Oklahomans Feel Way More Earthquakes Than Californians; Now They Know Why The U.S. Geological Survey issues a report Thursday on quakes linked to oil and gas drilling, but Oklahoma has said that the industry's wastewater disposal is the cause. What's unknown is a solution.
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Oklahomans Feel Way More Earthquakes Than Californians; Now They Know Why

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Oklahomans Feel Way More Earthquakes Than Californians; Now They Know Why

Oklahomans Feel Way More Earthquakes Than Californians; Now They Know Why

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The U.S. Geological Survey is issuing its first comprehensive findings about the link between oil and gas drilling and earthquakes. The preliminary report details oil and gas-related quakes in eight states. There's been a strong spike in Oklahoma, where the state government has now formally acknowledged the link for the first time. Joe Wertz, from StateImpact Oklahoma, reports.

JOE WERTZ, BYLINE: A magnitude 3.0 earthquake is small, but most people can feel it. Historically, Oklahoma got less than two of those a year. In 2013, it became two a week. Recently, Oklahomans like Dea Mandeville started feeling those more than twice a day.

DEA MANDEVILLE: Yeah, we're used to two or three earthquakes a week. But to get one - two or three - every day now this past week is really strange.

WERTZ: Mandeville is the city manager of Medford, a small community of about a thousand near the Kansas border. She organized a recent town hall meeting to discuss the earthquakes. Mandeville says people in her town are worried and annoyed by all the shaking.

MANDEVILLE: I haven't had any damage on my personal things, but we've had things fall off the walls, you know. Luckily it didn't break.

WERTZ: Mandeville invited representatives from Oklahoma's oil and gas regulator and state seismologists to speak at the meeting. It was lively and testy, especially when people like Bob Jackman asked questions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOB JACKMAN: I would like to say with a little more clarity, it is the disposal wells that's causing this problem - period. Do you agree with that?

WERTZ: The entire panel did. And now the state officially agrees too. Here's Rick Andrews of the Oklahoma Geological Survey.

RICK ANDREWS: We are attributing most of the earthquakes that we experience in Oklahoma to produced water that is disposed of into older formations.

WERTZ: Simply put, oil and gas production generates a lot of toxic waste fluid. Energy companies have to pump it back into the ground in wastewater disposal wells, which is triggering these earthquakes. Other states are experiencing oil and gas earthquakes too. Research published this week links a swarm of earthquakes to disposal wells in Texas. Oklahoma has more than 3,200 of these wells. Last year, the state had three times as many quakes as California did. The oil and gas industry is one of the largest economic drivers in Oklahoma. And state officials have been slow to formally link the industry to the earthquakes.

CHAD WARMINGTON: We don't know enough about what's really going on in the subsurface to know how to mitigate some of this risk.

WERTZ: Chad Warmington is president of the Oklahoma Oil and Gas Association. State authorities have stepped up oversight of disposal wells and operators in quake-prone regions. Warmington is worried Oklahoma's new position might fuel well moratoriums, which one state lawmaker is already calling for.

WARMINGTON: Just to say, we're just going to blanketly shut them down, it doesn't make logical sense 'cause it may have no impact whatsoever on the seismic activity.

WERTZ: Scientists don't know if these earthquakes can be stopped now that they've started, even if these disposal wells were banned. It's one of the next things they plan to research. For NPR News, I'm Joe Wertz in Oklahoma City.

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