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When Americans speak of “the big one,” they’re talking about the potential for a super-massive earthquake that could essentially destroy most of quake-prone California. Now some scientists believe something similar could happen in the once geologically placid Oklahoma.
Oklahoma was shaken late Wednesday night by two of the strongest earthquakes to hit the state in recent years, the latest in a series of temblors that many researchers believe are caused by the burial of wastes from oil and gas drilling in the state.
The quakes struck 30 seconds apart and had magnitudes of 4.7 and 4.8 on the Richter scale. While considered light, both were centered directly beneath a region in northwestern part of the state near Fairview, Oklahoma, that produces significant amounts of oil and gas. The second temblor was the fourth-largest ever recorded in Oklahoma.
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No injuries or damages were reported from Wednesday night’s quakes, but smaller events last week struck near Oklahoma City, shaking bricks from building facades, felled columns and caused a power blackout in suburban Edmond.
These and other recent earthquakes could be precursors to a much larger, more damaging event, according to some scientists.
“I do think there’s a really strong chance that Oklahoma will receive some strong shaking,” said Daniel McNamara, a research geophysicist at the National Earthquake Information Center in Colorado, who has studied Oklahoma’s earthquake history. “I’m surprised [Wednesday night’s quakes] didn’t rupture into a larger event.”
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The frequency of earthquakes in Oklahoma has been rising for nearly a decade. Before 2008 there were fewer than two earthquakes in Oklahoma each year, on average. By 2010 the state had only three quakes with a magnitude of 3 or more, meaning their shaking is barely felt on the surface. In 2015, the number of such temblors had grown to 907.
Geologists say the reason is the way oil companies dispose of drilling waste. The water they use in drilling can’t be reused, so it must be discarded, usually injected deep below ground level. This water makes underlying rocks slippery, causing them to shift against one another, which sets off earthquakes.
The quakes have become something of a political issue in Oklahoma. Gov. Mary Fallin, who said she felt Wednesday night’s temblors, continued to express confidence in the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which she said is the agency best suited to address the growing problem.
“I want to commend the Corporation Commission for being so active on this issue,” the Republican governor said Thursday. “It’s important that we understand that people are very, very concerned about this. I am too, and it’s important that we address the issue.”
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But critics say the agency isn’t acting quickly enough. One who has been demanding more action is Democratic state representative Cory Williams, who said he believes the state Legislature needs to step in, though he adds that he doubts it will.
“Absent a catastrophic loss of life or property, there will be zero reaction from the Oklahoma House or Senate,” he said. “They don’t want to touch it. It’s a third rail.”
As for the ordinary people of Oklahoma, they just try to take everything in stride – the quakes as well as the political bickering.
“We just kind of adapt,” said one Fairview resident, Ronda Stucks. “Oklahomans are really good about adapting.”
By Andy Tully of Oilprice.com
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Andy Tully is a veteran news reporter who is now the news editor for Oilprice.com