In June, we explore energy production in the United States. From North Dakota to Oklahoma, Texas and Washington, we’ll look at how fracking has opened new realms of oil and gas production – and we’ll examine some of the complex consequences of so-called energy independence.
Death in the Bakken
The recent oil boom in North Dakota – driven by hydraulic fracturing and advances in technology – is a big reason why the U.S. is now the world’s leader in combined oil and natural gas production.
But the boom in the Bakken shale, which stretches over North Dakota, Montana and parts of Canada, has made it one of the deadliest places for workers in the country.
Reveal reporter Jennifer Gollan headed to North Dakota to examine the story of one young man’s tragic death, exposing the dangers oil workers face. Her investigation found that deeply entrenched corporate practices and weak federal oversight have inoculated major energy producers against responsibility when workers are killed or injured, while shifting the blame to others. Only one energy operator that leases or owns wells has been cited for worker deaths in North Dakota or Montana over the past five years, Reveal’s analysis has found.
Oil companies offer financial incentives to workers for speeding up production – potentially jeopardizing their safety – and shield themselves through a web of companies to avoid paying the full cost of settlements with affected workers and their families when workers are injured or killed.
- Read the full investigation.
The father of fracking
Continuing our look at energy production in the United States, we explore the history of hydraulic fracturing – aka fracking – in North Texas, where the technologies that are now employed in the Bakken were born.
Host Al Letson talks to Marketplace energy reporter Scott Tong about George Mitchell, a man many refer to as the father of fracking. Tong did a rare interview with Mitchell a few months before he died in 2013.
We’ll also hear from some of the geologists and engineers who made fracking financially viable – helping to turn America into one of the top energy producers in the world.
- One fracking minute: An animated explainer on hydraulic fracturing.
Oklahoma’s man-made earthquakes
In 2014, Oklahoma had more than three times as many earthquakes as California, and this year, the state is on track for even more. A lot of them are small, but some towns are seeing a quake almost every day, and seismologists warn that large and damaging earthquakes are becoming more likely. The government in the Sooner State has only recently acknowledged the scope of the oil and gas industry’s role in the problem.
Reveal’s Michael Corey and Joe Wertz of StateImpact Oklahoma hop in a car and drive toward the epicenter of two earthquakes that had just struck near the town of Guthrie, Oklahoma, to see the after-effects for themselves and talk to the people who live in the area. Are residents troubled by or numb to the earthquakes?
In this story, the reporters travel throughout the state speaking to experts, helping us gain a better picture of Oklahoma’s man-made earthquakes.
Tracking oil trains
Washington is one of the biggest oil refining states in the country, with a million and a half barrels heading its way each week by rail. And while America’s energy boom means cheaper oil, shipping massive amounts of crude can lead to another kind of boom: So far this year, five oil trains have derailed and caught fire.
BNSF Railway, one of the largest freight railroad networks in North America, has lobbied the state Legislature to kill any bills that would encourage or require increased transparency. The company says it’s an issue of national security and “proprietary business information.” But some residents and public officials want more information.
KUOW reporter Ashley Ahearn of the public radio collaboration EarthFix meets a citizen who’s leading the fight for transparency on the part of railroads. Last year, Dean Smith gathered volunteers in his community and founded the Snohomish County Train Watch, a group that counts trains – around the clock. Watchers take shifts and note what the trains are carrying and what time they passed through.
In this story, Ahearn joins Smith on a train-spotting shift to see how it works.
- Read the full story.
Host: Al Letson
Executive Producer: Kevin Sullivan
Executive Editor: Susanne Reber
Editorial Director: Robert Salladay
Managing Director: Christa Scharfenberg
Lead Sound Designer and Engineer: Jim Briggs
Producers: Julia B. Chan, Delaney Hall, Michael Montgomery, Neena Satija, Laura Starecheski, Ike Sriskandarajah, Amy Walters and Jillian Weinberger
Reporters: Jennifer Gollan and Michael Corey, Reveal; Joe Wertz, StateImpact Oklahoma; Ashley Ahearn, KUOW/Earthfix; Scott Tong, Marketplace
Show Editor: Taki Telonidis
Editors: Fernando Diaz, Deb George and Jennifer LaFleur, Reveal
Senior Management for CIR: Joaquin Alvarado and Robert J. Rosenthal
Senior Management for PRX: John Barth, Kerri Hoffman and Jake Shapiro
The music for this episode is provided by Ghostly International, Camerado/Lightning and Jeff Ertz.
