Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Oklahoma Earthquakes Are a National Security Threat

North America's biggest commercial oil storage hub is already on guard against terrorism, but quakes could prove the bigger risk.

In the months after Sept. 11, 2001, as U.S. security officials assessed the top targets for potential terrorist attacks, the small town of Cushing, Okla., received special attention. Even though it is home to fewer than 10,000 people, Cushing is the largest commercial oil storage hub in North America, second only in size to the U.S. government's Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The small town's giant tanks, some big enough to fit a Boeing 747 jet inside, were filled with around 10 million barrels of crude at the time, an obvious target for someone looking to disrupt America's economy and energy supply.

The FBI, state and local law enforcement and emergency officials, and the energy companies that own the tanks formed a group called the Safety Alliance of Cushing. Soon, guards took up posts along the perimeter of storage facilities and newly installed cameras kept constant surveillance. References to the giant tanks and pipelines were removed from the Cushing Chamber of Commerce website. In 2004, the Safety Alliance simulated a series of emergencies: an explosion, a fire, a hostage situation.

After the shale boom added millions of additional barrels to Cushing, its tanks swelled to a peak hoard of more than 60 million barrels this spring. That's about as much petroleum as the U.S. uses in three days, and it's more than six times the quantity that triggered security concerns after Sept. 11. The Safety Alliance has remained vigilant, even staging tornado simulations after a few close calls.

Now the massive oil stockpile faces an emerging threat: earthquakes. In the past month, a flurry of quakes have hit within a few miles of Cushing, rattling the town and its massive tanks. According to the Oklahoma Geological Survey, more than a dozen quakes have registered 3.0 or higher on the Richter scale within a few miles of Cushing since mid-September. The biggest, registering at 4.5, hit about three miles away on Oct. 10.

This is all part of the disturbing rise in earthquakes in Oklahoma, which has corresponded to increased fracking activity and oil production in the state. Since 2008, Oklahoma has gone from averaging fewer than two earthquakes per year that measure at least 3.0 in magnitude to surpassing California as the most seismically active state in the continental U.S. This year, Oklahoma is on pace to endure close to 1,000 earthquakes. Scientists at the National Earthquake Information Center in Colorado recently published a paper (PDF) raising concerns that the welter of moderate-sized earthquakes around Cushing could increase the risk of larger quakes in the future. 

Seismologists believe the quakes are the result of wastewater injection wells used by the fracking industry. Horizontal oil wells in Oklahoma can produce as many as nine or 10 barrels of salty, toxin-laced water for every barrel of oil. Much of that fluid is injected back underground into wastewater disposal wells. It is this water, injected near faults, that many seismologists—including those at the U.S. Geological Survey—say has caused the spike in earthquakes.

The role that fracking plays in the rise of earthquakes has been hugely controversial in Oklahoma, where one in five jobs is tied to the oil and gas industry. This year, as Bloomberg reported, seismologists at the Oklahoma Geological Survey were pressured by oil companies not to make a link between the earthquakes and fracking-related wastewater injection wells. Under the weight of mounting scientific evidence, Republican Governor Mary Fallin's administration in April finally acknowledged the role fracking played in earthquake activity.

In June, the Oklahoma Supreme Court said that a woman injured in an earthquake could sue an Oklahoma oil company for damages. That company, Tulsa-based New Dominion, is one of the pioneers of a new breed of high-volume wastewater injection wells that can suck down millions of barrels of water and bury it deep underground. In April, Bloomberg Businessweek profiled David Chernicky, its charismatic founder and chairman.

Now that quakes appear to have migrated closer to Cushing, the issue of what to do about them has morphed from a state issue to one of natural security. The oil in Cushing props up the $179 billion in West Texas Intermediate futures and options contracts traded on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Not only is Cushing crucial to the financial side of the oil market, it is integral to the way physical crude flows around the country. As U.S. oil production has nearly doubled over the past six years, Cushing has become an important stop in getting oil down from the Bakken fields of North Dakota and into refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast. If even a couple of Cushing's tanks had to shut down, or a pipeline were damaged, the impact could ripple through the market, probably pushing prices up. That outcome is especially likely if a spill were to knock Cushing offline for a period of time—a scenario no less dangerous than a potential terrorist attack. 

Pipelines run toward oil storage tanks stand at the Enbridge Cushing storage terminal.
Pipelines run toward oil storage tanks stand at the Enbridge Cushing storage terminal.
Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

"Induced seismicity is the most terrifying of all the fracking risks," said Kevin Book, managing director of Clearview Energy Partners, a Washington-based consultancy. The fact that more quakes appear to be getting closer to Cushing is "definititely concerning," said Book.  "Anything that puts those tank farms at risk is very serious."

So far, no damage has been reported by companies that own the tanks. Michael Barnes, a spokesperson for Enbridge, a Canadian company that owns the largest tank capacity in Cushing, said employees checked for signs of damage around the facility after the Oct. 10 quake and found none. Enbridge has not made changes to its emergency or disaster plans in light of the quakes.

The local fire and police departments have updated their emergency response plans to include information related to earthquake safety. "We're fairly new to earthquakes in Oklahoma," said Chris Pixler, Cushing's fire chief. "We've always been good at preparing for fires and tornados, and now we're making some changes we felt were necessary in terms of getting information out to citizens about earthquake safety." 

Each tank in Cushing is surrounded by a clay-lined berm designed to contain the oil in the event of a rupture. Thousands of miles of pipelines stretch beneath Cushing, connecting it to distribution hubs all over the country. It's those arteries that we should be most concerned about getting damaged in an earthquake, said John Kilduff, a partner at Again Capital, a hedge fund that focuses on energy. "Losing some of that pipeline infrastructure could be devastating for a time," Kilduff said. If enough damage occurred, "It could prompt an energy crisis if oil couldn't flow the way we need it to." 

State regulators are already taking action. Last month the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which oversees oil and gas, ordered wells within three miles to shut down entirely and those between three and six miles from the town to reduce their volume by 25 percent. On Oct. 19, the OCC put all wastewater injection wells within 10 miles of Cushing on notice. Getting to the bottom of the state's earthquake flurry poses a huge test for the embattled OCC, which is short on staff and has historically had close ties to the oil and gas industry it regulates. The regulator has typically dealt with environmental hazards such as oil spills, not issues of seismic activity. "They not only have to reassure their own constituents they are up to the job, but the federal government as well," said Book. "They're one big event away from a significant federal response."

The Obama administration has largely stayed out of the issue. Last month, however, the Environmental Protection Agency urged the OCC to "implement additional regulatory actions." The past week has been relatively calm around Cushing, with only a couple of minor rumblings that didn't hit nearby. For now, however, the threat of quakes has the city on higher alert than the threat of a terror strike.

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