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Oklahoma knew fracking caused earthquakes but stayed quiet to appease energy industry
04 Mar 2015 at 12:29 ET
Oklahoma has suspected for years that fracking caused earthquakes, but they stayed quiet about the connection under pressure from the oil industry.
The Oklahoma Geological Survey (OGS) finally admitted a possible link more than a year ago between oil and gas extraction and the recent outbreak of earthquakes in the state - which last year experienced 1.6 quakes per day of magnitude 3 or greater.
That's three times as many as California.
The OGS joined a U.S. Geological Survey statement in October 2013 that found human activity, including wastewater disposal, could be a "contributing factor" in the surge in earthquakes.
That angered the state seismologist's boss, University of Oklahoma President David Boren, and oil executives, according to emails obtained by EnergyWire.
Seismologist Austin Holland was called into meetings with Boren, state officials, and energy company executives after joining the statement, the emails showed.
Then-Oklahoma Corporation Commissioner Patrice Douglas said in the meeting that she "wants to, of course, protect the safety of Oklahomans, but also balance that with industry in the state," according to Holland's email.
Holland had been aware of the link since at least 2010, when he told federal officials that quakes near Oklahoma City may have been triggered by gas and oil projects.
However, he declined to publicly discuss the link until it could be demonstrated scientifically and suggested that changes in lake levels may be to blame for the quakes.
Holland said earlier this year that the industry attempted to influence his work, although he denied altering his scientific findings.
But Holland and other OGS scientists publicly played down findings that suggested a link.
Their public skepticism helped industry and elected officials in Oklahoma - where one in six jobs is linked to oil and gas — to dismiss the concerns about fracking and earthquakes.
Other states have ordered wells shut down and imposed strict regulations after earthquakes, but Oklahoma has been reluctant to do that.
Officials there continued to allow wastewater injection near a fault that ruptured in 2011, causing the state's largest-ever recorded earthquake - a magnitude-5.7 event that injured two and damaged hundreds of homes and businesses.