Quakeland – how fracking earthquakes could make OK the next oil-driven eco-disaster
Kathryn Miles, author of the new book Quakeland: On the Road To America’s Next Devastating Earthquake, has written a piece at Politico on the kind of subject most people don’t think about until after a disaster. She explores what would happen if a big earthquake struck at or near Cushing, Oklahoma, a crossroads of 14 major oil pipelines and hundreds of tanks holding, in the latest tally, nearly 60 million barrels of unrefined oil.
In her investigation, she discovered the dirty little secret of this reservoir of fossil fuel—the minuscule federal agency that supposedly regulates safety standards for these tanks doesn’t regulate or set standards for them. And these tanks and the pipelines that feed them simply aren’t prepared to ride out a major quake.
If there were a major one that broke pipelines and split, say, half those tanks, the environmental disaster would make the Exxon Valdez spill of 260,000 barrels of oil near the Alaska coast nearly three decades ago look like the results of a kid knocking over her uncovered juice cup. And, Miles writes, such an event would also have a major, if temporary, effect on the economy.
At the beginning of the 21st Century, this wasn’t a scenario on practically anyone’s mind. Oklahoma had few earthquakes of any size. But that situation has changed significantly. Now quakes are reported on a daily basis. Between 2008 and 2016, scientists recorded a 4,000 percent increase in the rate of Oklahoma earthquakes. Last month, there were seven quakes in 28 hours, including one that registered 5.0 on the Richter measuring scale.
For years, the oil industry and its shills claimed these quakes were not the result of anything they were doing, just Mother Nature being herself. They challenged and smeared critics who claimed the increase was a byproduct of the industry’s practice of pumping its wastewater from hydraulic fracturing into deep underground wells. Scientists have now confirmed the connection between the quakes and wastewater disposal.
Cushing’s pipelines and tank farms—which the Department of Homeland Security calls “critical infrastructure”—are in the heart of what is now earthquake country. Here’s Miles:
But while the number of earthquakes and their intensity have increased in recent years, the strength of the regulatory apparatus in place to ensure their safety hasn’t kept pace. Oversight of the tanks has been left to a tiny agency buried inside the Department of Transportation that was never intended to serve this role. And the safety standards, which one earthquake expert calls the weakest permissible, were created by an industry trade group rather than the government agency. For those inclined to contemplate worst-case scenarios, the prospect of an earthquake rupturing the Cushing tanks would be an environmental catastrophe far greater than the Exxon Valdez spill. […]
Seismologists at the United States Geological Survey say the area around Cushing is capable of an even stronger quake—maybe even a 7.0. Earthquake magnitude is measured exponentially, which means that a 7.0 quake would be 15 times larger than the biggest one to hit Oklahoma so far. And it would release over 60 times as much energy.
Miles interviewed officials in several regulatory agencies before finding the agency that she was told was in charge of handling the regulation of oil holding tanks—Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. But she could find no language in the nooks and crannies of PHMSA’s rules and regulations covering seismic hazards. The agency bureaucrat she asked to show her such language hadn’t responded by the time her article went to press.
So where do the standards for constructing the tanks come from? The American Petroleum Institute, natch. If that makes you roll your eyes, you’ve got good reason. Miles again:
Tom Heaton, professor of geophysics and director of the Earthquake Engineering Research Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, says most, if not all, of the tanks in Cushing are built to the weakest industry design standards. He thinks even a moderate quake could be enough to violently push the oil from one side of the tank to another. In geological terms, the phenomenon is known as a seiche: an internal wave or oscillation of a body of water. The more oil in a tank, the more dangerous that seiche becomes.
That makes tank farms like Cushing particularly vulnerable in the face of other natural disasters like Harvey and Irma as oil and pipeline companies engage in a kind of shell game for oil storage—full tanks do better in high wind conditions like hurricanes and tornadoes; they fare far worse in earthquakes.
If, say, a 6.0 earthquake occurred in or near Cushing, the chance of half the tanks coming apart and spilling several millions or tens of millions of barrels of oil into the environment would not be out of the question. As John Bridgewater of the Oklahoma chapter of the Sierra Club says, the community would be “uninhabitable” for a long time. Just as continuing to annually burn nearly 100 billion barrels of oil and 8 billion tons of coal could make the entire planet uninhabitable, at least for humans.
Nobody who matters policywise seems much interested in doing anything soon to upgrade or otherwise shore up Cushing’s “critical infrastructure.” And while the push to stop all that global burning of hydrocarbons is gathering strength, it’s not happening nearly fast enough. What kind of disaster will it take to get policymakers to shift into high gear?
(Originally appeared at DailyKos. Cushing pipeline by Roy Luck.)