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Oklahoma tightens down on earthquakes but will it be in time?

When a 5.8 magnitude earthquake shakes right under your house

The biggest earthquake to ever shake Oklahoma was right under Mike Haslip's home outside Pawnee, Oklahoma.
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The biggest earthquake to ever shake Oklahoma was right under Mike Haslip's home outside Pawnee, Oklahoma.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled the Hazlips' last name.

On Sept. 3, the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Oklahoma struck about a mile from Linda Hazlip’s home. She ran frantically from one end of the house to the other, as vases smashed to the floor, paintings fell from walls, dishes and cups flew out of the cupboards, and the large buffalo head above their fireplace crashed, breaking one of its horns.

Hazlip and her husband, Mike, built their dream home three years ago in a rural area near Pawnee, about 125 miles miles south of Wichita.

During the earthquake, their house rattled back and forth, cracking the foundation of the garage, knocking the ice machine into a wall and dislodging a boulder from a retaining wall outside.

Inside, the walls began to tear. Cracks formed from the corner of nearly every doorway and window toward the ceiling. The porch dropped eight inches, and the four posts that were supposed to be its support dangled helplessly off the ground.

Mike, who had stopped for gas on his way home from Tulsa, took a call from his wife, who was hysterical. She interrupted herself, mid-sentence. “I’ve got to go,” she said. “It looks like there’s something burning in the barn.”

Volunteer firefighters from several jurisdictions tried to douse his propane tank and an oil tank for his generator to prevent them from exploding.

Mike increased his speed from 85 to 95 mph. He could see a cloud of smoke from 20 miles away, and as he pulled up into his driveway, the barn was engulfed in flames.

Progress

A little more than a year ago, Oklahoma did not acknowledge that the oil and gas industry was causing the earthquakes that had hit the state on an unprecedented scale and rattled people in surrounding states.

It wasn’t until August of 2015 that the state acknowledged the cause and began to aggressively regulate the disposal of wastewater from fracking to prevent earthquakes.

Oklahoma was so slow to admit the cause of the earthquakes that by the time the governor acknowledged what was happening, oil companies in Kansas and Arkansas, which had moved more quickly to regulate, were shipping their own wastewater into Oklahoma.

The new regulation and a precipitous drop in oil prices and production have caused the number of earthquakes in Oklahoma to fall, from about three per day to about two, between 2015 and 2016.

We lucked out. It turned out to be much easier because of the downturn in oil price.

Jeremy Boak, director of the Oklahoma Geological Survey

“We lucked out. It turned out to be much easier because of the downturn in oil price,” said Jeremy Boak, who became director of the Oklahoma Geological Survey in mid-2015. Although the survey doesn’t impose regulations, it provides much of the technical information and research that regulators rely on.

But even as the number of earthquakes has fallen, the energy released by the two most recent large earthquakes, near Cushing and Pawnee, has increased.

On Sept. 3, a 5.8 magnitude earthquake struck the Hazlip home, near Pawnee. And then on Nov. 6, a 5.0 magnitude quake struck just outside Cushing, about 25 miles south of Pawnee.

A 5.0 magnitude earthquake struck between Tulsa and Oklahoma City Nov. 6, 2016, with damage reported in the town of Cushing. Eagle reporter Oliver Morrison explains why this is a big deal.

As bad as the Hazlips’ experience was, they lived in the country, eight miles from Pawnee, a tiny town with spotty cell reception. Had the earthquake’s epicenter been underneath a town, the damage would have been much worse.

“We’re not out of the woods, but I do feel like we are moving in the right direction and it’s going along surprisingly quickly …,” Boak said. “But it may be to get it really down to where it’s manageable may require a good deal more attention.”

Natural experiments

On Thursday, more than 10 days after a 5.0 magnitude earthquake struck, most of Cushing’s historic downtown was still roped off with yellow caution tape. Workers were spackling cracks, removing loose bricks and digging trenches around buildings.

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Loose bricks at the top of Cimarron Towers, which provided low-income housing, had caved in during the earthquake. An out-of-town construction crew had come in with cranes to shave off walls of brick at the top so they wouldn’t fall on passersby.

The Duncan Theatre across the street was empty. Ten days before, on Nov. 6, Chris Reid had been watching “Dr. Strange” with his wife when he heard a cracking boom. The movie starts with a wild sequence during which one of the characters twists buildings and streets upside down and sideways.

So when Reid heard the bang, at first he thought it was a special effect. But then almost immediately the power went out and a wall near the front of the theater fell into the seats, he said. It had been a light night, with only 25 or so people in the theater, so no one had been sitting underneath the wall. Reid wondered if terrorists had taken out the town’s critical oil infrastructure. Cushing stores hundreds of millions of gallons of gas above ground, the most in the country.

