Hundreds of top meteorologists and disaster recovery experts will converge on Oklahoma City next week for a national tornado summit, though much of the discussion is expected to focus on temblors, not twisters.
The annual three-day conference in the middle of Tornado Alley allows weather experts and emergency responders to coordinate relief efforts. They also see the latest building materials designed to weather tornadoes.
But below ground, thousands of earthquakes have been rattling the state in recent years – enough to surpass quake-prone California. A string of temblors last year – including an Oklahoma record 5.8 magnitude quake in September near Pawnee – convinced organizers to devote a chunk of the event to studying earthquakes.
Roughly 700 experts are expected at the event, which begins Monday.
“When you take the last five years, six years, you never would’ve thought about the earthquakes in Oklahoma,” Oklahoma Insurance Commissioner John D. Doak said. “You would never think you’d be watching your state on 60 Minutes.”
The number of earthquakes with a magnitude 3.0 or greater has skyrocketed in Oklahoma, from a few dozen in 2012 to more than 900 in 2015. Scientists have linked the quakes to the underground disposal of wastewater from oil-and-gas production.
Summit chairwoman Kim Decker, who recalls growing up in Oklahoma when earthquakes were virtually unheard of, said the spate of temblors in the past five years “boggles the mind.”
“The reason we decided to do this is the frequency of the earthquakes in different parts of the state,” Decker said Friday. “We have a new reality, and we just need to learn how to live with that new reality.”
Nearly all of the earthquakes here can be traced to underground wastewater disposal. A 2015 study by the U.S. Geological Survey suggested that Oklahoma’s industrial activities, such as natural gas and oil production, have caused the sharp rise in earthquakes in the past 100 years.
Some scientists say that the high-pressure injection of massive amounts of chemical-laced wastewater deep in the earth induces the quakes. Oklahoma Corporation Commission regulators have asked oil and gas producers to either close injection wells or reduce the volume of fluids they inject.
State regulators more aggressively ordered that wastewater wells be shut down last year, when the number of earthquakes dipped to 623.
But some residents fed up over waiting for regulators to order well shutdowns near where they live have taken matters into their own hands and sued some of the energy companies. A lawsuit filed by Pawnee residents alleges companies are showing “reckless disregard for public or private safety” by continuing to operate injection wells in the area.
Glenn Pomeroy, CEO of the California Earthquake Authority, which provides residential earthquake insurance, will speak at the conference about insurance issues related to man-made earthquakes. Pomeroy said the series of earthquakes in Oklahoma has led to “an increase in uncertainty” among energy companies, state regulators and property owners.
“I think the state is beginning to grapple with this new risk that wasn’t quite there (years ago),” he said Friday. “Earthquakes strike without warning. It’s just so important that we not have our heads in the sand.”
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