Oklahoma Quake Triggers Closing of Fracking Waste-Disposal Wells

  • Magnitude 5.6 earthquake is state’s strongest since 2011
  • Cushing petroleum storage, pipeline facilities unscathed

One of the strongest earthquakes among many in Oklahoma since the introduction of hydraulic fracturing struck early Saturday near a complex of oil-storage facilities, leading state regulators to order the suspension of about 37 wastewater-disposal wells.

The Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which regulates the state’s oil industry, is contacting the operators of the wells in a 500-square-mile area around the town of Pawnee, Governor Mary Fallin said in a Twitter post. Oil storage and pipeline facilities at Cushing, Oklahoma, 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of Pawnee, were undamaged, according to the commission and four of the companies that operate there.

The 5.6-magnitude quake matched a November 2011 tremblor as the strongest ever in the state, the U.S. Geological Survey said, and was followed by at least eight others measuring as much as 3.6. The surrounding region of Oklahoma and Kansas, a center of oil exploration using fracking, has had almost 80 quakes of magnitude-4 or higher over the past decade.

Oklahoma, a region not known for seismic activity, began having earthquakes in 2009, the same year area oil companies began using fracking to shatter deep rock layers to extract oil and gas. Fracked wells produce large quantities of wastewater, which drilling companies inject into ultra-deep disposal wells. Critics blame earthquakes on this practice.

Saturday’s tremor hit the area about 7:02 a.m. Oklahoma time, the USGS said. It was also felt in Kansas, Missouri, Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Iowa, Illinois and Indiana, according to USGS’s reporting system for members of the public.

Officials for Enterprise Products Partners LP, Kinder Morgan Inc., Magellan Midstream Partners LP and Enbridge Inc., which operate petroleum terminals, pipelines and storage facilities in Cushing, said their sites sustained no damage and that operations were normal. Last week, the crude storage levels at Cushing stood at nearly 64 million barrels, according to the Energy Information Administration data.

“Following the earthquake, Enbridge employees were directed to conduct visual inspections of tanks, manifolds and other facilities,” spokeswoman Jennifer Smith said in an e-mail. “The Cushing terminal is currently operating normally.”

A spokesman for the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, Matt Skinner, offered similar comments.

Tremors were also felt at the Cooper Nuclear Station in Brownville, Nebraska, about 350 miles north of Pawnee, but operations were unaffected and no damage was reported, said Drew Niehaus, a spokesman based at the plant.

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