This story was updated at 11:54 a.m. EDT.
The Oklahoma Geological Survey jolted the national drilling debate last week when it announced oil and gas activity was "very likely" causing the earthquakes plaguing the state.
But many scientists at the survey had suspected as much since 2007, when earthquakes rattled an area near an oil and gas operation in southeast Oklahoma City.
Survey leaders, though, decided against going public with a theory that might be viewed as hostile to the state’s most prominent industry, according to interviews and agency emails obtained by EnergyWire under Oklahoma’s Open Records Act.
Instead, the agency, commonly called by its initials, OGS, accepted thousands of dollars’ worth of seismic equipment from the company that scientists suspected of causing the quakes, Tulsa-based New Dominion LLC. And for years, they told the public the quakes were natural.
"The survey is currently dismissing such events as being naturally-occurring," OGS geologist Richard Andrews, now the interim director, wrote in an email to a family member last year. "Sooner or later, the media will pick up on the real cause and create a genuine ruckus."
The first OGS geologist to raise concerns about New Dominion’s wells was Dan Boyd, who now works in the oil and gas industry in Qatar. Boyd said he urged survey Director Randy Keller and state seismologist Austin Holland to acknowledge the link.
"The petroleum guys, myself included, thought it was an open-and-shut case," Boyd said. "I voiced my opinion numerous times in numerous meetings."
But he said he understands that going public would have been tough in a state as oil-dependent as Oklahoma.
"You’re talking about the major job creator, income generator for the state," he said. "Everyone is very concerned that they don’t want anything that would derail that."
Industry has exerted influence on the debate. When the survey edged closer to linking quakes and oil operations in 2013, Holland, a University of Oklahoma (OU) employee, was summoned to a meeting with university President David Boren and Harold Hamm, the influential founder of Continental Resources Inc. (EnergyWire, March 3). Boren and Hamm have said the meeting was purely informational.
Holland has said he had the academic freedom he needed. And he’s critical of Boyd’s assertion that the cause of the quakes was clear in 2007.
"Dan Boyd clearly has some strong beliefs on the matter," Holland said in an interview earlier this month. "He can believe all he wants, but until he contributes in the scientific discussion, it’s not helpful."
New Dominion has publicly rejected the idea that it caused any earthquakes. Jean Antonides, the company’s vice president for exploration, said Friday that the company has explained the workings of its disposal wells with state regulators at the Oklahoma Corporation Commission.
"Data demonstrating what really happens in the Arbuckle system in Oklahoma City field was presented to them," Antonides said.
Commission officials say they are looking at the New Dominion wells and, after reviewing data submitted by the company, have directed it to reduce volume by 50 percent and submit additional data.
Oklahoma had 585 earthquakes last year of magnitude 3.0 or greater, up from an average of one to three before 2009. That’s three times more than California had. Oklahoma could be on track for more than 800 quakes this year — which means there’s a higher risk of a quake that could knock down buildings and injure large numbers of people.
Oklahoma’s political leaders have been slow to investigate why the state has been shaking so much. Until last week, they had mostly left it to the scientists at OGS.
Holland has said that OGS scientists had suspicions about a link to oil and gas since 2010.
"But until we can demonstrate that scientifically or not we were not going to discuss that publicly," Holland wrote to a fellow scientist in 2013.
Holland started at the survey in 2010. The suspicions go back years further than that.
‘He wanted to be nice to us’
One day in February 2007, the earth shook around Tinker Air Force Base in southeast Oklahoma City. These days, many Oklahomans would probably shrug and move on.
But the shaking was accompanied by a huge "bang," Boyd recalled. And at the time, he said, people around the base were scared.
"People thought it was a terror attack on Tinker Air Force Base," he said. Soon enough, though, authorities reported it was a magnitude-3.0 earthquake.
About 3 miles from the center of that quake was a New Dominion oil and gas wastewater injection well with a smirk-inducing name: Deep Throat.
Beyond the name, Deep Throat had caught Boyd’s attention for the size of its operations. Deep Throat had started pumping in 2004, at more than 12,000 barrels a day (more than half a million gallons). That, said Boyd, was a big well.
By November 2006, that amount had risen sevenfold, to more than 92,000 barrels a day. The first earthquake came the next month, on Dec. 21, 2006.
New Dominion’s operations in the area had nothing to do with hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." In some ways, they were the opposite. While fracking involves injecting water downhole at high pressure, New Dominion perfected a production method called "de-watering."
The company was pumping millions of gallons of oil-laced water out of a spent oil field under Oklahoma City. It separated the oil, then pumped the water into wells like Deep Throat. Company founder and President David Chernicky has called the disposal system "essential" to the company’s success (EnergyWire, July 14, 2014).
More quakes came in February 2007. Deep Throat wasn’t injecting as much at that point. But a sister well, called Sweetheart, had come online. Together, they were injecting more than 100,000 barrels a day.
