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Sunday’s quake struck town with millions of barrels of oil in storage

Eagle reporter Oliver Morrison explains why Sunday's earthquake is a big deal

A magnitude-5.0 earthquake struck near Cushing, Okla., between Tulsa and Oklahoma City, on Sunday night, Nov. 6, 2016. (Video by Oliver Morrison / The Wichita Eagle)
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A magnitude-5.0 earthquake struck near Cushing, Okla., between Tulsa and Oklahoma City, on Sunday night, Nov. 6, 2016. (Video by Oliver Morrison / The Wichita Eagle)

A magnitude-5.0 earthquake struck Cushing, Okla., on Sunday, a town that happens to be one of the largest oil hubs in the world, with tens of millions of barrels of oil.

There have not yet been any reports of damage at any of the oil facilities, according to Jeremy Frazier, the assistant city manager in Cushing. He said he has spoken with two oil companies so far, and they reported no damage at their terminals, but more information is expected to be coming in.

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Bloomberg referred to Cushing as the “pipeline capital of the world” in 2015. As the oil prices plunged, Bloomberg reported, Cushing oil companies started making lots of money to store the oil at their large tank facilities.

In October the Tulsa World reported that engineers in Cushing were running tests to build better storage tanks so that stronge earthquakes wouldn’t cause any damage. The test run by Kenneth Erdmann, of Matrix PDM, indicated that Cushing’s largest tanks were at some risk of structural failure from oil sloshing and shifting.

Cushing is home to 13 oil storage companies and 13 pipelines that pump more than 1.7 million barrels of oil per day, according to Tank World, an oil industry publication.

“The majority of our oil facilities are outside the city limits,” said Stephen Spears, the city manager in Cushing. “They did shut down operations to do their assessment. I do not know if they started back up but they will only start back up if nothing is wrong.”

The oil companies that report to the Oklahoma Corporation Commission have not reported any damage and have resumed operation, according to Matt Skinner, a spokesman for the OCC.

But the commission has limited jurisdiction on some of these companies, Skinner said.”State regulation applies only to a few of the operators at Cushing,” he said. “Under Oklahoma law we can have no stronger roles than what the feds have in place.”

“Our investigation into the incident is ongoing,” according to Susan Hand, a spokeswoman for the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. The pipeline agency has jurisdiction over many of the affected oil sites, Skinner said.

The commission released a statement that said it is looking into making changes to oil operations in the area of both Sunday’s 5.0 magnitude earthquake and last week’s 4.6 magnitude quake.

The price of oil futures rose Monday and some investors are worried. “It’s definitely a long-term negative development if you are getting earthquakes of that magnitude at such an important site,” Bob Yawger, director of the futures division at Mizuho Securities USA Inc. in New York, told Bloomberg. “It doesn’t bode well for the future.”

Cushing was one of three locations to receive a special study by the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program in 2015 about the risks faced to the town by an earthquake. The two other two locations were in the Dallas area.

The city lost power for a couple of hours Sunday due to earthquake damage from a power-plant substation but there were no downed lines, according to Elton Willard, the power plant superintendent. The power plant itself suffered damage to a water valve, an air line and had ceiling tiles fall. “All in all, our plant is in good shape,” Willard said.

In September, Jerry Boak, the director of the Oklahoma Geological Survey, said that Homeland Security had been conducting a study to see what kind of dangers existed if a large earthquake were to strike Cushing.

“The earthquake has already triggered several small aftershocks along a known fault. There is about a one in 20 chance that one of these aftershocks could be even more powerful than the original earthquake, within days or even years into the future, according to a statement released Monday by Boak.

As of September, Boak said, he did not know whether Homeland Security had completed the study. But the study was intended to look at an earthquake about the size of the one that struck Prague in 2011, with a magnitude of 5.6.

As the amount of oil built up in Cushing to nearly 90 percent of its capacity in the spring, some energy analysts wondered what would happen if Cushing became totally full.

Here is a roundup of photos from social media showing damage in Cushing.

Oliver Morrison: 316-268-6499, @ORMorrison

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