Friday, October 3, 2014

Oklahoma, the New Earthquake Capital of America?

See the previous essays about the Climate Workshop for educators sponsored by Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education. One of the messages that we all took away is that America and the world are too dependent on petroleum. There is plenty of money to be made in energy resources that do not contribute, or not contribute as much, to global warming. But as it turns out global warming is far from being the only danger associated with our continued dependence on fossil fuels.

According to several recent studies, Oklahoma now has more earthquakes than California, a trend beginning in 2010. And these are not all small quakes; the 2011 quake near Prague, Oklahoma, had a magnitude of 5.7.

Everyone reading blogs such as this one probably knows why California has so many earthquakes. California, despite its beauty, has its faults. The Pacific Plate and the North American Plate rub up against one another in California while they slowly move, making earthquakes inevitable. But Oklahoma is right in the middle of the North American Plate. Why, then, does Oklahoma have earthquakes?

Many millions of years ago, what is now the North American Plate was (as I understand it) separate plates, which have now crushed themselves together into a single unit. One of the focal points of the crush was what is now the Arbuckle Mountains in south central Oklahoma; another is the Mississippi River bottom in the vicinity of New Madrid, Missouri, where a huge earthquake occurred in 1811.

But this does not account for why there has been a sudden increase in earthquake activity in Oklahoma starting in 2010. A new study published in the July 25, 2014 issue of Science documents that this ongoing cluster of earthquakes has occurred just at the same time and place, and at the same depth, as the new frenzy of fracking activity, where corporations use high-pressure water (containing other chemicals as well) is used to push fossil fuel out of the sedimentary rocks. The authors could not provide proof, the reason being that corporations are unwilling to disclose the details of their fracking activity. But they used all the geological and seismological information that was available to them to associate the earthquakes with fracking. While many of the fluid injection wells appear to produce no earthquakes, there are four big fracking wells that account for about 20 percent of the earthquakes. The authors did not name the corporation that owns these wells.

Since this article was published, northern California had a big earthquake that, I presume, put it back ahead of Oklahoma in the earthquake sweepstakes.

In Oklahoma we endure wild swings of weather, including tornadoes. But at least, we think, we do not have earthquakes like California. Our patriotic fossil fuel corporations have now corrected this omission. According to Figure 1 in the article (unfortunately this figure is available only to subscribers), Oklahoma now surpasses California in the number of earthquakes per 1000 square kilometers.

There are two things we can learn from this. First, if we want to continue our frenzy of fossil fuel dependence, to continue wasting energy and producing carbon emissions that are harmful to the rest of the world, we have a steep price to pay—among many other things, earthquakes. But the second point is that fossil fuel corporations can earn enormous private profits while passing many of the expenses—which includes earthquakes—off onto everybody else at public expense. I have not heard that these corporations have donated money sufficient to clean up earthquake damage that their operations have caused. This is just one more example of how large corporations, even though they boast about being the beacons of free enterprise, earn their profits in large measure at public expense.

Religious conservatives often refer to fossil fuels as a gift from God that we ought to use as much as possible. But what they don’t say is that they believe fossil fuels are a gift from God to conservative corporate leaders, and that the other 99 percent of Americans need to pay the cost. They believe, even if they do not openly say, that God blesses only rich people.

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