Oklahoma coming to terms with unprecedented surge in earthquakes

When Austin Holland was being considered for his job as the sole seismologist at the Oklahoma Geological Survey in 2009, his interviewer posed a wry question: "Are you going to be able to entertain yourself as a seismologist in Oklahoma?"

Back then, the state had a 30-year average of only two earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or higher per year. As it turns out, though, boredom has been the least of Holland's concerns. Over the last five years, the state has had thousands of earthquakes — an unprecedented increase that has made it the second-most seismically active state in the continental United States, behind California.

The state had 109 temblors measuring 3.0 or greater in 2013 — more than 5,000% above normal. There have already been more than 200 earthquakes this year, Holland said.

Scientists have never observed such a dramatic swarm of earthquakes "in what's considered a stable continental interior," Holland said. "Whatever we're looking at, it's completely unprecedented."

Oklahoma has always had the potential for earthquakes; it has a complex underlying fault system. But until recently, the most powerful quake of the modern era was a 5.5-magnitude temblor in 1952 that left a 15-meter crack in the state Capitol.

Scientists say the more likely cause of the recent increase is underground injection wells drilled by the oil and gas industry. About 80% of the state is within nine miles of an injection well, according to the Oklahoma Geological Survey.

Oklahoma has seen a boom in oil and gas production, including the use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — the process of shooting water, sand and chemicals deep into the earth at high pressure to extract oil and natural gas. Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey and several universities suggest there is a link between the quakes and disposal wells, where wastewater from fracking is forced into deep geological formations for storage.

Industry officials are not ready to definitively accept responsibility but support additional studies of a possible link. "It warrants more research, but a rush to judgment is going to provide no clear understanding of the causes," said Cody Bannister, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Assn.

All the shaking has worried residents and prompted one Oklahoma City newspaper to explain earthquake measures. (Magnitude 4 to 4.3: "Vibrations like heavy trucks passing ... glasses clink." Magnitude 5.5 to 6.1: "Difficult to stand ... furniture breaks.")

A magnitude 5.7 earthquake in 2011 damaged homes and buckled a highway here in Prague, about 45 miles east of Oklahoma City. Now, "As soon as people walk in, the first thing out of their mouths is 'earthquake insurance,'" said Jennica Haddox, an insurance policy saleswoman at the local Farm Bureau.

Nerves have been on edge. When the Oklahoma City area was rattled Monday morning by several new earthquakes, one of them as large as a magnitude 4.3, it startled on-air broadcasters. "Earthquake!" KWTV Channel 9 meteorologist Lacey Swope yelled, her eyes wide as the studio lights shook. "I've never felt one that big!"

The Oklahoma Geological Survey, trying to keep up with all the work, hired a second seismologist this year and has added new seismic stations across the state.

Several residents described their shock at feeling their first quake. One man thought a truck had hit his house. Another ran to check his washing machine, thinking it had gone off balance.

"The only thing I'd ever felt that was like an earthquake was the bombing in Oklahoma City in 1995," said Charles Justice, 47, who lives in a mobile home in the town of Guthrie, about 30 miles north of the capital. After an early-morning quake a few months ago, he said, his "first thought was that ... the blocks under the house had fallen."

Oklahoma has about 4,500 active disposal wells, said Matt Skinner, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which regulates drilling. With the increase in seismic activity, the commission has asked the state Legislature to approve rules that would increase monitoring and testing requirements for many of the wells.

In September, the commission ordered a wastewater well operator in southern Oklahoma to "drastically reduce his injection pressure and volume" after a swarm of earthquakes nearby. There are no rules requiring seismic studies before wells begin operations, Skinner said.

The focus on drilling has been sensitive in Oklahoma, where 1 in 6 jobs is tied to the industry.

In the town of Marshall, farmers and oil field workers filled the tables at lunchtime on a recent afternoon at Earnheart Oil & Propane, where three wells were visible from the parking lot.

Inside, Dillon Davis, 63, a farmer and oil field worker, recalled a recent swarm of earthquakes that seemed to come every half-hour, cracking a wall in his house and throwing a door off balance. Davis has lived in Marshall, about 50 miles north of Oklahoma City, since 1972. Until the last three years, he had never felt an earthquake.

"Some folks say it's the oil field, but it's just speculation," Davis said.