Geology & Geophysics Opinion

My Life in Baseball and Earthquakes

How earthquakes interrupted a Royals game and thrust me into a whirlpool of politics, media, and law.

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Baseball and induced seismicity: I wouldn’t have expected those worlds to intersect. But one night in September 2014 they did.

I was in Kansas City, watching the Royals and the Oakland A’s play postseason baseball. As the game began, my cell phone buzzed with alerts from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) National Earthquake Information Center: tremors in south central Kansas. For two or three innings, I read and forwarded earthquake-related emails—something not easily accomplished with a crowd of 40,000 people intent on texting, tweeting, and sending selfies to their friends, using most of the mobile phone bandwidth.

Three days later, a magnitude 4.2 earthquake shook the same part of Kansas. This was one of more than 100 earthquakes (magnitude 2 and greater) that occurred in the state in 2014. A 4.2 earthquake might not mean much in California (the 1989 World Series earthquake in San Francisco was a 6.9), but it was the largest Kansas earthquake in a long time. The day after that 4.2 earthquake, I was in Harper County, Kan., near the Oklahoma border, with Kansas Governor Sam Brownback and others, listening to local concerns and talking about induced seismicity with the county commission, three TV stations, and the public.

Establishing the causes of midcontinent earthquakes and formulating responses are a highly visible, complex, and contentious process—one that Earth science organizations must confront. In Kansas, things started getting interesting in September 2013, when small earthquakes began occurring in the south central part of the state. In the past, Kansas seldom experienced more than one or two magnitude 3.0 earthquakes per year. In 2014, we had more than 40, including two events greater than 4.0. We had eighty-four 2.0–3.0 events, many of which were strong enough for residents to feel.

Establishing a Task Force

In early 2014, the governor of Kansas appointed an induced seismicity task force. Staffers from the Kansas Corporation Commission (KCC) and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE), two organizations that regulate underground fluid disposal in Kansas, were joined by staff from the Kansas Geological Survey (KGS). The task force drafted a report that we submitted to the governor’s office in September 2014.

Because Kansas was relatively quiet seismically until recently, we relied heavily on two USGS monitoring stations. The task force recommended increased seismic monitoring. We also developed a seismic scoring system based on magnitude, clustering (spatial and temporal), and other characteristics. When that system identifies an earthquake of a specific score or higher, KCC and KDHE compile data on disposal wells (including hazardous waste, as well as oil and gas production fluids) within 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) of the event.

By the time the task force was formed, attention in the scientific community had focused on salt water disposal wells from oil and gas production as a likely source of the seismicity. Midcontinent wells often produce far more salt water than oil—salt water that is generally injected into deep subsurface rock formations. Recent oil exploration in the area focused on rocks of Mississippian age (roughly 360 to 320 million years ago) and utilized horizontal drilling. Some of these wells produced large amounts of salt water and thus needed larger-volume disposal wells.

To be clear, the hydraulic fracturing process itself has not been directly connected to seismic events in Kansas, and it has been linked to relatively few events in the midcontinent (Figure 1). However, we differentiate between hydraulic fracturing (part of the well completion and stimulation process) and salt water disposal (part of the oil production process).

Seismicity of the central United States 2009–July 2015. Green circles indicate earthquakes of magnitude 3 and larger, and their sizes reflect the size of the earthquake. Much of this seismicity is believed to be related to salt water disposal from oil and gas production, particularly in Oklahoma, Texas, southern Kansas, central Arkansas, southeastern Colorado/northeastern New Mexico, and southeastern New Mexico. Credit: USGS
Fig. 1. Seismicity of the central United States, 2009 to July 2015. Green circles indicate earthquakes of magnitude 3 and larger, and their sizes reflect the size of the earthquake. Much of this seismicity is believed to be related to salt water disposal from oil and gas production, particularly in Oklahoma, Texas, southern Kansas, central Arkansas, southeastern Colorado/northeastern New Mexico, and southeastern New Mexico. Credit: USGS

Hydraulic fracturing uses a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals under high pressure to crack open subsurface rock formations and extract oil and gas. Some of that mixture flows back up and is pumped back into deep subsurface rocks. The issue here is not flowback from hydraulic fracturing but disposing of the salt water that comes up with the oil during the production process. This salt water is produced over the entire life of the well.

Our working hypothesis at KGS postulated that the increased seismicity was related to high volumes of salt water injected into disposal wells. A small amount of the fluid initially going into these wells is flowback from hydraulic fracturing. A far larger percentage of the fluid is salt water that is produced along with oil.

