Oklahoma Quakes, the Infrastructure Side

Last November, a M5.0 quake caused some damage in Cushing, Oklahoma.  A number of folks at the time were relieved that there wasn’t any noticeable damage to the nation’s largest oil storage facility.  This was only a few months after the Oklahoma Corporation Commission ordered a cutback in disposal of wastewater in injection wells. Since then, seismicity has mostly quieted down, but it seems that recognition of the scale of the hazard has been seeping into the awareness of a broader part of the media, leading to a lengthy piece in Politico Magazine on the potential disaster lurking in Cushing from facilities not really designed to survive an earthquake. While most of the stories of earthquake hazards in Oklahoma have been more focused on falling chimneys and old brick buildings, this piece exposes a pretty critical flaw in Oklahoma’s infrastructure.

So we will hope that there isn’t another unrecognized fault slowly being lubed up under Cushing.  But remember, the largest events from the infamous Rocky Mountain Arsenal injection adventure in the 1960s came more than a year after injection was totally stopped.  Oklahoma hasn’t stopped injecting fluids, and the volume of water injected so far dwarfs anything that happened in Denver in the 1960s…

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2 responses to “Oklahoma Quakes, the Infrastructure Side”

  1. Catalin Orban says :

    A similar article here. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/12/in-a-decade-oklahomas-earthquakes-will-be-normal-again/509297/

    How about the long-term environmental hazards due to the chemicals disposed underground in huge volumes? Are there any chances for Oklahoma to become a chemical desert?

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    • cjonescu says :

      Thanks for the link, which is focused on the Stanford work suggesting that this will pass. I am less certain of it, for injection continues over much of the oil patch, and depending on what structures are present and the ambient stress field, surprises seem likely.

      As for the environmental hazards. The reality of deep brines is that they naturally are really foul. You would probably be a lot less happy with a spill of these brines than the water used in fracking, which is a lot cleaner. Most of the “produced water” from oil and gas activities consists of these deep brines that live with the oil and gas been targeted. So pumping these brines back to depth makes a lot of sense ecologically…provided of course that the deep reservoirs are appropriate. In Oklahoma, the brines are pumped back to greater depths than the originated, so they should remain isolated from surface waters and drinkable aquifers. In some fields, they are pumped back into the same formations in order to drive oil and gas towards producing wells. It is a lot harder to clean up these brines to be used as surface waters, though that is being explored in some places. Basically, the biggest risk from deep injection is earthquakes. If you can avoid those, it is probably the best solution.

      The caveat is doing this cleanly and maintaining the isolation between these deep aquifers and the shallow ones. So the long term environmental hazards are really from spills (which could be overwhelming if a quake breaks infrastructure in Cushing) and from improperly sealed wells. And, of course, from releasing that carbon into the atmosphere by burning the oil and gas…

      Liked by 1 person

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