Oklahoma Earthquakes

Hugh Jackman in 1998, in the film version of the Broadway classic, Oklahoma, sings “We know we belong to the land, and the land we belong to is grand….you’re doing fine Oklahoma, Oklahoma OK.”

But as this week’s The New Yorker article, Weather Underground, suggests, not so much these days. Okie endurance and chance mythology is legendary. But as the Dust Bowl revealed in the 1930’s, burying your science head in the sand carries some serious risks. But the modern day risk isn’t tied to the Agriculture sector. It’s tied to the Energy sector.

Mary Fallin, the state’s two term Republican governor, and former two term Congresswoman, recently combined the state’s Secretary of the Environment and their Secretary of Energy positions. That tells you about all you need to know about the state’s feelings toward their current drill based economy.

The state’s Energy Resources Board says that 1 in every 5 jobs is tied to the oil and gas industry. That the rush toward fracking and natural gas has yielded wealth is indisputable. But distributing that wealth equitably is another story. A quarter of the state’s children live below the poverty level, and the state ranks 46th in overall health measures.

The mismanagement of human health in the state has now spread to the planetary patient. Up until 2008, when widespread fracking began, the state experienced 1 or 2 magnitude 3.0+ earthquakes a year. In 2009, there were 20. Five years later, they registered 585.

The United States Geological Survey has traced the problem not to fracking, which does cause earthquakes, but almost all are less than magnitude 3.o. The problem, they say “with virtual certainty”, is the result of deep, contaminated-water, disposal wells that often penetrate the Earth’s basement rock.

This effect is an “unintended consequence” of required safe disposal of mountains of brackish, chemically contaminated water, produced by the fracking process.  In Oklahoma, they’re pulling up 10 barrels of the stuff for every barrel of oil retrieved. And it has to go somewhere.

Now the state does maintain the Oklahoma Geological Survey. It is part of the Oklahoma University College of Earth and Energy, sitting on the campus that also houses the ConocoPhillips School of Geology and Geophysics. Rival Oklahoma State University has a school for geology as well, the Boone Pickens School of Geology.  At O.U., competing interests are balanced by their long-term university president, David Boren, a former U.S. senator. He also sits on the Board of local oil company, Continental Resources.

The people of Oklahoma are getting a bit nervous, as more and more of their homes shake to the foundations. 3639 magnitude 3.0+ quakes have been recorded now from 2009 to 2014. And what makes it worse is that, for a portion of the citizens whose houses are quivering, they don’t own the mineral rights on the very fragile land they live on. In the past, a land owner could refuse to let the drillers onto their land. But in the past few years, in some counties, those rules have been quietly changed.

In October, 2013, the U.S. Geological Survey issued a press release stating that the chances of a magnitude 5.5+ earthquake in Oklahoma had “significantly increased”. This in the state with “flowers on the prairie where the June bugs zoom, plenty of air and plenty of room; plenty of room to swing a rope, plenty of heart and plenty of hope.”

Economics can’t be denied. And health is certainly a function of social determinants, which lag poorly where poverty and income disparities rule. But of equal concern is the Planetary Patient, which in equal measures with economics, has and will continue to impact individual and population health.