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Earthquakes and Energy



Gee, maybe Oklahoma should take the geological impacts of fracking seriously…

A sharp earthquake in central Oklahoma last weekend has raised fresh concern about the security of a vast crude oil storage complex, close to the quake’s center, that sits at the crossroads of the nation’s oil pipeline network.

The magnitude 4.5 quake struck Saturday afternoon about three miles northwest of Cushing, roughly midway between Oklahoma City and Tulsa. The town of about 8,000 people is home to the so-called Cushing Hub, a sprawling tank farm that is among the largest oil storage facilities in the world.

Scientists reported in a paper published online last month that a large earthquake near the storage hub “could seriously damage storage tanks and pipelines.” Saturday’s quake continues a worrisome pattern of moderate quakes, suggesting that a large earthquake is more than a passing concern, the lead author of that study, Daniel McNamara, said in an interview.

“When we see these fault systems producing multiple magnitude 4s, we start to get concerned that it could knock into higher magnitudes,” he said. “Given the number of magnitude 4s here, it’s a high concern.”

The federal government has designated the hub, run by energy industry companies, a critical national infrastructure. Major tank ruptures could cause serious environmental damage, raise the risk of fire and other disasters and disrupt the flow of oil to refineries nationwide, said Dr. McNamara, a research geophysicist at the National Earthquake Information Center in Colorado.

Nah, keep on fracking. Nothing to see here.

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  • joe from Lowell

    A crude oil storage facility? This is serious!

    • Morbo

      And a correctional facility.

  • ThrottleJockey

    I don’t know that the answer has to be banning fracking. You could restructure insurance and liability laws so that frackers are financially responsible. You could tax the fracking and use the proceeds to strengthen infrastructure and provide a pool for other people affected. Sooner or later if this causes serious economic damages I’m sure everyone else outside the Oil and Gas industry will demand changes. I can’t, for instance, imagine insurance companies just blithely covering dramatic increases in their business costs.

    • wengler

      Sooner or later if this causes serious economic damages I’m sure everyone else outside the Oil and Gas industry will demand changes.

      I grew up in Oklahoma. There is no one with power outside of the oil and gas industry. They own the state.

    • DrDick

      You cannot frack safely. My sister and niece live in the earthquake zone there and it really is serious. I grew up and spent the first 35 years in Oklahoma and do not ever remember an earthquake there during that time.

      • tsam


    • Phil Perspective

      That’s if frackers have to be insured and can lose in court.

    • dr. fancypants

      You could restructure insurance and liability laws so that frackers are financially responsible.

      There’s no way to tie a particular earthquake to a particular fracking company, though. And if a case did get to court, the obvious defense for a fracker is “how do you know this earthquake wasn’t a naturally caused one?”

      Using the courts to determine liability thus seems like it wouldn’t work in practice. I think you’d need to have the fracking industry pay into some general fund that would pay out every time there’s earthquake damage in the state.

    • celticdragonchick

      Geologists are not going to give you that kind of certainty. You can think in terms of possibility and maybe even probabilities, but no reputable geologist will say that a specific quake is absolutely the “fault” (yeah, see what I did there?) of any particular company or any discrete action. You are dealing with deep subsurface paleo faults that may be propagating stress to a focal point over time. MAY is the operative word here as it will be years before we get substantive studies and modeling, and even then I would never bet on actual ” take it to court” proof. There is too much uncertainty to pin.

      • Yankee

        “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” is considered a fallacy by Positivists. One more reason why they need to be voted off the island.

        • celticdragonchick

          We tend to put it “Correlation does not imply causation”.

          • njorl

            There are many now who seem to think that correlation negates all possibility of causation.

            • celticdragonchick

              That is not what we are talking about here. Yes, a percentage of the quakes are most likely due to fracking. Science DOES NOT WORK ACCORDING TO COURTROOM STANDARDS.

              Trying to prove that any particular specific quake was caused by frakking will be damned difficult, and you cannot discount the possibility that another factor as yet not identified can be working as well. (For instance: could latent crustal strain from the last glacial period be also be accelerating in release? If so, why?)


              This cannot be over-emphasized.

              You start with the data that quakes seem to be increasing and happening in areas where they had not happened previously, and then work from there. Frakking seems pretty damned likely, but it by no means has to be the only causitive factor.