The Oklahoma earthquake data sonification was conceptualized and created by Reveal reporter and senior news applications developer Michael Corey, producer Ike Sriskandarajah and lead sound designer and engineer Jim Briggs.
- Camerado/Lightning, “All Our Bass Are Belong to Chops” (Cutoff Man Records)
- Mark McGuire, “The Path Lined With Colorful Stones” from “A Young Person’s Guide” (Editions Mego)
- 10:32, “Blue Little” from “Vanitas EP” (Ghostly International)
- Camerado/Lightning, “Glow in the Fields” (Cutoff Man Records)
- 10:32, “Harharmony” from “Vanitas EP” (Ghostly International)
- Christopher Willits, “New Life” from “Tiger Flower Circle Sun” (Ghostly International)
- Aeroc, “Lude” from “R+B=?” (Ghostly International)
- Alva Noto, “Xerrox Monophaser 1” from “Xerrox Vol. 2” (Raster-Noton)
- Camerado/Lightning, “Grandfather's Grapes” (Cutoff Man Records)
- Jim Briggs and Michael Corey, “OK, Earthquakes (variation 5)”
- Jim Briggs and Michael Corey, “OK, Earthquakes (variation 6)”
- Jim Briggs and Michael Corey, “OK, Earthquakes (variation 2)”
- Daniel Lanois, “Desert Rose” from “Belladonna” (Anti-)
- Lusine, “Drip (Apparat Remix)” from “Podgelism” (Ghostly International)
- Jeff Ertz, “Trailer”
- Christopher Willits, “NOW” from “OPENING” (Ghostly International)
Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.
Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
Al: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.
Speaker 1: Our country is facing serious energy problems.
Al: In the ‘70s, the energy crisis brought America to its knees. We had to come up with a solution, so visionaries in the oil industry drove their teams hard.
Dan: He says, “If you all, if you team don’t think you’re up to this challenge, let me know. I’ll find people who are.” I had a wife and 4 kids. I said, “We can do it, boss.”
Al: It worked. America is now in the midst of an energy boom, but at what cost?
Speaker 2: Oklahoma City 911. What’s your emergency?
Speaker 3: I thought I felt an earthquake.
Speaker 2: Yes, sir. We had one.
Speaker 4: Did we just have an earthquake?
Speaker 5: Yes, we did, sir.
Speaker 6: Yes ma’am we had an earthquake. Are you okay?
Al: Oklahoma now has more seismic activity than California, in part because of oil drilling.
Speaker 7: Is there going to be more?
Speaker 8: We have no idea.
Al: The true cost of the power struggle. That’s coming up on Reveal. From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson and today we’re going to talk about an American dream, a dream that not so long ago seemed impossible but which is coming true as we speak and bringing with it some unintended consequences. Let’s go back in time for a moment.
Speaker 9: It was announced today that gasless Sunday will go into effect as of next month.
Al: It’s 1973. OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, has announced an oil embargo. In the US, gas prices have shot way, way up. There are shortages at gas stations across the country. Cars are lining up sometimes around the block waiting to fill their tanks.
Speaker 10: The lines were long, about an hour and a half long. I see some -
Al: America had become hooked on cheap gas from Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia, and those countries decided to turn the situation to their political advantage. America was in a panic and longed for energy independence, a fantasy that could set straight the economy and restore our way of life. Four decades later and that fantasy has become reality.
Speaker 11: The United States is moving towards becoming an energy exporter.
Al: Today, the US is producing so much energy that we surpass the Saudis and are now the world’s leader in energy production, but along with the good news comes a new set of challenges. The bonanza in oil and gas production is raising concerns about the environment, worker safety, even earthquakes. That’s what we’re going to explore this hour.
We start in North Dakota where hydraulic fracturing has opened up huge new reservoirs of oil and gas. The work is dangerous. It moves fast and it’s now one of the deadliest places in the country for workers. We’ve been investigating this issue and found that since 2006 at least 68 people have died in the Bakken oil fields, North Dakota, Montana and Canada. That means someone dies about every 7 weeks on average. This is the first comprehensive accounting of oil boom deaths using Canadian and US data. Jennifer Gollan, a reporter here at Reveal, has been leading our investigation. Hi, Jennifer.
Jennifer: Hi, Al.