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Four days later, on Nov. 10, a wall of bricks that stretched along a whole city block suddenly tumbled over onto the sidewalk, destroying one of the town’s most recognizable murals that had depicted a windmill, a steam train, a crop duster and several storage containers and barrels of oil.

The only part of the mural that remained was a cow, now severed in half, a jagged piece of train and, unperturbed, all of the oil.

Unprepared

The Oklahoma Corporation Commission was not created to deal with earthquakes, according to spokesperson Matt Skinner. The commission was originally charged with protecting Oklahoma’s water supply.

One reason the earthquake started is that oil companies had been told that by injecting their wastewater deep into the ground, there would be little risk of contamination of drinking water.

But the commission has since learned that injections into the granite basement rock and the sandstone Arbuckle above it are likely causing the earthquakes.

Even after the commission started addressing the earthquake problem in 2013, Skinner said, it only had one staff member working on it.

The commission’s first regulatory restrictions were limited to small areas surrounding the site of large earthquakes, what Skinner referred to as its “Whack-a-mole” approach. Some recent studies have shown that a small change in underground water pressure can cause earthquakes much farther away than previously thought, and the commission has since expanded how far its regulations extend.

“We’ve had good responses to actions in one part of the state, tried it in another, and it doesn’t appear to work,” Skinner said. “It’s not ‘one size fits all.’ It’s extremely complicated, and there is so little known about what’s underground.”

A part of the story that many people overlook, Skinner said, is that many oil companies have complied willingly. The commission has now directed more than 700 wells to cease or reduce injections over a 15,000-square-mile area. And in all that time, only two companies refused to comply.

But it took awhile for the companies to come around, according to Boak, the director of the geological survey.

The companies were very resistant. It took a long time to finally conclude that this train is leaving the station and we better get on it.

Jeremy Boak, director of the Oklahoma Geological Survey

“The companies were very resistant,” Boak said. “It took a long time to finally conclude that this train is leaving the station and we better get on it.”

During its last legislative session, Oklahoma’s legislature finally gave the commission the full force of the law. Oil companies still have a right to appeal, but they must comply while they await a hearing.

“All the operators are going to meet with staff and cry,” Skinner said, after the commission’s most recent orders to shut down wells and reduce injections near Cushing. “But they have a right to a technical conference.”

The commission has been granted emergency funding by the governor, Skinner said, so now they have a staff of six working on the earthquakes and can roll out new regulations in weeks that before would have taken a year.

Before the most recent funding they were almost entirely reliant on outside technical advice, and they received much of that from the Oklahoma Geological Survey. But the survey was being influenced by industry, according to employees.

“We were persuaded to not be so open when giving public presentations or speaking to the media,” Amberlee Darold, a former research seismologist for the state, told the Huffington Post. “We would get reprimanded by the director, and/or the dean, if an article came out that mentioned fracking or wastewater management in conjunction with earthquakes.”

Mary Fallin, the governor of Oklahoma, declared her support for regulations in August of 2015, nearly a year and a half after Kansas. By that point, Oklahoma had gone from experiencing two or three magnitude-3.0 earthquakes per year a decade ago, to two or three per day.

After the most recent Cushing earthquake, the commission ordered more than 50 injection wells to either shut down or lower their injection volumes and is planning for an even broader action. Now, in order to reduce the likelihood of earthquakes, some oil companies have started injecting water into shallower layers, which the commission thinks won’t jeopardize the water supply.

But Skinner knows many people think the commission is still not moving fast enough.

If your house is shaking, we’re not moving fast enough. You can’t look at someone who is getting earthquakes at their home and say everything is fine.

Matt Skinner, Oklahoma Corporation Commission

“If your house is shaking, we’re not moving fast enough,” Skinner said. “You can’t look at someone who is getting earthquakes at their home and say everything is fine.”

A unique position

About a year before the September earthquake, the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma had been calling for a moratorium on drilling and injecting wastewater.

It’s not because they are against oil production, according to Andrew Knife Chief, the executive director for the Pawnee Nation, just that they think the industry needs to take a pause and wait for the science to catch up. Right now the oil industry continues to plow ahead, he said, instead of waiting for a deeper understanding of how they could drill without causing earthquakes.

And he fears that their lives are in danger. “If we were any closer to that epicenter it could have been a really bad one for us,” Knife Chief said.

Cracks have formed in nearly every exposed stairway and wall in the building where Knife Chief works and many of the buildings surrounding it. “These buildings are great buildings, handcut sandstone, quarried a half mile from here,” Knife Chief said. “These are very solid buildings; they are not going anywhere, unless you add in an earthquake.”

The Pawnee are in the relatively unique position of being both direct beneficiaries of oil production and victims of some of the largest earthquakes. Many Pawnee receive royalty checks for oil that is produced on their ancestors’ lands. But because the royalty checks are divided up among so many landowners and their ancestors, the checks will often be for pennies or a few dollars. Many would rather stop the checks until companies can figure out how to drill without causing earthquakes.