Addressing the Challenge

Over the past 2 years, seismic monitoring in Kansas has improved. In April 2014, USGS installed nine seismometers in Harper and Sumner counties, then added more after a magnitude 4.9 event in mid-November 2014 (the largest recent earthquake and the largest ever digitally recorded in the state).

KGS established its own seven-station temporary seismic network in the area, initially using IRIS equipment borrowed from the University of Missouri (from a seismology consortium funded by the National Science Foundation’s Industrial Research and Development Information System). This network is somewhat more widely and uniformly distributed than the USGS temporary stations. We’re also installing a permanent statewide network, and we regularly receive data from the Oklahoma Geological Survey (OGS), which operates seismograph stations just across the state line.

In March 2015, KCC ordered gradual cutbacks in the volume of salt water going into disposal wells in five areas of seismic concern in south central Kansas. It’s too early to know the impact of these reductions, although earthquake activity has decreased, as of this writing. At the same time, oil prices declined, and drilling in the affected area has also slowed.

With induced seismicity, KGS was thrust into a public policy debate. It’s been a challenge, but one we could not and will not avoid. From fracking to climate change, the geosciences deal with some of the most important and contentious natural resource issues facing this country and the world. As politicians and regulators work through those issues, scientists need to be part of the conversation. If we are not, we risk irrelevance and poorly informed decisions.

The public arena of induced seismicity has created its own demands. It has required dealing with the political, media, and legal worlds. Here are some lessons learned about each.

Politics

Nearly all public agencies get thrust into politics at one time or another, but induced seismicity required an unusual level of political interaction for KGS. I talked regularly with our governor on this issue. We briefed legislative committees, including one hearing that lasted for 90 minutes, most of it questions and answers.

On the local level, we met with county commissioners in the affected area and took public questions and comments. In general, the locals appreciated the economic impact of oil and gas activity in their area but also wanted the earthquakes (or at least felt earthquakes) to stop. I even did a brief update on induced seismicity as part of an American Geosciences Institute briefing for congressional staff.

Navigating these various corridors was challenging, especially when dealing with uncertainty. Politicians want clear, unequivocal answers, not more studies. They represent constituents, sometimes frustrated constituents, whom they want to please. At the same time, we had to make budget requests from these same politicians, asking for additional funding to enhance monitoring to help us understand the issue, to answer their questions, and to help guide a response.

Media

Dealing with the media—from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal to Wichita television stations and local weekly newspaper reporters—has been equally challenging. Even in these days of social media, many people (especially politicians) pay close attention to traditional media outlets.

For the most part, reporters are responsible and work hard to clearly communicate what scientists know and don’t know. When they get issues confused or describe something inaccurately, however, setting the record straight can be frustrating and time-consuming.

It’s been particularly hard to communicate the distinction between salt water disposal and hydraulic fracturing as a possible catalyst of seismicity. But for the members of the media and the public who are opposed to hydraulic fracturing, this is a nuance, a distinction without a difference. I’ve tried to be patient with reporters and to be thicker skinned, especially when reading the online comments that follow newspaper articles.

The Legal Realm

In a recent meeting, I realized that I was the only one without legal representation. Induced seismicity creates questions of liability, government regulation, and the proprietary nature of data. Although we have long been subject to open records and open meetings laws, induced seismicity provides lessons about their intricacies and importance. The governor’s task force followed open meetings requirements; I fielded an open-records request for emails. Perhaps more importantly, requests for certain data quickly raised confidentiality issues. Some 3D seismic data, for example, were unavailable because of proprietary agreements between companies.

A Team of Organizations

We had to face these issues—political, legal, media—head on. We had lots of help from other Earth science organizations, especially OGS. A November 2014 meeting on earthquake risk and induced seismicity organized by OGS and USGS was especially timely. Our state regulatory agencies, KCC and KDHE, have been true partners. Work by the National Research Council, the Stanford Center for Induced and Triggered Seismicity, and the industry has also been helpful.

It’s been a full year now, and we’re wrapping up another baseball season. Midcontinent earthquakes continue. It’s been a bumpy ride and probably will continue to be. But we’re learning more all the time, especially about the effectiveness of our mitigation techniques.

And we know that research organizations like ours can work with regulators and industry to better understand seismicity, earthquake mitigation, and how to continue energy production. When we do that, we not only improve scientific understanding, we demonstrate the relevance and value of public Earth science organizations.

Rex Buchanan, University of Kansas, Kansas Geological Survey, Lawrence; email: [email protected]

Citation: Buchanan, R. (2015), My life in baseball and earthquakes, Eos, 96, doi:10.1029/2015EO036091. Published on 25 September 2015.

© 2015. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0
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