at about 2 a.m., she and her husband were roused from their sleep by a magnitude-4.7 convulsion, sending them scrambling outside with their children.

"We didn't know what was going on," she recalled.

That foreshock was centered a little less than a mile from a drilling site with two injection wells owned by Spess Oil Co., a small operator from Cleveland, Okla., about 70 miles north of Prague. One theory holds that the foreshock triggered the "main shock," which was felt as far away as St. Louis. It was the strongest earthquake ever recorded in Oklahoma.

'Too much of a coincidence'

It would not be the biggest U.S. earthquake suspected of being triggered by oil and gas activities. According to a recent National Research Council report, that would be a magnitude-6.5 earthquake in 1983 near Coalinga, Calif., that injured 94 people. Researchers have linked it to oil extraction.

But at magnitude 5.6, the Oklahoma quake would be the largest caused by wastewater injection.

And Joe and Mary Reneau think it was. Joe said that if the earthquake and its aftershocks are plotted, they line up with the injection wells in the area.

"That's too much of a coincidence," said Mary, seated next to Joe in their living room on a June afternoon. "I definitely believe that. Just about everybody around here thinks it is."

Smaller earthquakes tied to oil and gas activities in the past few years have triggered bigger reactions in other states.

In Texas, Chesapeake Energy Corp. shut down two wells near the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport in 2009 after they were linked to much smaller, magnitude-3.3 quakes (Greenwire, March 11, 2010).

Ohio this year called in a team of seismologists from Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory to study a series of earthquakes in Youngstown that culminated in a magnitude-4 event on New Year's Day. Three months later, state officials announced that the quake had likely been caused by a new injection well, which had already been shut down (Greenwire, March 9). They also proposed rules banning new injection wells near faults. Earlier this month, Gov. John Kasich (R) deemed the situation an emergency and told regulators to implement them immediately (EnergyWire, July 12).

In north-central Arkansas, several residents are pursuing a class-action lawsuit against the operators of four wells linked to a "swarm" of earthquakes as large as magnitude 4.7 (EnergyWire, July 5). State officials say the shaking diminished after regulators shut down all injection last year.

In those states, however, large-scale oil and gas drilling is newer than in Oklahoma and not woven so tightly into the economy.

Oklahoma squeezes a Texas-sized love for the oil and gas industry into a state four times smaller. The signs are hard to miss. The grounds of the state Capitol in Oklahoma City are dotted with oil rigs. The University of Oklahoma's geology school bears the ConocoPhillips brand. Oklahoma City's skyline is dominated by the new Devon Energy Center tower, and its beloved basketball team plays in Chesapeake Energy Arena.

"Oklahoma relies on this resource," said Oklahoma Geological Survey seismologist Austin Holland. Prague's Greff echoed, "Oil and gas is big in Oklahoma."

Oil and gas is big, as well, in Prague, the city closest to the quake's epicenter. The biggest employer in town is New Dominion LLC, a Tulsa company that pioneered large-scale "dewatering" -- a production method requiring a lot of wastewater disposal -- in Oklahoma.

Two of the five members on the city council were New Dominion employees until one resigned earlier this year. The company bought water rights for the city and land for a fire station. And the company's annual "New Dominion Dayz" bash is the second-biggest event in Prague each year, after its Kolache Festival.

New Dominion has been generous with the state Geological Survey, as well, donating $100,000 worth of seismic equipment to measure a swarm of earthquakes in Oklahoma City's eastern suburbs.

Given the industry's involvement with the city, Greff shows little surprise when he's asked whether Prague is showing undue deference to drillers.

"It's not true of me," Greff said in an interview in his office. "If they want to give us things without asking for anything in return, I'll take it."

The industry's popularity is one of the reasons that Joe Reneau sees no point in taking on the oil companies. "I'd be run out of town," he explained. But Reneau, who retired back to Oklahoma 25 years ago after working in military intelligence in Washington, D.C., said he's ready to challenge the oil companies in court -- next time.

"If it were to happen again, I would be soliciting donations for a lawsuit to put this thing in the court system to get a definitive answer: Are they or are they not related to fracking and the saltwater wells?" he said. "So long as there's not a court action, I don't think anybody's going to do anything. Everything's going to be swept under the rug."

'They're kind of a savior'

Jean Antonides' voice has taken on a rare mocking tone.

"This is it. This is King Kong," he says. The vice president of exploration for New Dominion is standing next to his pickup truck on a gravel pad and pointing to a 6-foot metal tower of valves.

"This" is the Wilzetta saltwater disposal well, which happens to bear the name of the fault that ruptured in November. It's one of three such wells within two and a half miles of the quake's epicenter. It could fit inside most suburban backyard sheds.