            • wjts

              There are many now who seem to think that correlation negates all possibility of causation.

              Right. “Correlation does not equal causation” is not a magic spell that immediately disproves the idea that a given correlation is causal. And while it’s true that correlation does not equal causation, it’s even more true that you never get causation without correlation.

          • Yankee

            Yet another climate denialist? There’s a scientific consensus that there’s meaningful correlations around anthropogenic warming, but nothing has ever been PROVEN.

            • celticdragonchick

              WTF are you talking about?? You assume a bit too much about my positions, methinks.

              Anthropogenic warming has considerable data and modeling to support it. One of the things helping that along is that your necessary data is not buried several miles below the ground.. Scientists DO NOT talk about absolute surety. They talk in terms of PROBABILITY and we are still in the early stages of data collection when it comes to earthquake damage being assigned specifically to fracking. Yes, injecting fluid into a fault system help lubricate the fault. A neat little program called reactiva allows you to model that.

              If you want a geologist to go into a courtroom and say…without a doubt…that company X is responsible for earthquake Y…good fucking luck with that. It’s one thing when you can trace a specific toxic chemical or heavy metal pollution in a groundwater plume, since you can chemically match that to above ground contaminant storage.

              This has none of that certainty, and I would advise you to take some geology classes before you continue to make asinine statements.

              • Jordan

                If we’re making the climate change analogy (and I’m not exactly sure why) I think the comparison is:

                climate scientists definitely won’t be able to tell you that *this* hurricane/drought/whatever is *certainly* caused by anthropogenic climate change and nothing else. They will be able to tell you that such climate change leads to more and more intense hurricanes or whatever.

                Similarly, geologists probably won’t be able to tell you that *this* earthquake was *certainly* caused by frakking and nothing else. They will be able to tell you that frakking leads to more of these earthquakes.

                • celticdragonchick

                  Shallow depth earthquake in close proximity to known frakking operations…you start to get somewhere since we have known since that late 1960’s that you can induce earthquakes accidentally in some instances. However, this recent bout of suspected frakking related earthquakes began in 2009 and we are only now getting good studies that can link certain frakking operations to some quakes.

                  Good brand new paper here in Science.


                  INDUCED SEISMICITY
                  High-rate injection is associated
                  with the increase in U.S.
                  mid-continent seismicity
                  M. Weingarten,S.Ge, J. W. Godt, B. A. Bekins, J. L. Rubinstein

                  An unprecedented increase in earthquakes in the U.S. mid-continent began in 2009. Many of these earthquakes have been documented as induced by wastewater injection. We examine the relationship between wastewater injection and U.S. mid-continent seismicity using a newly assembled injection well database for the central and eastern United States. We find that the entire increase in earthquake rate is with fluid injection wells. High-rate injection wells (>300,000 barrels per month) are much more likely to be associated with earthquakes than lower-rate wells. At the scale of our study, a well’s cumulative injected volume, monthly wellhead pressure, depth, and proximity to crystalline basement do not strongly correlate with earthquake association. Managing injection rates may be a useful tool to minimize the likelihood of induced earthquakes.

                • Jordan

                  I’m not *really* sure what that reply has to do with my comment, but we’ll tie it up to climate change again, I suppose.

                  The reason to believe in human-caused climate change isn’t *just* the increasing temperatures, or decreasing ice shelf, or increasing ocean acidification, or etc etc etc

                  Its because we have pretty decent climate models that predict all this. They are our best understanding of the climate and whatnot, and their predictions get confirmed.

                  I suppose the same thing is happening for fracking and earthquakes. Its not merely a correlation, its that we have geological models that support this, and the evidence confirms those models.

                  *I hate the phrase “correlation does not equal causation”. Its dumb like “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. Their kinda right in some ways, and very wrong in other ways, and are way too prevalent in any case.

                • celticdragonchick

                  I suppose the same thing is happening for fracking and earthquakes. Its not merely a correlation, its that we have geological models that support this, and the evidence confirms those models.

                  Not sure about that. We have suspicious seismic activity and we have preliminary models released by the USGS only this last spring.