The Pawnee are also in a unique regulatory position. In 2015, the Oklahoma Legislature passed a bill telling local jurisdictions that they couldn’t regulate oil or gas production. But the federal government hasn’t made such demands on the Pawnee.

The oil companies, who negotiate their leases through the federal government on the Pawnee’s behalf, have not been giving much notice to Pawnee landowners, Knife Chief said. And often times when the companies do give notice, it is only after its permits have been acquired.

So in the last year, as the Pawnee have tried to get a better handle on the more than 150 oil wells on their land, several of its environmental officers have been increasing inspections and frequently finding violations.

Afterward

Scientists largely agree on the cause of Oklahoma’s earthquakes: On a macro-level increases in the amount of wastewater injected have led to more earthquakes. The reason Oklahoma has felt so many earthquakes is that some of its wells pull up an unusually large amount of saltwater along with the oil.

But much of the science is still cutting-edge: Two of the main studies that regulators have used to drive their decisions were just published in the summer of 2015.

And scientists say they are still a ways from being able to predict and eliminate earthquake hazards with precision. They are often learning more with every unexpected earthquake that strikes.

Many scientists who are working on the problem say their research funds have not increased with the earthquake problem. Todd Halihan, a geophysics professor at Oklahoma State, said scientists need access to more wells to know how injections are affecting underground water pressure. George Choy, at the United States Geological Survey, said it would be helpful to know more about the properties of the rock formations that the water is being injected into. Tandis Bigdoli, at the Kansas Geological Survey, said the 3-D maps the industry owns can sometimes reveal unknown faults that could be avoided. Boak has been pushing to further expand the reach of seismometers so scientists can more precisely and quickly identify earthquakes.

The Pawnee Nation is advocating a more cautious approach until the science improves. The Oklahoma Oil and Gas Association views the incomplete science as a reason to be cautious about regulating; the Pawnee views it as a reason to be cautious about drilling.

“I think we’ve been saying all along — even when there wasn’t a definitive tie in the public consciousness — that as long as the decisions are based on data and good science and not an overreaction, that we’ll be fine,” Chad Warmington, president of the Oklahoma Oil and Gas Association, said last year when Oklahoma started to ramp up its regulations.

Taking away the ability to inject water reduces the value of oil rights effectively to zero, which Oklahoma law treats as if the state were confiscating property. The oil companies don’t think property should be taken without the science to back it up. So state regulators have had to limit their actions to what the most recent science supports.

The Pawnee believe that in addition to science, the state should be listening to what the earth is telling them.

If the earth pushes back and she gets mad at us, the consequences are no good for humanity.

Andrew Knife Chief, Oklahoma Pawnee Nation

“It’s not hokey magic or hokey beliefs; it’s reality,” said Knife Chief, of the Oklahoma Pawnee Nation. “We have a relationship with the earth, and we cannot go on disrespecting the relationship. If the earth pushes back and she gets mad at us, the consequences are no good for humanity. And what we see here is a total disrespect with that relationship we have.”

Boak isn’t sure that a moratorium like the one the Pawnee have proposed would have enough impact.

“I don’t know that going further and shutting in more wells and causing more companies to struggle or go out of business would necessarily produce a substantial reduction in the rate of earthquakes,” Boak said.

But the recent Cushing and Pawnee earthquakes have put the potential public health risks in starker relief. The 5.0 earthquake in Cushing was one of the first large earthquakes with epicenter right near a town. Tens of buildings were damaged in the town of about 8,000. Walls fell over, chimneys collapsed, and roofs caved in. There were only a couple of minor injuries.

But if an earthquake as large as the 5.8 that tore up the Haslip house shook closer to a town like Cushing, some residents might not be so lucky. A 5.8 earthquake shakes eight times as hard and unleashes about 25 times the energy as a 5.0 earthquake. And some geologists believe an even larger earthquake is still possible.

If a 5.8 earthquake struck underneath a town and there were significant injuries and fatalities, would Boak be able to tell family members that he did everything he could to prevent it? Boak paused for a long time before answering.

“Given that I didn’t expect either of the 5s, I think that risk assessment is challenging because there are health effects of removing another $300 million from the state budget.”

It’s not just the oil companies that would lose, but the people of Oklahoma, Boak said, if the state lost the revenue it collects from the industry. Many school districts have already laid off teachers or cut back to a four-day week because of budget cuts. Further cuts could limit the state’s ability to provide care for mental health patients.

These tradeoffs are a question for politicians, he said.

While Oklahomans wait until they are “out of the woods,” Boak said, employees at the Oklahoma Corporation Commission are nervous about the possibility of a worst-case scenario, such as a big earthquake striking directly beneath a town.

Much of the risk could have been prevented if Oklahoma had acted earlier.

“I think the real issue is it took so long to reach agreement that it peaked as long as it did,” Boak said.

Oliver Morrison: 316-268-6499, @ORMorrison

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