What is Oklahoma’s government doing about fracking and earthquakes?

• The latest on fracking and earthquakes in Oklahoma.
• The role of Oklahoma’s government in dealing with this problem.
• Keys to problem-solving: diversity and collaboration.

THE GOVERNOR IS MARY FALLIN. THE SECRETARY OF ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT IS MICHAEL TEAGUE. Wait, Energy and Environment together??? These two are usually on opposite sides of the fence, often fighting each other. But in 2013 in Oklahoma they were combined under Teague, who was not an expert in energy or environment. His career included the military and private enterprise.  Teague made a recent presentation at Dr John Korstad’s invitation to a class at Oral Roberts University studying Sustainability.

Teague’s approach was twofold: to bring diversity to the problem table. Also, to urge collaboration to find a solution. And this has turned out well when the problem was fracking and earthquakes. Note: for more info on the technical aspects of fracking and earthquakes, see here.

Of all USA states, Oklahoma ranks #5 in oil and gas production. It has been a dominant oil and gas state for over 100 years. But what’s not well known is Oklahoma is #3 for wind power: 20% of electricity comes from wind turbines. This makes sense if you remember the play Oklahoma! “Where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain”. This 20% compares with 25% in Texas, also a very windy state. If you drive on I40 through Amarillo, you will see vast numbers of windmills extending for almost 50 miles each side of the city. Note that Oklahoma gave tax incentives to get wind power going, but these are now being stopped. As with solar collectors, the cost of new wind turbines has decreased in the past few years.

Teague offered a new model for electrical generation. The old model was based on large isolated power stations (driven by coal or natural gas) connected to an extensive grid of transmission lines. However, the new model is distributed power: e.g. solar panels at houses or industry plants, or windmills that provide enough electricity for a local town.

The Oklahoma government has addressed this in 2014 by setting up CCSA (the Coordinating Council on Seismic Activity). These include: (1) State agencies, such as OGS (Oklahoma Geological Survey). (2) Oil-and-gas industry. (3) NGOs (non-governmental organizations. (4) Research/academics (e.g. universities).

In early years of earthquakes (read since 2009), the oil-and -gas industry resisted the idea that the industry was responsible for earthquakes. Even though the soaring number of quakes correlated with the rapidly increasing number of oil-and-gas wells. This in turn resulted from new shale-gas-oil technology allowing more wells to be profitable and also the price of a barrel of oil heading toward $100. It was found that the cause of earthquakes was NOT the fracking process, but instead the disposal of produced water.  Originally contained in the oil/gas formation, and in so-called disposal wells. In recent years the industry has changed its view, joined CCSA, and even provided valuable seismic data to help interpret earthquakes.

Map showing earthquakes in north-central part of Oklahoma in 2016, superimposed on Arbuckle disposal wells (blue dots). The largest red blob is the magnitude 5.8 Pawnee earthquake on 3 September 2016 (click to enlarge or to source, then hit back-arrow to return to this blog).

The Oklahoma Geological Survey is at the heart of earthquake/geology research for the state. They will post updates on their site.

CCSA has been instrumental in creating a database of production wells, disposal wells, and earthquakes, which has been invaluable in deciding what regulations to apply to reduce earthquakes. For example, the largest-ever earthquake in Oklahoma, of magnitude 5.8, occurred on 3 September 2016, near the town of Pawnee, north of Oklahoma City. Ironically, this location lay just outside a large semi-circle in which in February 2016 oil-and-gas companies were requested to reduce injection into disposal wells by 40%. Predicting earthquakes is no easy task!  However, the CCSA acted rapidly after the Pawnee earthquake….. within 3 hours, 38 disposal wells were shut down in that vicinity.

Some oil wells produce 10-20 barrels of produced water for every barrel of oil, particularly wells in the Mississippi Limestone formation north of Oklahoma City. This means lots of disposal wells drilled into the Arbuckle lime, which unfortunately lies right on top of the basement rock that contains lots of large faults. When the disposed water gets into such faults, it can cause the faults to slide and create earthquakes.

Picture of produced water injected into the Arbuckle limestone which lays on top of the granite basement which has many faults (click to enlarge or to source, then hit back-arrow to return to this blog).

In Oklahoma, 1530 million barrels of produced water in 2014 were injected into disposal wells. That’s close to 1.5 billion barrels, which is equivalent to approximately 13,000 football stadiums each filled to 10 ft of water over the grassed area. The produced water is as salty as the ocean, but what if it were cleaned up for other uses? This is already happening in shale-gas plays like the Marcellus in Pennsylvania where 87% of produced water is cleaned up for re-use in the next frac treatment.

To look into water re-use, the Water for 2060 Produced Water Working Group (click here) was set up by the Governor at the end of 2015. This effort is run out of the Oklahoma Water Resource Board. They are tasked with getting diverse partners and energy/water end users together to look at finding a solution for produced water. If the water could be cleaned up further, it could be used for agriculture. Then more cleanup could lead to drinking water. However, cost will come into this because each stage of cleanup is more expensive.

Note however, that the desalination process is already in use in dry states/countries like California, Australia, and the middle East. Drought is projected for western Oklahoma in the next year, so can desal be far behind?

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Your comment in the Comment box below is always welcome.

The Gray Nomad
Helping someone to hope.

I have seen for myself countless examples of remarkable individuals, communities, organizations, and businesses that make an extraordinary difference to the everyday lives of others. In our networked, global world, such people can only have greater power. [Gaia Vince, author of the award-winning book Adventures in the Anthropocene.]

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Don Minton
Don Minton
7 years ago

Another good and informative Blog, learned a lot. I am a little dubious of combining the departments of energy and environment under one head. But it seems to be working for Oklahoma. It would take a special person to keep the two separate and deal fairly with environment.

John Korstad, PhD
7 years ago
Reply to  Don Minton

Great article Ian! I am delighted that you were able to come meet and hear Michael Teague on last month. You are a wonderful friend. BTW, Jeff Cline (who you worked with in the 1980s at NIPER?) met with some mutual friends, Mike Mathews, and me yesterday at the ORU Global Learning Center. Jeff and I attended the same church in Broken Arrow during that time. Shalom, John

John Korstad, PhD
7 years ago
Reply to  Don Minton

I agree. Michael Teague is definitely a special person in that he understands the need to bring all vested parties together for respectful and informed dialog.

John Cameron
John Cameron
7 years ago

Thanks for the update on OK earthquakes and what the state is doing about them. As an Oklahoma resident who has been shaken awake in my bed by earthquakes in recent years, it is good to know that some steps are being taken to moderate the problem.

Don Minton
Don Minton
7 years ago

I enjoyed the blog, and I learned a lot also. I would at first glance disagree with having the two offices, Energy and Environment, presided over by the same person. Checks and balances are particularly advised in government. Thanks for the informative blog.

7 years ago

This comment came from Lynn, a hiking buddy:
Thank you for the update. You are a wealth of good information not “alternate facts”.

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