                  BTW, I would pay in blood to be able to get in on this study. This is the stuff I love about geology.

                  Anyways, moving on…
                  I tend to be cautious about making pronouncements on scientific certainty when it hasn’t actually been established, and we are still in the early stages of that. The earthquakes started in 2009. We are only now, this year, starting to see papers that can point to cause and effect with frakking and you can be sure the oil and gas industry will have people publishing in journals as well. Sure, it looks pretty clear to me that frakking is lubricating faults and causing problems. Suspicion is not the same thing as data that has been discovered, organized, checked and validated to form a hypothesis. We are just now, in 21015, starting to get to that stage.

                  *I hate the phrase “correlation does not equal causation”. Its dumb like “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”.

                  Don’t know what to tell you, because that principle exists for a reason. You have to eliminate your own bias and assumptions from the work. All of them. Say that male patient “John” comes into the clinic complaining of gastrointestinal distress. You know “John” is unhealthy, eats a poor diet and has come in before with the same symptoms which indicated early stages of Irritable Bowel Syndrome. What you don’t know…until you do the tests, is that the IBS and your assumptions are masking an early case of stomach cancer.

                  The correlation of poor diet and gastrointestinal distress did not add up this time, and you have to find that out before things get worse. You are trained to do this in science because you cannot afford to have your bias interfere with the work. You collect the data, evaluate it and then and only then do you form a hypothesis to check. Otherwise, you are fitting data into your assumptions to drive an agenda.

                • wjts

                  You collect the data, evaluate it and then and only then do you form a hypothesis to check. Otherwise, you are fitting data into your assumptions to drive an agenda.

                  Except the decision about which data to collect and which to ignore can’t be made usefully without at least some inkling of a hypothesis. If you’re interested in understanding the causes of earthquakes in Oklahoma it’s foolish to start collecting data on different femur lengths in lemurs or rainfall in Denmark or the periodicity of pulsars.

                • Yankee

                  Right on, Jordan. … and maybe the validity of the “post hoc” method depends in part on what the “hoc” you have in mind. === ;-)

                • Jordan


                  Ok, fair enough. I don’t know hardly anything about this, so if the models aren’t robust, they aren’t robust.

                  Anyways, you are right to be cautious about scientific “certainty”. But by the exact same token, we should never demand scientific “certainty” before we are ready to make any public policy decisions based upon that science. Scientific “probablity” is good enough, often.

                  As for my random digression:

                  Well, yes, that is the good part. The phrase is technically true. It is also a rhetorical tool that often, *often*, gets used to obfuscate real research by letting readers bask in a comfortable undecided state.

                  Basically, in my imaginary kingdom, no one is ever allowed to utter “correlation is not causation” without providing subsequent support: what is the alternative causative factor(s)? Or is it not really a true correlation and just random?

                  But no one ever does this because I am not, in fact, a king.

                  You collect the data, evaluate it and then and only then do you form a hypothesis to check. Otherwise, you are fitting data into your assumptions to drive an agenda.

                  Hmm, this is not the way the scientific method is usually presented. This is partly for reasons that Loomis presented earlier, but mostly for reasons that wjts presents. Without some hypothesis, *how in the world are you going to decide what data to collect*. You can’t, so you won’t. The *decision* for which data to collect is always necessary and always socially mediated. It boggles the mind to think people think otherwise.

                  @the rest: well yes, and hehehe.

              • celticdragonchick

                Also, I suppose data could (or should) be considered plural and therefore have incurred an are instead of an is…I have seen it used both ways. Beats me.

            • celticdragonchick

              Also, nice faux outrage thing going. Slow clap. Well done.

              • Yankee

                Who, me?? That was humor. Take a chill, Dude.

            • ThrottleJockey

              Yes but we know that global warming is only socially constructed. You’re only saying that ‘cuz you’re human. Camels don’t call it Global Warming they call it Heaven.

  • celticdragonchick

    Disclaimer: I do not have enough math background (I only had one year of calculus) to get into a seismology program…

    okay. From what I can see, Oklahoma is not on the nasty New Madrid seismic zone and you are going to be very unlikely to incur any event larger than a 6 on the Richter Scale. However, the 2011 5.6 event does seem to have been precipitated by accumulating stress from cracking releases of paleo stress on other nearby dormant faults according to a paper published in Geology (my subscription has sadly lapsed fo lack of money, so I cannot access the paper). I thought it was especially noteworthy that the 2011 event was very shallow…only about 5 kilometers or so.

