Best Defense

Natural Security: Oklahoma is not Okay

In 2008, there were two earthquakes in Oklahoma registering 3.0 or greater magnitude on the Richter scale.

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By Sharon Burke
Best Defense czar for energy, climate and natural security

In 2008, there were two earthquakes in Oklahoma registering 3.0 or greater magnitude on the Richter scale. So far, in 2015, there have been about 700, and the U.S. Geological Survey is projecting a total of 941 for the year. According to state agencies, that’s around 600 times the historical average.

Oklahomans tend to make the case, however, that what shakes in Oklahoma, stays in Oklahoma. These are relatively minor quakes, after all, and even neighboring states are unlikely to feel any effects.

But there’s one place in Oklahoma where a serious earthquake could make the rest of the country tremble, too: the city of Cushing. In an October 8th meeting with a group of visiting journalists, Oklahoma’s Secretary for Energy and Environment, Michael Teague, mentioned that there had been a “storm of earthquakes in Cushing” in recent weeks. Just two days later, a 4.5 magnitude earthquake hit the town.

Cushing, Oklahoma, bills itself as “the pipeline crossroads of the world,” and it is, indeed, one of the global industry’s important crude oil hubs. The network of underground pipes and above ground storage tanks in Cushing is a point of convergence for much North American oil on its journey from wellhead to refinery to consumer. The benchmark price for U.S. crude, called West Texas Intermediate, is even set there.

In September, Cushing briefly lost power after a 4.0 temblor and a historic building later collapsed. Any serious damage to the oil infrastructure in the area, which has not been reported at this time, could have a significant effect on U.S. oil prices and supplies, as the New York Times just reported. This is somewhat ironic, of course, given that the oil and gas industry is causing the quakes in the first place, unlike the tornadoes and terrorists the local community has prepared for.

The majority of Oklahoma’s earthquakes are called “triggered seismic activity,” or in other words, they are manmade. The meteoric rise of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is the proximate cause. Fracking, of course, has also radically changed the U.S. energy security picture in recent years, sending the nation’s oil import dependence tumbling from a high of 60 percent in 2005 to 27 percent today. This has lessened U.S. dependence on unfriendly regimes, alleviated the trade imbalance, and helped bring down high prices globally, which has had the secondary benefit of making some hostile countries (i.e., Iran) more amenable to negotiations.

Fracking has its drawbacks, however. In the case of earthquakes, the culprit is specifically the disposal of water associated with these oil and gas drilling operations. Although fracking uses significant amounts of water and that can be a problem in its own right, it’s the water found in the well alongside the oil and gas that’s the big disposal challenge. Generally, this associated or “produced” brackish water is reinjected deep underground. According to Oklahoma’s Teague, there are some 4,200 such wells around the state, and not all of them are causing earthquakes.

Nonetheless, the growing earthquake risk has raised calls to shut down the injection wells, but the state has a serious dilemma on its hands in considering a moratorium. An estimated two thirds of all the jobs in Oklahoma depend on the oil and gas sector, so a halt in drilling would be devastating for most people living in the state.

Cushing, however, is a special case, which the state’s regulators acknowledged by moving quickly in September to shut down or curtail five wells in the Cushing area. Even with that action, the latest quake on October 9th was the biggest yet.

There is still uncertainty as to how or why the disposal wells are causing the quakes (and it’s not just Oklahoma; the USGS is tracking increased seismicity in eight states with fracking operations), but in the near term, it may well be a matter of national energy security that the state do more to stop the shaking in Cushing. Because even though Americans have gotten used to the idea that we’re awash in oil, the truth is that the United States remains part of a global market. And the global oil market in turn remains one disaster away from its next price spike, whether it’s political instability in Saudi Arabia or a natural disaster in Cushing.

In the long term, the earthquakes send a compelling warning signal that the industry may have to find another way to deal with water if hydraulic fracturing technology is going to remain viable.

Sharon E. Burke, a senior advisor at New America, served as the assistant secretary of defense for operational energy from 2010 to 2014.

Photo credit: Sharon Burke

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1

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