You would think that this latest Oklahoma earthquake would finally shake some sense into state officials there and here in Colorado. It certainly did me.
Last week’s 5.4 temblor across the Midwest was only the second earthquake I’ve ever experienced, and both were caused by humans foolishly pumping massive amounts of stuff deep under the surface — nearly 50 years and 1,000 miles apart.
Denver’s big oops started in the early 1960s when the government was at a loss of what to do with millions of gallons of the worst toxic goo you can imagine the military had accumulated on the Denver arsenal during a host of wars. The Army invented things you don’t even wanna know about, and the government had no clue how to get rid of it. So they dug wells to pour and pump this stuff down. These wells were incredibly deep, more than 2 miles or so. Not long after they started pumping an average of about 5.5 million gallons of liquid waste down these wells each month, the earth started shaking in and around Denver. A rumble here. A shudder there. It was odd for the area.
Then the earthquakes became more pronounced and frequent. Surprisingly, it didn’t take long for scientists to see the correlation between injected waste and Denver earthquakes. And the more liquid stuff went into these holes, the harder the earth shook and more frequently.
In 1967, two earthquakes measuring better than 5 shook the region. It created violent, urgent shaking that sent lamps off tables, pictures off walls, breaking glass and tumbling brick chimneys in some areas. I was a kid and remembered the sensation, and how remarkably quiet it was, unlike earthquakes were depicted in the movies. The connection between the toxic injections and serious shaking a major metropolitan area was clear — and clearly stupid. They quit doing it.
So just about 50 years later, I woke up suddenly Saturday morning. We were in a 10th-floor hotel room in Kansas City. The sensation was so unnatural and creepy that it grabbed my attention. It was a rolling sensation with thumps, like someone standing next to the bed, hitting the side of the mattress with their knees. I thought my wife was having a seizure or something. She looked at me and thought the same thing. Nothing was rattling or obviously swaying. I said, “it’s an earthquake” and jumped out of bed and ran to the window, because God only knows why.
Easily 45 seconds into this, my wife asks, “should we get out of the building?” Starting to become fully awake, I told her there were no earthquakes in Kansas City. So I inspected the bed. It kept rolling-thumping, like it was possessed, and now it was getting creepy. I lifted the bottom of the bedcovers and looked beneath.
“What are you doing?” my wife asked.
“It has to be someone under the bed,” I said, unsure what I was going to do if I was right. We’re into this thing for going on a full minute or so now.
“Oh for godsake,” she said. “Yes, someone sneaked in here in the middle of the night or spent the night under our bed and is moving it around to freak you out.”
I was already headed down to the front desk to tell them I wanted another room and I didn’t want to know what could make a bed do something like that. I just wanted a new one.
Then, my phone went off and a friend in Denver was asking if we were having an earthquake. And it stopped. The only thing weirder than having your bed undulate and thump is having friends ping you at 7 a.m. because they watch for earthquakes all the time.
What we felt all the way in Kansas City was the result of oil companies in Oklahoma pumping fracking wastewater deep into the earth to get rid of it. Oklahoma has allowed oil companies to do this for several years. They’ve allowed it even knowing that it has almost certainly caused a sudden rash of thousands of earthquakes a year in a place where just a couple normally occur.
That leaves two options: Either Oklahoma state officials are too ignorant and vapid to see the connection, or they knew damn well what’s been happening and they let the oil companies have their way regardless. What’s the harm in a little rock and roll to liven things up in a state where lawmakers are so bored they look for things to do, like sue Colorado for legalizing pot or finding ways to prove that global warming is nothing but a Nancy Pelosi hoax?
The 1960s Denver earthquake rounds were world famous, and there have been similar instances since then. Oklahoma lawmakers and officials have known for years what’s making the ground shake. But, hey, business is business. Suck it up.
That philosophy ended Saturday, however, when the earth shook from Dallas, Texas to Iowa. Unlike slipping faults deep under California cities, the Oklahoma quakes are caused by jolts very near the surface, and seem to occur uncomfortably close to places where lots of people live. Although no one was critically injured this week as chimneys tumbled and groceries on store shelves pitched to the floor, scientists are worried that a big or bigger temblor in just the right place would be just the wrong mix.
In a sudden about face, Oklahoma state officials forced oil companies to immediately stop injecting fracking waste into wells. It may well be too late. Research has shown that earthquakes continue, and can intensify, after well injection stops.
Smooth move. The science has been clear and insistent about the earthquakes for years now, but state officials have either scoffed at the claims or ignored them.
Colorado is much more sensible about the environment, science and the oil industry. Even so, the lesson of unintended consequences isn’t limited to earthquakes. The impact on wildlife, fauna, air, water and people isn’t clear, and it isn’t the same all over this wildly diverse state. Right now, state officials, including Gov. John Hickenlooper, side with oil companies that don’t want to bother with local control of what they do. Their reasons are valid, but if the oil industry has taught us anything in more than a dozen decades, it’s that one size does not fit all in the oil business. Rather than fight local control, Colorado needs to embrace it, limit it and compromise with it.
It’s not an earthshaking idea, just common sense. And if we have some left, send it to Oklahoma.
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