    • celticdragonchick

      Damned autocorrect. I meant “fracking” and the iPad keeps changing it.

      • Vance Maverick

        Was it Battlestar Galactica where everyone kept saying “fracking” as an obvious substitute curseword? (Rather like a certain author and “fugging”?)

        • tsam

          It was. My parents were NOT amused when my brother and I adopted it as our go-to annoyance.

        • celticdragonchick

          Yep. My spouse and I both have shirts with FRACK! On the front in 1970’s Battlestar script.

      • tsam

        That was a pretty unimaginative correction. Cold half at list gong with farting.

        • Philip

          Cold half at list gong with farting.

          I’m not ashamed to say I giggled a bit

        • DrS

          This is so ducking silly

    • DrDick

      I lived in eastern and central Oklahoma for 35 years and there was never a noticeable earthquake in the region. They are now pretty routine, often weekly occurrences. Both my niece and sister constantly comment on it because it is so unusual.

    • The Dark Avenger

      This study seems to suggest your optimism is unfounded.

      The findings of a new study, published recently in Geophysical Research Letters, reveals that thousands of small, shallow earthquakes along the state’s strike-slip faults may have reactivated fault lines that are capable of major tremors. That’s because the direction these fault lines are facing don’t line up with the direction of regional tectonic stress in the planet’s upper crust, increasing the probability of a large quake, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) says. “By identifying the faults, we are providing some guidance about where major earthquakes can happen,” said Dan McNamara in a USGS release. He’s the lead author of the paper and a research geophysicist at USGS.

      • celticdragonchick

        Um…still unlikely. The study indicates some possibility over the next several hundred years….since that is the time scale geology works in.

        See that? POSSIBILITY. Not even probability. For Christ’s sake, that’s way geologists get so damned angry when they talk about Yellowstone or something and people freak the fuck out. (interestingly, when geologists do say it is time to get the fuck out of Dodge, there are always people who just don’t want to believe it)

        I would not lose any sleep over the possibility of a 7.8 earthquake in Tulsa. Somewhere in Missouri…sure. I might worry about that.

        • The Dark Avenger

          The time scale that the disposal of fracking wastewater doesn’t happen on a scale of centuries. It’s happening now. I should think that a degree in Geology wouldn’t blind you to that fact.

          As a fellow named Richter put it

          My main point today is that usually one gets what one expects, but very rarely in the way one expected it. (1970)

  • Yankee

    The global energy plan is to construct terminals on the West Coast to liquify the stuff and ship it overseas. Such as the Jordan Cove project in Coos Bay (southern Oregon), which just got their EIS approved by the FERC. It will connect to existing pipelines near The Five through a 36-inch main 230 miles long over the coast range. Everybody knows there’s a major chance of a major earthquake sometime soon but not to worry, because mumble. Many locals are in favor because Industry.

    But we must help those poor people overseas with their industry because it’s only fair that we take our turn as a natural-resource extraction zone supplying business elsewhere.

    • advocatethis

      Yeah, what’s so special about our environment that it shouldn’t continue to experience the same degradation as the environment in developing countries? Why should we be privileged? Insisting that our environment be protected is just nationalism run rampant.

      • Lee Rudolph

        Next year in our environment!

  • Joshua

    The same thing is happening in Ohio as well.

    Utter madness.

    • tsam

      Pennsylvania also, too, so I’m told.

  • Well look, the good people of Oklahoma must be tired of tornadoes by now, so it is just mean to consider any course of action that might deprive them of the novelty provided by regular earthquakes.

    Maybe they’ll get lucky and a tornado will strike during an earthquake that ruptures the storage facility, sucks up all the oil and splatters it for miles.

    But that can’t happen without fracking.

    • Lee Rudolph


  • cpinva

    “Gee, maybe Oklahoma should take the geological impacts of fracking seriously…”

    doing so would require a public admission that science is real, and their whole house of cards would come tumbling down. as the man said, it’s hard to convince a man of something, when his salary depends on believing something else.

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