Black plastic pipes stick out of either side, like outstretched arms reaching into the red dirt. Water is coursing into the pipes from the oil wells that surround it in the green and brown fields beyond. From there, it's flowing down more than 4,000 feet into a formation called the Arbuckle.

To Antonides, who usually speaks in a more earnest tone, it's silly to think that his company's well caused the quake.

"That's people watching too many Superman movies," Antonides says. "Some individuals pick only the data that serves their purpose."

He adds that having earthquakes may not be such a bad thing. Smaller earthquakes such as the one in November might be preventing bigger, more dangerous earthquakes by relieving stress on underground faults.

"What happens if there had not been that release of energy?" he asks. "They're kind of a savior. They help keep down the big ones."

Such sentiments are not generally shared by the seismological community. Some say smaller, man-made quakes have usually presaged larger eruptions. Others have looked into setting off controlled earthquakes. But they found that although they could start them, they weren't sure whether they could stop them and almost certainly couldn't control them. In addition, a magnitude-5 quake releases only about one-thousandth of the energy of a magnitude-7 quake.

Antonides thinks the November earthquake was caused by the weight of extremely heavy rains in the area that fell days before the earthquake after months of drought.

"The volume is just immense. It's the rate of change," he says. "That was the trigger point for the Wilzetta fault. That relative weight change was the trigger point."

The 3,000 or so barrels (126,000 gallons) a day that New Dominion poured into the Wilzetta well in the month before the quake is tiny in comparison with that, he says. And he says it's significant that New Dominion doesn't need to use pressure to push water down the Wilzetta well. Instead, the water flows freely and even creates a vacuum in the well.

That's not true of the Spess wells. About 2 miles away, down gravel roads and a rutted two-track, they're only about a thousand yards apart as the crow flies. They inject much less water than the New Dominion well, but it has taken increasing amounts of pressure to get the water down. In 2000, Spess used no pressure. But after that, it started taking more pressure to inject the brine, as high as 500 psi in 2010. In the company's 2011 report to the state, filed in March of this year, the pressure was down to 250 psi.

The Spess wells are even less imposing than the New Dominion well. They were drilled as production wells in the 1940s and '50s, and they show their age. They both have a patina of rust, and broken fencing at one of the wells surrounded standing liquid on a recent afternoon in June. Piles of rusting well parts are strewn nearby.

Steven Spess, listed on state forms as the agent for the company, said in a brief phone interview with EnergyWire that there's no chance the company's wells had anything to do with the earthquake.

"None whatsoever," he said. "We put in such a small amount of water."

But some of Keranen's fellow seismologists agree that there is evidence to support the idea that the earthquake is connected to the injection wells.

University of Memphis seismologist Steve Horton, whose findings were part of the basis for the well shutdown in Arkansas last year, posted a research report earlier this year citing a correlation among the Spess wells, the New Dominion well and the location of the quakes' epicenters (EnergyWire, April 19). He warned that Oklahoma authorities are risking another damaging earthquake if they continue to allow injection into the fault.

But what brought national attention to the question of whether the Nov. 5 quake was man-made was a March U.S. Geological Survey report that said a "remarkable" increase in earthquakes is "almost certainly man-made" (EnergyWire, March 19).

That finding did not include the November earthquake, but the author of the USGS report, seismologist Bill Ellsworth, told EnergyWire in April that "the largest preponderance of evidence" points to the Oklahoma quake, in addition to a Colorado quake earlier in 2011, being caused by injection (EnergyWire, April 23).

'Pretty soon, all your earthquakes are induced'

Austin Holland is not an elected official or an oil and gas regulator. He's not the head of the Oklahoma Geological Survey.

But as the main seismologist at OGS, Holland has come to be the face of the state's response to the November earthquake and the chief critic of the idea that it was caused by drilling.

At a town meeting about a week after the quake, he downplayed the possibility that it might have been caused by saltwater injection wells. He has appeared on local television news to explain why it couldn't have been caused by oil and gas. He's done presentations for local groups, such as one in June to the Natural Gas & Energy Association of Oklahoma, on his thinking about the causes of the quake.

And without his say-so, or that of his agency, Oklahoma is not going to recognize any link between drilling activities and the earthquake. The Corporation Commission has been deferring to the judgment of OGS on the cause. Officially, Holland's position, and that of OGS, is that the commission is still examining data eight months after the quake and has yet to reach a conclusion.

"I don't think the evidence is there at the moment," Holland said in a June interview that interrupted his preparation for the presentation to the natural gas group. "It's going to take a long time to really evaluate these things. Certainly it's not definitive one way or the other."

But Holland is dismissive of the research by scientists who do see a link between drilling and injection, both in Oklahoma and in other states.

