Disaster Warning: The Area Under The Keystone XL Pipeline Is Likely To Experience Earthquakes


It is always humorous to California residents to hear relatives and friends from out of state say they are never visiting California because they are terrified of earthquakes; particularly those living in the Southwestern region of the country that is regularly devastated by extreme weather events such as tornadoes, droughts, and floods. It is true that an earthquake can be a frightening event, but no more so than the annual round of tornadoes in the so-called “tornado alley” region in states such as Oklahoma. It is not uncommon for Americans living in the tornado alley region to say they would rather be terrified of tornadoes and flash floods than earthquakes in California, but now they should be more terrified of increasingly common Oklahoma earthquakes than the occasional California tremors to accompany their fear of extreme weather events.

Last week the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and Oklahoma Geological Survey (OGS) issued an advisory warning of an increased likelihood of “damaging earthquakes” as a result of the increased number of small and moderate shocks in central and north-central Oklahoma. Both the USGS and OGS reported that there have been a stunning 183 earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 and greater in the Sooner state between October 2013 and April 2014. The two agencies issued the warning advisory because the increase in the rate of earthquakes above 3.0 on the Richter Scale since last October increases the possibility of a “damaging” quake of 5.0 magnitude or higher in central Oklahoma as a result of injecting chemical-laden water used in hydraulic fracturing (fracking) of tight rock formations to “fracture” rock deep underground to extract oil and gas.

To get an idea of the inordinate increase is seismic activity in Oklahoma due to fracking, the long-term average between 1978 and 2008 was about two 3.0 magnitude earthquakes per year. In the past 24 hours there were 5 significant (2.5 magnitude or greater) quakes that accounted for 13% of the quakes worldwide. Oklahoma experienced more earthquakes in 2014 than tremor-prone California that is also well over twice the size of Oklahoma. In the jointly-issued warning advisory, geologists identified the culprit as oil industry wastewater injected into deep geologic rock formations that increases underground pressure, lubricates faults, and causes earthquakes in a process geologists refer to as “injection-induced seismicity.” That is right; geologists have named the cause of the earthquakes that are the result of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”

Geologists have noted that the recent Oklahoma earthquake rate changes are unrelated to typical random fluctuations in natural seismicity rates. The area geologists warned is likely to experience damaging earthquakes is situated under the proposed path of the KeystoneXL pipeline set to carry bitumen-laden tar sand renowned for ruptures without earthquakes, but that is something Republicans beholden to the oil export industry are unlikely to ever admit. In fact, the oil industry will not admit fracking has any relationship to increased earthquake activity in any region much less Oklahoma.

The oil industry claims, like BP after pouring 210 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico and along America’s Gulf Coast, it is unfair to blame the uncharacteristically large number of earthquakes on anything the industry is doing.  According to the vice president of regulatory affairs for the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association, Brian Woodward, “Granted, we’ve not seen this level of seismic activity in Oklahoma in the last 60 to 80 years and before that we don’t have a record. It causes us all concern, but the rush to correlate this activity with our industry is something we don’t believe is necessarily fair.” All that remains is for some oil industry-funded Republican to issue a heartfelt apology to the oil industry on the floor of the House or Senate for geologists and geophysicists blaming the uncharacteristically high number of earthquakes in Oklahoma on fracking. After the Republicans apologize, there will be a Koch Industry-funded campaign to discredit geologists and geophysicists as perpetrating a United Nations hoax to destroy the American fracking industry.

Researchers have long known that high-pressure fluid-injection operations (fracking) can trigger earthquakes, and in central Oklahoma a cluster of four high-volume wastewater injection wells triggered quakes up to 30 miles away, according to Katie Keranen a geophysicist at Cornell University in New York. Keranen said, “These are some of the biggest wells in the state, and the pressure is high enough from the injected fluids to trigger earthquakes that have since spread farther outward, as fluids migrate farther from the massive injection wells.” Fracking has already been linked to Oklahoma’s strongest recorded quake in 2011, as well as a spate of more than 180 smaller tremors in Texas between Oct. 30, 2008, and May 31, 2009.

In California, a state notorious for its labyrinth of serious seismic faults is heading into early days of an extreme drought unseen in well over 500 years, so Republicans and the oil industry are waging a ferocious battle to stop a moratorium on fracking. Besides increasing the risk of very substantial earthquakes from fracturing deep rock formations, the oil industry is taking what little precious water the state has for agriculture and drinking and mixing it with toxic chemicals and injecting it into the ground directly over fault lines up and down the state. The oil industry and Republicans are particularly anxious to increase fracking along California’s pristine coast and Central Valley that produces a large percentage of the nation’s food source. Both areas are two of the hardest hit by the epic drought that has officials considering rationing water for consumer use, not to mention the state’s agriculture industry that is already paying dearly for what precious little water the state’s reservoirs have left.

The practice of fracking is nearly free of regulatory oversight due in large part to Republicans protecting the oil industry despite the increased frequency of earthquakes in areas virtually unknown for seismic activity. Also related to fracking is a strong correlation between proximity to fracking wells and congenital heart defects in newborns. According to a study in Colorado, as the number and nearness of wells to a pregnant woman’s home went up, so did the likelihood her newborn would develop a heart problem. The study found that, “Births to mothers in the most exposed tertile [an exposure level equal to 125 wells within mile of the home] had a 30% greater prevalence of CHDs [congenital heart defects]…than births to mothers with no wells within a 10-mile radius of their residence.” Another study in Pennsylvania found that “proximity to fracking increased the likelihood of low birth weight by more than half, from about 5.6 percent to more than 9 percent. The chances of a low Apgar score, a summary measure of the health of newborn children, roughly doubled, to more than 5 percent.” Naturally, pro-fracking advocates scoffed at both studies and told mothers “to ignore the reports and not to rely on these studies as an explanation of why one of their children might have had a birth defect.”

As it turns out, Oklahoma residents should not fear coming to California whatsoever. In fact, Oklahoma is much more terrifying because although the Golden State has the occasional earthquake, it does not have Oklahoma’s yearly tornadoes or the level of fracking and earthquakes that prompted a warning from the USGS that the “big one” is on the horizon. Sadly for Oklahoma residents, there is little chance the Republican-controlled legislature or governor will take steps to limit fracking and reduce the threat of damaging earthquakes. Even though the oil industry and Republicans oppose a moratorium on fracking in California, the people care about their health, the environment, and their limited supply of drinking water and with a large Democratic majority in both houses of the legislature and governor’s office, the state’s biggest challenge is not fracking-induced earthquakes; just a severe drought.


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