19 April 2015

Welcome To Oklahoma, The State of Denial

Posted by Dan Satterfield


The Devon Tower is Oklahoma's tallest building. It would likely survive a major earthquake but would the businesses inside?

The Devon Tower is Oklahoma’s tallest building. It would likely survive a major earthquake, but would the businesses inside?

Just as I started putting together this post tonight, I had an instant message from my daughter in Oklahoma City. It said one word  “EARTHQUAKE”. This has become the standard practice, where she messages me, and I let her know within a few minutes where the quake was, and what the magnitude was. We have our own intensity scale that ranges from “I barely felt it” to “It felt like a person jumping up and down on my bed.” to “It woke me up and scared the dog!” This one was in the middle, and the USGS soon told me that it was a magnitude 4.1, centered in an empty field about 9 km NE of Guthrie,Oklahoma (a good 40 minute drive from Downtown OKC). The epicenter of this one is right in the middle of one of the major fracking zones in Central Oklahoma, and there is no longer any doubt that the injection of waste water into the ground is causing these quakes. At least I should say there is no longer any scientific doubt about it.

This is Oklahoma though, the STATE OF DENIAL. The state that re-elected a U.S. Senator who thinks that all the world’s scientists are involved in a huge cover-up and that climate change is a hoax. You can add in the Governor and the vast majority of state representatives as well, and if the polls are right, the people who voted for them. That said, I think the polls are wrong. I think deep down the voters of Oklahoma know that the planet is warming, and that humans are causing almost all of it, and they also know that the fracking has caused their state to be more geologically active than California (I’m not joking).

It’s just most Oklahomans would much rather vote for someone who tells them what they WANT to be true, rather than what IS true.

Screen Shot 2015-04-18 at 9.25.48 PM

From 1882-2008 Oklahoma had a magnitude 4 quake about once a decade. They had 24 in 2014 and another 4.2 early this morning.


Neil de Grasse Tyson has said this kind of situation imperils our democracy and he is absolutely right. 

When you’re scientifically literate, the world looks different to you. It’s a particular way of questioning what you see and hear. When empowered by this state of mind, objective realities matter. These are the truths of the world that exist outside of whatever your belief system tells you.

One objective reality is that our government doesn’t work, not because we have dysfunctional politicians, but because we have dysfunctional voters. As a scientist and educator, my goal, then, is not to become President and lead a dysfunctional electorate, but to enlighten the electorate so they might choose the right leaders in the first place.

Neil deGrasse Tyson
New York, Aug. 21, 2011
(Hat tip to Climate Progress for digging this jewel up)


I remember these post-cards well.

I remember these post-cards well. From OK Oil and Gas Historical Soc.

As I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the city proudly billed itself as “The Oil Capital of the World”. They don’t anymore, but oil and natural gas are still the lifeblood of the Oklahoma economy, and fossil fuel money runs the state and it’s politics as well. It has deep connections with the state’s university system and in particular the School of Geology at Oklahoma State University (named after T. Boone Pickens), along with the Oklahoma Geological Survey. I suspect this has made for some uncomfortable funding meetings of recent. A must read  New Yorker piece goes into some detail on that and the fact that those quakes are making a lot of energy companies nervous too. 

The New Yorker piece says the Governor’s first response to the quakes was to tell her fellow Okies to buy earthquake insurance, and they have been lining up to do just that. The insurance companies are a bit more in touch with reality than the state’s senior senator or governor though, and many policies will not pay out for “man-made” quakes. This led the state Insurance Commissioner John Doak to warn the insurance companies. The Insurance Journal quoted Doak as saying : “In light of the unsettled science, I am concerned that insurers could be denying claims based on the unsupported belief that these earthquakes were the result of fracking or injection well activity,” .

Say what?? Anyone want to play “which rock is the Oklahoma Insurance Commission under?”


I wonder what the Oklahoma Insurance Commissioner thinks of this map.

I wonder what the Oklahoma Insurance Commissioner thinks of this map. From the Okla. Geol. Survey.

The insurance company executives must have rolled in the floor laughing when they got that letter. The science is settled, and it didn’t take long. If the insurance commission or a policy holder takes them to court, they can bring in enough of the world’s top experts on quakes to fill any courtroom on their behalf. Paper after paper has shown that the quakes around the fracking areas are no accident, but if you’re the type that thinks thousands of scientists are involved in a huge climate cover-up, then it’s not much of a leap to ignore all that!

Is anyone else here thinking about that famous quote from the author Upton Sinclair? It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”


Ok;a. Geol. Survey

Ok;a. Geol. Survey

Now, here is the scary part. There is recent science that indicates that all these magnitude 3 and 4 quakes may cause a much stronger quake. A strong and damaging quake of over magnitude 6 doesn’t happen in Oklahoma, or does it? A Magnitude 6.2 quake in Oklahoma County (Oklahoma City metro) or Cleveland County (Norman area) could cause several hundred million dollars in damage, making that EF- 5 tornado in Moore look like a scratch. I’ve talked with geologists who think that this is no longer out of the question.

I’ve also had more than one person tell me they are now thinking hard about dropping investments in such companies as Devon Energy because they fear there will indeed be a damaging quake and these companies will be held liable. Does this thought keep the board of directors of Oklahoma energy companies up at night. Maybe not, but perhaps it should.

At the University of Oklahoma in Norman, you have some of the brightest atmospheric scientists  along with some of the most knowledgeable people on Oklahoma geology anywhere in the world. There are also biologists and astronomers and they understand how we know that the world is over 4,000 million years old, and that we humans and chimpanzees have a common grandmother some 4 or 5 million years ago, and they will tell also tell you that humans are changing the planet’s climate at a dangerously rapid rate even as those injection wells are causing those pesky quakes.

The problem is that Norman is an island of science literacy in a sea of denial. An ocean where science literacy is on par with that of England in the 1740’s.

No Oklahoma politician could get elected by admitting these scientific truths today, and Dr. Tyson is right, It’s not Senator Inhofe’s fault at all. It’s the voters of Oklahoma’s fault, and perhaps this is no surprise since Oklahoma is number one at cutting education funding. Unfortunately the bill for their happy state of denial may turn out to be very costly to their state’s economy. Will blowing dust and brutal drought shake Oklahoma out of its happy state of denial or will it take the Earth literally moving to do the job.

My wife and I own the home where she grew up in Oklahoma City, so fair warning, the last person who put a crack in my dining room (Tim McVeigh) was executed for terrorism. If your fracking quakes put another, I’m getting an attorney, and I probably won’t be the only one…


Some of the recent science on the subject:

EOS reporting on it

Sharp Increase in Central Oklahoma Seismicity since 2008 induced by Massive Wastewater Injection

Good links to other studies in this paper published in the journal of the Seismological Society of America.