Solving Oklahoma’s Earthquake Problem

by Michael Teague

We had a major earthquake problem.

My immediate thought was the safety of the over forty dams we were responsible for.  On November 5, 2011, at almost 11 p.m., a magnitude M5.7 earthquake occurred near Prague, Oklahoma.  At the time it was the largest earthquake in the state’s history, and I was serving as the Commander of the Tulsa District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  Thankfully, the Corps has a very robust dam safety program, and the Tulsa District is blessed with world-renowned experts.  

But that earthquake was just the beginning of a much bigger earthquake problem for the state. Little did I know that very soon it would be my problem.

Two years later I had retired from the Army and was serving as Oklahoma’s first secretary of both energy and environment.  On my first day in this new position, I met with state agencies to better understand their responsibilities.  Several said that seismicity was the biggest issue they were working on.  While historically our state may have a dozen earthquakes in a single year above a magnitude of M3.0, in 2013 we had 108.  We had a major earthquake problem.

At the peak in 2015, Oklahoma had 901 earthquakes with a magnitude greater than M3.0. Four years later in 2019, there were 62. So how did we address the problem and, maybe more importantly, what did we learn?

We needed to own the problem if we were ever going to fix it.

There is a disturbing video from a baby monitor that shows an earthquake hit and it rolls the baby to the other side of the crib.  Moments later another quake hits and the child rolls back. (see the 60 Minutes story)

The earthquakes were a very divisive issue.  The people of Oklahoma were understandably scared and upset. They wanted, and deserved, to know what caused these earthquakes and how to make them stop. Many claimed that the science was “settled.”  Some believed that the science absolutely pointed towards fracing as the cause and wanted to ban all drilling.  Others believed that the science absolutely did not point towards oil and gas operations at all and wanted no change in regulations. 

I truly believe that you can’t fix a problem if you won’t own it, and our office was perfectly positioned to tackle this one.  With the combination of energy and environment, we were a new office. We were not a regulatory office.  We had no industry connections. We had no environmental group connections. Quite frankly, if we had a “reputation” it was my background as a Soldier. We were going to own this problem.

If you want to solve a tough problem, you must bring the right people together. 

From that first day as the secretary, I saw that while some leaders were working together on earthquakes, we needed much more coordination between agencies. The Oklahoma Corporation Commission regulates the oil and gas industry for the state, including Class II underground injection control (UIC) wells.  The Oklahoma Geologic Survey is the state’s research arm and includes the State Seismologist. These two had been working together but we needed closer coordination, more sharing of resources, and we needed to include other agencies. We formed a new group called the Coordinating Council on Seismicity. We very intentionally included the agencies, the oil and gas industry, the state’s research universities, and the Groundwater Protection Council (GWPC). GWPC is a non-profit or non-governmental organization (NGO), based in Oklahoma that has a great track record of working on tough issues with both water and oil and gas regulators. We were very particular about the individuals invited to participate. We needed problem-solvers who would work as a team.  We needed professionals who could argue with each other, be critical thinkers, and still work together. I chaired the Council as we met every single month for the next four years.  The Council continues to meet and work together today.

The science was not settled.

As the Council dug deeper into the research on induced seismicity from universities across the country, it began to point towards disposal wells for produced water in the Arbuckle formation, but the devil was in the details.

Produced water is the very salty water that comes to the surface along with oil and gas during production.  (It is different from the water used for fracking.) It is primarily disposed through deep underground injection control (UIC) wells.  

Using UIC wells is a common operation and extends well beyond oil and gas production. Earthquakes caused by UIC wells have occurred in the past, notably a series of earthquakes at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal in the early 1960s caused by one UIC well. In 2010 and 2011 an earthquake swarm along the Guy-Greenbrier fault in Arkansas was connected with 6 to 8 UIC wells in a 1,200 square mile area. The problem in Oklahoma was one of scale. The 901 earthquakes in Oklahoma occurred over a 17,000 square mile area that contained about 1,000 UIC wells in the Arbuckle formation that disposed of 1,529 million barrels (MMbbl) of produced water. That is over 64 BILLION gallons of very salty water in 2015 alone. 

But even after the Council concluded that the earthquakes were caused by disposal into the Arbuckle formation, there were still disagreements among the scientists about the exact cause that would bring us to the exact solution. Was the problem very large disposal wells, too many small wells, or proximity to specific faults? For example, on the same day in June 2015, two critical papers were published in two scientific journals that pointed towards two very different causes. The Council worked together to understand the research and even to increase the data availability for research. The Oklahoma Corporation Commission began reducing the overall volume of disposal allowed across the entire area and the earthquakes began to recede.

Who is listening to the public’s concerns?

While some used the earthquakes to advocate for a position, we felt from the beginning that it was our duty to listen to the public and answer their questions openly and honestly.  We went to the towns that were impacted, like Perry, Oklahoma — one of the epicenters — to hear from the town manager and business leaders. 

How we were communicating with the public quickly became a regular topic of the Council.  Our office developed the Earthquakes in Oklahoma web page to tell the public what we knew and what we didn’t know. We were proactive in meeting with local reporters, and we answered every out of town media request. Some had preconceived notions of Oklahoma, and most had no idea how we were addressing the problem. When 60 Minutes called, I admit I was more than just a little nervous!  Their story is tough and thorough.  I recommend it to anyone interested.

In addition to talking with the media, we met with local groups like chambers of commerce and Rotary Clubs all across the state. We spoke with high school students to explain the problem and what we were doing about it. In fact, the earthquake preparedness portion of the website came from the suggestion of a high school STEM club. We reached out to other states to learn more about earthquake preparedness and added it to the website so we could help the public. 

Lifelong lessons came out of a major challenge.

When the Prague earthquake hit and I realized that the dams of the Corps of Engineers were safe, I went to bed thinking my one earthquake “problem” was resolved. I never dreamt that I would soon find myself right in the middle of a statewide earthquake problem. Yet, it turned out to be the most significant and rewarding challenge of my tenure serving the state of Oklahoma. When we first formed our office, we were going to very intentionally stand in the crossroads of energy and environment. While our office was not organized because of the earthquakes, our unique position made us the right team to own the earthquake problem and to fix it. Although no one in our office will ever be a seismologist, our focus to bring together the right experts, from all fields, and get them to work together in the Coordinating Council was the critical action that led to success. Though there is a lot of great research out there, having the right people who can understand it, sort through it, and apply it is invaluable in addressing any problem.  And while lots of people today seem to enjoy telling others their opinions, the public always deserves to be listened to and to be kept informed by their government leaders. These were the keys for us in going from 901 earthquakes in 2015 to 62 in 2019. The work in Oklahoma is not finished, and the state continues to address earthquakes. My hope is that the lessons of convening problem-solvers, engaging in deep listening, and leading with ownership and transparency can help you in solving any wicked problem your team is facing.

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