In Okla. quake country, still doubt about links to drilling

By Mike Soraghan | 03/26/2015 08:31 AM EDT

MEDFORD, Okla. — R.J. Parrish came to a town hall meeting about earthquakes here last night skeptical about the connection between the shaking and the oil and gas industry. He left just as doubtful.

MEDFORD, Okla. — R.J. Parrish came to a town hall meeting about earthquakes here last night skeptical about the connection between the shaking and the oil and gas industry.

He left just as doubtful.

"I’m not fully convinced it’s not just nature," said Parrish, a farmer from nearby Hunter, as people ambled out of the hall. "I don’t want to stop the industry from doing anything."


Parrish has had some damage to his home from earthquakes. But the new house he built in part with money from royalties for the oil and gas under his farm seems more stable.

Federal and academic scientists say that the unprecedented shaking in Oklahoma is linked to oil and gas activity, specifically deep underground disposal of drilling wastewater. The state had 585 quakes last year, three times as many as California.

But Parrish is joined in his skepticism by the state’s leaders, including Gov. Mary Fallin (R), who told The Tulsa World earlier this year that "a lot of it’s just natural earthquakes that have occurred since the beginning of the Earth," while acknowledging concerns about injection wells (EnergyWire, March 3).

State Insurance Commissioner John Doak has warned insurance companies against denying claims based on the "unsupported belief" that Oklahoma quakes are man-made. And the state’s richest oilman, Continental Resources Inc. founder Harold Hamm, has said of quake activity, "It’s certainly not related to oil and gas activity."

The state scientists those leaders turn to for answers have been equivocal. The Oklahoma Geological Survey has rejected findings by other scientists tying specific earthquakes to specific oil and gas activity. But at a forum last week, state seismologist Austin Holland said the quakes in northern Oklahoma are "most likely due to this wastewater disposal."

He didn’t go quite that far last night, though he didn’t argue that the quakes were natural.

"The areas seeing the most earthquake activity are the areas with the highest density of disposal wells," Holland told the crowd in Medford. "We know that something’s changed."

The Oklahoma Corporation Commission (OCC), which regulates oil and gas in the state, says it has no position on whether drilling activity causes the quakes.

"We don’t get into causality," commission spokesman Matt Skinner said last night. Still, the agency is placing restrictions on some wells in response to quakes.

To A.J. Ledwig, a retired school superintendent who lives in Medford, it’s clear that oil and gas activity is causing the quakes. He sees the parsing of words as an excuse for inaction.

"I think the studies are going to go on and on," he said after the meeting. "I’m in my mid-70s, and my house is cracking up. What am I going to do?"

Shaken, and shaken again

The town hall meeting was held here last night because Medford is the seat of Grant County. With at least 177 quakes last year, Grant is possibly the most earthquake-prone county in the most earthquake-prone state in the Lower 48 (EnergyWire, Feb 9).

Medford and Grant counties are in the middle of the Mississippi Lime, an oil play where wells produce as much as 10 barrels of wastewater for every barrel of oil.

Wastewater injection surged in Grant and neighboring Alfalfa County in 2013, and earthquakes surged in 2014.

So, last night, about 150 people sat on metal folding chairs on the concrete floor of the Civic Center in Medford, a farm town astride railroad tracks closer to the Kansas border than it is to Oklahoma City. Holland sat on a stage next to OCC staff, taking questions from residents who have been repeatedly shaken by earthquakes that have reached above magnitude 4.0.

"I’ve been in California earthquakes. They’re not anything like this," said Bonnie Wills of Medford. She said her home on the other side of Oklahoma City was damaged in the November 2011 magnitude-5.6 quake that is the largest recorded in the state.

"We moved from there. We come up here, and it’s even worse," she said.

Skinner, the public face of the regulatory agency, told the crowd his house in Guthrie has suffered damage from earthquakes, as have the homes of other OCC officials.

"I know how horrible it is for you," he said. "It’s almost a dehumanizing experience."

But Parrish, the skeptic, brought a humorous approach to the meeting.

He and his wife Peggy wore matching shirts from a Stillwater bar that has nicknamed itself "The Earthquake Zone." The back of the shirt reads, in neon-green letters, "Did you feel that one?"

Mom and pop vs. Wal-Mart

Those who stepped to the microphone to ask questions were less amused. One questioner asked why oil companies aren’t required to pay to fix earthquake damage. Skinner said regulators don’t have the authority to do that.

"There’s nothing there we have any jurisdiction over," Skinner said. "That’s a question for the Legislature."

Bob Jackman, a Tulsa geologist who has been a frequent critic of the state’s response to the quakes, noted that Arkansas and Ohio shut down wells that were linked to quakes. Skinner said those states have far fewer wells.

"That’s like comparing a mom-and-pop store to Wal-Mart," Skinner said. "They have very few wells. It’s much easier to shut them down."

He said the commission has had some success in stopping or limiting earthquakes by requiring operators to "plug back" wells that were injecting wastewater too deep.

"We have seen some operations plug back and then seen the seismicity decrease," Skinner said.

The commission is expected to order more plug backs under a new directive rolled out yesterday, expanding the number of wells under heightened scrutiny for seismic risk.

Fallin praised the new directive in a statement yesterday, saying it was important that wells not be drilled too deep, since OCC evaluations have shown that they "could potentially contribute to earthquakes."