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Everything’s shakin’ in Oklahoma

Not that I wish misfortune on any other state, but after years of living in California and answering snide “Aren’t you afraid of earthquakes?” questions from denizens of Heartland, U.S.A., it’s nice to be able to look those folks square in the eye and reply, “Hey, at least it’s not Oklahoma.”

The new earthquake capital of America

Because according to Newsweek, Oklahoma has supplanted California as the earthquake capital of America. In light of this earth-shaking development, the state is changing its motto to “Oklahoma: It’s not just for tornadoes anymore.”

Actually—and this is true—Oklahoma’s state motto is “Labor conquers all.” It’s also a “right-to-work” state, so really, the motto should read, “Labor conquers all. Except management.”

Or, alternatively, “Oklahoma: Cognitive Dissonance Begins With Our Slogan!”

According to Newsweek, over a 30-year period beginning in 1978, Oklahoma averaged but two earthquakes over magnitude 3.0 per year. But by mid-2014, the state recorded 230 quakes measuring that or more, meaning that the number of quakes of that magnitude increased by several orders of magnitude.

Thus enabling the state to overtake California in the “most seismic activity” department and giving Oklahomans another reason to hold up comically oversized yellow foam fingers and proclaim, “We’re number one!”

The inevitability of “Quake-ado” (or shall we say “Tornquake?”)

In any case, it seems inevitable that in the “sooner” state, sooner or later the two natural disaster phenomena will occur simultaneously, leading to the world’s first known “quake-ado,” or “tornquake.”

It was also inevitable that the earthquake spike would result in finger-pointing over who or what’s to blame—and wind up in the courtroom. A lawsuit was filed by Sandra Ladra, a resident of Prague, Oklahoma (Prague? What else aren’t you telling us, Oklahoma?) against two oil and gas companies after a 5.7 magnitude earthquake, the strongest in state history, struck in 2011.

The culprit

The suspected culprit is fracking—or more specific to this case, the three injection wells in the area, which inject “vast volumes of salty, chemical-laced wastewater” deep into the ground.

According to the newspaper Tulsa World, Oklahoma boasts—if that’s even the right word—some 3,200 active disposal wells that pumped a combined 1.1 billion barrels of wastewater into the ground in 2013, an increase of about 35 percent over 2010. A “ground-breaking” paper in the scientific journal Geology concluded that the wells are a likely contributor to the dramatic uptake in the area’s earthquakes.

Ladra was sitting in a recliner watching a football game when her home started rumbling and a large rock from her fireplace dislodged, landed in her lap, and gashed her leg.

Ladra was quoted as saying, “I am so thankful that it landed in my lap because if it had hit my head, I wouldn’t be here.”

The oil and gas companies she’s suing were unavailable for comment.

Those fracking lawsuits

After some legal to-and-fro’s, the case is in front of the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Similar lawsuits, with some seeking class-action status, have been filed in Arkansas, Texas, and other states in fracking country.

The lawsuit names two oil and gas companies, New Dominion LLC and Spess Oil Co., as responsible for the earthquake, to which the companies immediately responded, “Am not!”—a reflexive, instinctual response instilled in the genetic composition of oil company lawyers in advance of having any basis of knowing whether the charge was, in fact, true.

Still, I suspect that the lawsuits are on somewhat “shaky ground.” If climate change, with near unanimity among environmental scientists that it’s at least partially mankind-enabled, still encounters resistance and intractability among the public, it’s hard to see how one crummy little study in an obscure journal about rocks will persuade a state court that fracking and earthquakes are indisputably linked.

Plus, even the most fervent climate change scientists are reluctant to attribute any one isolated heat wave or drought specifically to it, as there are numerous other potential “natural” causes as well. So even if evidence strongly suggests that unfailingly injecting “salty, chemical-laced wastewater” deep into the earth causes it to violently erupt with increased regularity, it’s hard to prove that the quake that messed up Ms. Ladra’s leg was expressly caused by the drilling.

And finally, Oklahoma, you might say, is not the most hospitable “climate” for such a claim. It’s home, after all, to Senator Jim Inhofe, the most vocal, virulent denier of man-made climate change around, dubbing it “a hoax.” Naturally, he’s now the chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

The point is, Oklahoma may be fracking itself into the dustbin of history, but legally, given the forces aligned against her, Sandra Ladra, even with her one remaining good leg, might not have a leg to stand on.

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