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Is Cushing Oil Storage Hub Safe With Increase in Earthquake Activity?

A recent earthquake in north-central Oklahoma is raising concerns that seismic instability in the region could threaten a large nearby oil-storage complex.

The quake occurred on Oct. 10 about three miles from Cushing, the site of a tank farm called the Cushing Hub, one of the world’s largest oil-storage facilities. The temblor, though evidently frightening, was moderate in magnitude, measuring 4.5 on the Richter Scale.

The hub, which is operated by private energy companies, has been designated by the U.S. government as part of the country’s critical national infrastructure. The National Earthquake Information Center (NEIC) in Golden, Colo., reported in September that an earthquake could cause ruptures in the tanks, interrupting the flow of oil to refineries nationwide and wreaking serious environmental damage.

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The most recent quake is one of the largest of many that have struck in Oklahoma during the past several years. Many geologists say they believe the temblors have been caused by the practice of injecting waste water from oil and gas drilling deep underground, disturbing subterranean boulders and thus causing the temblors.

The lead author of the NEIC report, Daniel McNamara, said the earthquakes, while moderate, are of concern to geologists. “When we see these fault systems producing multiple magnitude 4s, we start to get concerned that it could knock into higher magnitudes,” he told The New York Times. “Given the number of magnitude 4s here, it’s a high concern.”

McNamara said research so far indicates that the faults beneath Cushing could cause an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.

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Oklahoma is a major oil state and thus has few regulations on wastewater disposal. But on Sept. 18, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission (OCC), which regulates the state’s energy industry, directed drillers to shut down or reduce the use of five wastewater disposal sites in the Cushing area. The OCC said it may strengthen its orders “as more data is made available.”

The Oct. 10 earthquake near Cushing was the second noticeable temblor in the state that day, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It said the other, near Medford, about 80 miles northeast of Cushing, had a magnitude of 4.4. Every day Oklahoma averages two quakes that are noticeable, i.e., having a magnitude of at least 3. Before 2009, the average for the state was about two earthquakes per year.

As a sign of rising concern about quakes in Midwestern states, on Oct. 15 the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other government agencies held the “Great ShakeOut,” an earthquake drill that included Oklahoma and 13 other central states.

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Such disaster preparation didn’t come too soon for Mickey Hart, the school superintendent in the small town of Crescent, Okla., about 30 miles west of Cushing. Three months ago, Hart says, he was in his office when he felt the shaking of an earthquake, which cracked walls and broke ceiling tiles.

“I froze,” he told Reuters, mainly because he had no idea what else to do. “In Oklahoma when you have a natural disaster like a tornado, you are trained to get underground,” he said. “In an earthquake you don’t want to get underground. What do you do?”

Now that Oklahoma is becoming seismically active, Hart says, the school district, which serves 650 students, is planning its first earthquake drills independent of the Great ShakeOut.

By Andy Tully of Oilprice.com

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