"You couldn't have an earthquake in Oklahoma that wasn't close to a reservoir or a production well or an injection well," Holland said. "Pretty soon, all your earthquakes are induced."

In Oklahoma, he says USGS made too much of the "remarkable" increase in the number of earthquakes when deeming the surge "almost certainly man-made."

"I was a little surprised that so much emphasis was put on this," Holland said.

In Ohio, he said, the state's determination that the earthquake was likely triggered was based on weak evidence.

"What you have is maybe a reasonable hypothesis," he said.

And about the earthquakes in Arkansas, he said, he is "absolutely ... not convinced." State regulators, he said, chose a "knee-jerk" and "confrontational" approach. He said Horton, his fellow seismologist, made a correlation that is "meaningless." (Horton replied, "He's wrong.")

"In Arkansas, the earthquakes were naturally going to become less and less," Holland said. "That's why I think their knee-jerk reaction was counterproductive, because by shutting down, they may never know" whether the earthquake swarm was triggered by injection wells, he said.

"If they continued injecting and [earthquakes] ramped back up again, then you would have had this clear sign."

Holland also rejects the conventional wisdom that injection of drilling brine should be forbidden near active faults capable of damaging earthquakes.

"By understanding this sequence, we have a potential to avert others, to mitigate these things in the future," he said.

Murphy, the head of the Corporation Commission, notes that state officials will also be able to take advantage of a seismic survey done in the area shortly after the earthquake by a company looking for oil.

Holland's findings line him up firmly with Antonides, New Dominion and the state's dominant industry. That has set some, such as Joe Reneau, to grumbling.

"I don't want to say he's been bought off by the oil companies, but he's withholding his position on it," Reneau said. "I choose to believe he's a cautious man."

Holland says he knows that some have expressed such sentiments, but he brushes them off. He could work for industry if he wanted, he says, and make a lot more money. But he's chosen not to.

"There are people who have accused me of being in the pocket of industry," he said. "I tell them, if I was working for industry, I'd be in a whole different ballpark."

The earthquake lottery

Driving by the flat fields around Prague, down gravel roads straight as a rifle shot, the signs of the earthquake are no longer easy to see. The buckled highway was smoothed over the same day. Weeds have grown over cracks in the ground that were alarmingly visible the day of the quake.

The new concrete driveway in front of the Reneaus' house sparkles bright white in the summer sun. They moved back into their house in June from the mobile home on their property while the house was repaired with about $200,000 from their earthquake insurance.

Joe Reneau bought the insurance policy a few years ago after earthquakes started rattling Oklahoma City's eastern suburbs and after one shook their house in February 2010. But shortly before the November earthquake, they had gotten a notice that the policy would be canceled Dec. 1, 2011. The quake happened just in time.

"I won the earthquake lottery," he quipped.

Now, though, the annual premium has risen from $25 to $600. And that's for a lot less coverage. The new policy has 18 pages of exclusions, and their deductible has gone up fivefold, from 2 percent to 10 percent of the value of the house. If there is a next time, it will cost a lot more to rebuild and might not be worth it.

Some companies have stopped offering any new quake coverage in the state. Regulatory filings indicate American Property and Casualty Co. and American National General Insurance Co. are withdrawing earthquake coverage in the state due to "increased hazard."

Jerri Loveland didn't win the earthquake lottery. Like many people in the area, she and her husband didn't have earthquake insurance. Soon, she might not even have homeowners insurance.

A contractor told them it would cost $40,000 to $60,000 to put her house back the way it was. Homeowners insurance wouldn't cover it. And in a bitter twist, they then found out her insurance company, Republic Group, had decided to pull out of Oklahoma.

So they need to get new insurance by September. But her agent told them they can't get it until the house gets fixed.

Outside the house, the biggest reminder of the earthquake is what's not there: the chimney. There's construction wrap over the hole it left in the side of the house. The paper wrap serves as a wall of their daughter's new bedroom, which had been the living room. They've abandoned the upstairs where their children used to sleep, cutting their living space in half.

They got some help from their church and used their tax refund to buy supplies for a few repairs. They applied for a Small Business Administration loan, she said, but were rejected.

She explains all this while preparing for a family trip to the doctor's office on a recent June morning, in knee-length jean shorts and a T-shirt, with her hair pulled back. Her husband crushed his arm in a machine at work, adding to their hard-luck tale of the past year.

Out front, on the graded gravel road, is a small, hand-scrawled sign stuck in the weeds saying, "Eggs for sale." She sells the eggs for $2 a dozen to passers-by. Neither that nor her husband's workers' compensation checks will put her house back together.

"I don't think our chickens can lay that many eggs," she said.

Tomorrow: State officials ignore advice about injecting into faults.

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