Oklahoma Now Has More Earthquakes Than California


The state is accustomed to tornadoes and severe weather. But since 2008, there’s been a surge of quakes — linked to oil and gas drilling. Download




It’s ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I’m Arun Rath.


DANIELLE DOZIER: We are going to be feeling that.

RATH: June 16, 2014 – just another day for meteorologist Danielle Dozier, just another weekly forecast for “KOCO 5 News” in Oklahoma City. Then, suddenly, this.


DOZIER: Whoa. Oh, my gosh, I’m so sorry. This is live on-air. That was way bigger than what we just saw earlier.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: That was huge.

DOZIER: That was well over 4.0-magnitude. I can tell you that much right now.

RATH: In just the past few years, there’s been a surge of earthquakes in Oklahoma. They’re hitting 600 times more frequently than they did before 2008. On average, Oklahoma has two a day with a magnitude of three or greater. That beats California.

This week, the U.S. Geological Survey linked the majority of Oklahoma’s recent earthquakes to wastewater disposal wells used in oil and gas production. Most of these earthquakes are happening in central and north central Oklahoma, so we called up some of the people living there.

MARK USELTON: Give me just a second.

RATH: Sure, sure.

USELTON: I’m processing an order here.

RATH: Mark Uselton is the owner of the Liquor Station in Edmond, north of Oklahoma City.

USELTON: And we are the lucky recipients, I guess, of a vast number of earthquakes.

RATH: When the ground shakes, Uselton hears it.

USELTON: It’s really strange because you hear this loud boom, like a cannon’s going off. And then the bottles vibrate, you know. You can hear them rattling like somebody’s just shaking the racks. And then all of a sudden, I realize, hey, this is an earthquake.

RATH: He’s lost some inventory.

USELTON: It has fallen off the shelf, and we broke a couple of small bottles of cheap tequila.

RATH: The last earthquake in Edmond was on Friday – a 3.3 on the Richter scale – but that’s minor compared to the one four years ago.


RATH: Mary Reneau. She lives just outside Prague, an hour east of Oklahoma City. That was the first time she’d felt the ground shake, and it was a big one.

RENEAU: A doozy – there were three earthquakes within three days. If you drew a triangle from all those different epicenters, our house is right in the middle.

RATH: The biggest one that Saturday in November measured 5.6 magnitude, the largest in Oklahoma’s history.

RENEAU: The kitchen looked like the bomb fell. You know, everything fell out of the cabinets and broke, and the chimney, of course, fell through the family room ceiling. And, you know, we couldn’t live here, so we bought a trailer, and we lived there while they worked on the house.

RATH: It took six months to get the house repaired. Luckily, the Reneaus had earthquake insurance. That’s something more residents are buying now, says Seth Robbins. He’s an insurance agent at Terra Insure Group in Guthrie, Okla. He says five years ago, not even one in a hundred people had earthquake insurance. Now he says it’s more like one in five.

SETH ROBBINS: Major uptick – yes, yes. It went from not even a blip on the radar to probably more prevalent than flood insurance now, as far as customer by customer.

RATH: Robbins says that the fact that the majority of earthquakes are caused by Oklahoma’s energy industry is going to complicate things.

ROBBINS: Earthquake is defined in an insurance policy as a naturally occurring seismic event. Well, there’s no way to know because we’re on a fault line – we’re on a documented active fault line – what quakes are naturally occurring seismic activity and which ones are unnatural. And if it’s spurred on by human activity, is that still a naturally occurring seismic event?

RATH: Mike Honigsberg is the emergency management director in Enid, 100 miles north of Oklahoma City. For him, earthquakes are just one more natural disaster to worry about.

MIKE HONIGSBERG: Yeah, just a few more pages in the emergency operation plan (laughter).

RATH: In case you don’t remember, this area is also known as tornado alley.

HONIGSBERG: We’re pretty much versed in the severe weather, you know, wind, hail and tornado situation, of course. You know, that happens all the time. We grew up with that. But we’ve become the earthquake capital of the central part of the United States.

RATH: That’s a title Mike Honigsberg says he would be happy to give up.