"The fluid volumes are astronomical," Boyd said. "That’s more than a Saudi Arabian flow rate."
Andrews, the current interim director, has also linked "de-watering" with earthquakes going back many years.
"The bottom line is that since this practice started several years ago, earthquakes suddenly became common," Andrews wrote in an email to an Oklahoma television reporter last year.
Boyd called New Dominion three days after the February 2007 quake, according to notes he kept and emailed to colleagues last year. That led to a March 28, 2007, meeting at the survey’s earthquake observatory outside of Tulsa. Boyd, then-Director Charles Mankin (who has since died) and other OGS scientists met with Chernicky, New Dominion’s charismatic founder.
"He came in in a golf shirt and shorts, a John Boehner tan, and he brought three or four phones," Boyd said. "He would stop the meeting to get on the phone; he must’ve done that 15 times."
There was no confrontation or accusation about New Dominion causing earthquakes. But the survey came out of the meeting with an agreement that the company would buy a handful of new seismic stations, installed with all expenses paid.
"It was never spoken as to whether there was a 1-to-1 correlation," Boyd said. "Let’s just say he wanted to be nice to us."
After that, the earthquakes died down. In 2009, a "swarm" of earthquakes began near Jones, Okla., about 20 miles northeast of the Tinker quakes. A study last year led by Cornell University tied the "Jones Swarm" quakes to Deep Throat and three other New Dominion wells (EnergyWire, May 2, 2014).
‘I have to be careful’
New Dominion also has a well near the epicenter of Oklahoma’s largest recorded earthquake, a magnitude-5.7 event in November 2011 (EnergyWire, July 24, 2012). Centered east of Oklahoma City near Prague, Okla., the quake damaged hundreds of buildings, destroyed 14 homes and injured two people.
Seismologists quickly questioned whether the quakes were natural or related to the oil production boom in Oklahoma. In an email to a colleague obtained by EnergyWire, Boyd recalled that he pressed his point in a Dec. 16, 2011, OGS staff meeting. Holland and Keller, he wrote, "kept up the ‘natural phenomenon’ story" and looked at him "like I was crazy."
Amid that suspicion, then-OGS Director Randy Keller found it awkward to contact New Dominion, the major operator around Prague.
"In regard to New Dominion, I have to be careful in contacting them," Keller wrote to U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist Art McGarr. "They have been very open with us about the wells between Norman and Oklahoma City (they even gave us money to buy seismic systems to install around their wells). However, this was before my time at OU, so I need to do a little more homework before contacting them."
OU professor Katie Keranen wrote a peer-reviewed paper in 2013 linking the quake to a pair of injection wells in the area, but not New Dominon’s. OGS issued a statement rejecting her findings. Keranen left for a professorship at Cornell shortly thereafter. McGarr did a study pointing the blame at the New Dominion well.
New Dominion is being sued by people who were injured or had their homes damaged in the 2011 Prague quake. New Dominion’s attorney has argued that making oil companies liable for earthquakes could damage the industry.
Chernicky dismisses the idea that his wells are causing earthquakes, or that human activity can even trigger them at all. If that’s the case, he told Bloomberg Businessweek for a profile that ran last week, then people "can probably fart and shift the orbit of the planet, too."
Colorful as it is, the statement is at odds with the thinking of seismologists, who say that a range of human activities can trigger earthquakes. Those activities include dam-building and production of geothermal energy.
Since the Prague quake, the earthquake swarms have grown and reached into new areas. Much of the shaking is now taking place along the Oklahoma-Kansas border in a play called the Mississippi Lime (EnergyWire, Feb. 9). New Dominion does not operate there. Oklahoma City-based SandRidge Energy Inc. is the major operator.
OGS has wavered since the Prague quake between accepting some connection between Oklahoma’s earthquakes and oil and gas drilling, and rejecting the research of outside seismologists who linked specific quakes to specific wells (EnergyWire, April 20).
But with its statement last week, the survey dismissed the idea that the surge in shaking is naturally occurring (EnergyWire, April 22).
The earthquakes, though, are still happening — 26 in the past week alone.
The regulators at the Corporation Commission are currently working to determine which disposal wells might have been drilled too deep in earthquake zones. Gov. Mary Fallin (R) has directed $50,000 to the earthquake effort and last week established a state earthquake website (EnergyWire, April 22).
No bills on earthquakes were introduced in the state Legislature this year, but lawmakers are moving to block cities from regulating drilling.
OGS, which tries to analyze every quake for location and magnitude, is having trouble keeping up.
Boyd said he used to needle Holland, telling him the earthquakes offered "the perfect laboratory" for seismic experiments.
"You’ve got an industry that’s generating all these earthquakes," Boyd recalled telling Holland. "You’re going to be able to figure out what makes the sub-surface of the earth work. Because there’s no other state in the world that would let you continue."
Click here to view the emails.