A year or so ago, I received a letter from the company that holds my homeowner’s policy telling me I have no earthquake coverage. It wasn’t a solicitation to buy such coverage – just to let me know that I had none.
I had spent a number of years working for the insurance industry and I knew they wouldn’t be sending their policy holders such a notification unless there was a very good reason.
Apparently they knew something I didn’t.
Of course in November of 2011 Oklahoma experienced a 5.6 quake, the strongest in its recorded history and there has been a rash of smaller quakes and tremors. For most of the past 40 years the Midwest averaged about 21 quakes over 3.0 magnitude per year, but in 2001 that number began to increase. According to a USGS study, there were 29 in 2008, 50 in 2009, 87 in 2010 and 134 in 2011.
Oklahoma has always had about 50 earthquakes a year of all magnitudes, but a couple of years ago that changed. There were 1,047 in 2010.
Clearly something is amiss. This is not California or even the mountain west. We’re not supposed to have earthquakes here. Droughts, floods and tornadoes are our normal catastrophes.
When the dust from the record-breaking quake settled, many Oklahomans begin asking questions. Inevitably the questions turned to whether fracking (the high-pressure injection of fluids into an oil formation in order to enhance production) could be the cause of these earthquakes.
Some geologists in the state, most notably those in bed with the oil and gas industry, claimed not, but subsequent studies have demonstrated that indeed fracking can be the cause of minor earthquakes, or at least contribute to their occurrence.
Current thinking by the experts seems to agree that while fracking itself may have little impact on the rash of earthquakes the deep-well injections of waste fracking fluids does.
An article from Oilprice.com, an online energy news site, states, “The practice of injecting water into deep rock formations causes earthquakes, both the U.S. Army and the U.S. Geological Survey have concluded. The U.S. natural gas industry pumps a mixture of water and assorted chemicals deep underground to shatter sediment layers containing natural gas, a process called hydraulic fracturing, known more informally as ‘fracking.’ While environmental groups have primarily focused on fracking’s capacity to pollute underground water, a more ominous byproduct emerges from U.S. government studies: that forcing fluids under high pressure deep underground produces increased regional seismic activity.”
An August 2011 report by Austin Holland of the Oklahoma Geological Survey concluded “Our analysis showed that shortly after hydraulic fracturing began small earthquakes started occurring, and more than 50 were identified, of which 43 were large enough to be located.”
Meanwhile, the oil and gas industry has mounted an advertising campaign to convince us that all is well, that oil-shale gas is the energy of the future and besides, the industry is creating jobs. If you watch television at all, you’ve seen them. They’re slick, feel-goods.
But the earthquakes continue and insurance is harder to get and more expensive. In February of this year the Oklahoma House Insurance Committee rejected a bill which would have required insurance companies to notify their policy holders whether their policies cover loss caused by earthquakes.
The bill, HB-2863 introduced by Rep. Mike Shelton, was opposed by the insurance industry.
You should know that earthquake insurance is not included in a standard homeowner’s policy, so you probably don’t have it.
Might be a good time to call your agent because you can be sure that the oil and gas industry will not be out to fix your foundation or cracked walls.
Now, if the thought of a serious earthquake in Oklahoma doesn’t grab your interest, it’s because you’ve never been in one or you’ve never heard of the New Madrid fault.
Those who have been in an earthquake of any size tend to take them quite seriously. It touches something primal when the earth moves.
If we in Oklahoma ever suffer a massive earthquake, chances are good it will be from the New Madrid fault which is located primarily in southeastern Missouri about 365 miles from Tulsa.
Between December 1811 and February 1812 four quakes ranging from 7.0 to 7.7 in magnitude shook the area. Towns were destroyed. The Mississippi River actually ran backwards. It was felt as far away as Boston. Though sparsely populated at the time, the area was devastated.
But the devastation was nothing like what could occur today. The cities of St Louis and Memphis could be destroyed. Four of the five major natural-gas pipelines run through the fault carrying gas to Detroit, Chicago, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh. Some experts say such a quake could destroy our economy.
Scientists estimate that there is a 97% probability of a 6.0 or greater earthquake occurring in the New Madrid fault by the year 2035. In the worst-case scenario, chimneys and masonry walls in Tulsa would fall, rail lines would be broken, there would be landslides and wide-spread damage in Oklahoma.
Finally, there are a couple of interesting items concerning earthquakes and oil production which have been overlooked by the media and will probably interest the conspiracy-theorists.
First, it has been known for years that small earthquakes can increase production in some oil wells by as much a 45%. Quite a boost for an old well.
And second, there are some companies which sell down-well equipment which create small seismic waves traveling at 1.5 miles per second every 10 seconds, running for months.
Not that this would have anything to do with it.