Al: You really dug in to one accident to understand why these workers are dying and how companies are sidestepping responsibility for it. Tell us about it.
Jennifer: Well, the accident happened back in 2011. It was actually the deadliest accident in the Bakken since the start of the boom. To explained what happened, let me introduce you to Jebadiah Jessie Stanfill. He often goes by Jessie.
Jessie: Taking off my work gloves and putting on the gloves that I use when I'm going to deal with food.
Jennifer: Jessie used to work in North Dakota, but now he lives in Alabama. He’s a guy in his 30s. He has a black goatee and he often wears a trucker’s cab. The only sign that there is something a little bit different about him are these gloves that he wears.
Jessie: Three pairs that I typically have around me, my work pair, my everyday which are just a pair of those but clean, and then my rubber gloves.
Jennifer: We met Jessie at his grandmother’s house and he was making lunch with these gloves on. He wears them almost all the time when he’s around the house, when he’s playing with his kids. He wears them because he says that looking at his hands triggers one of his worst memories.
Jessie: How can a simple thing like looking at your hands or washing your hands sends you completely enveloped back to that day, like the scenery changes as if I'm there, not right here making chicken and dumplings? It rules my life.
Al: What happened to him?
Jennifer: Well, 4 years ago, Jessie went to work in the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota. He had a second son on the way. Like a lot of young men, he was drawn there for the adventure and the money. One day, Jessie is near the top of this oil rig and suddenly hears this huge boom from less than a mile away.
Jessie: I saw the 350-foot inferno and a large cloud of black smoke.
Jennifer: He scrambles to the bottom of the rig and he sees that it’s the neighboring rig that’s on fire. He grabs a fire extinguisher and a first aid kit and he jumps in his truck and races over with 2 co-workers.
Al: What does he see when he actually gets to the rig?
Jennifer: The scene is … I mean he gets there and it’s almost post-apocalyptic. There’s smoke and flames everywhere and there are these workers totally dazed and charred black.
Jessie: I’ve seen a man walking in the field and he was burnt and all he had on was his underwear holding it up. He just said, “They’re over there.”
Jennifer: Jessie heads in that direction. He learns that one guy has died in the explosion and he finds 2 other men very badly burned. He helps lift one of them up and when he does, the man’s burnt skin comes off in his hands.
Jessie: I looked down at my hands and I tried to get it off of me by rubbing it on my chest.
Jennifer: That’s why Jessie wears the gloves, that memory of the man’s skin coming off in his palms. He just can’t shake it.
Jessie: The only thing I have found is wearing these stupid gloves, these gloves that people constantly ask me why I'm wearing them.
Jennifer: I asked him, “What do you tell them?” He said this thing that I’ll never forget.
Jessie: Watch a man burn and see what you do.
Al: Well, it sounds like a lot of people were hurt that day.
Jennifer: You’re right. Two men were killed and one was so badly burned, he had to have his lower legs amputated. He ended up killing himself 2 years later. Only one man survived.
Al: Who was responsible for it? I mean who owns this site?
Jennifer: A company called Oasis Petroleum North America owns the site. They’re one of the biggest producers in the Bakken. The question of responsibility, it’s really more complicated.
Al: How is it more complicated? I mean if they own the site, that feels pretty cut and dry. They should be responsible, right?
Jennifer: You would think so, but energy producers have figured out ways to avoid responsibility when workers are injured or killed. That’s one of the reasons, in fact, why we went to North Dakota, is to sort out how.
Speaker 12: When news breaks we are on it, your news and information source for Williston and the Bakken, the news KEYZ-AM 660.
Jennifer: On one of the days I was there, a guy named Dennis Schmitz took me on a tour of the Bakken oil patch. He’s worked in the oil fields for the last 15 years and now he had this group called the MonDaks Safety Network that promotes workplace safety in the Bakken.
Dennis: This is the booming metropolis of Watford City, North Dakota. This really was the center of the boom.
Jennifer: There are a couple of obvious reasons for the dangers in the Bakken. Oil and gas can be explosive. There’s heavy machinery everywhere. On top of that, safety experts like Dennis Schmitz say that a lot of companies care about speed over safety.
Dennis: When you look at the culture over the last 5 or 6 years, the culture has really been more based on production and getting things done and doing things the right way or safe way. It’s all about making money.
Jennifer: Even though the work is dangerous, federal oversight is spotty. For starters, there is no federal safety standard that applies specifically to oil and gas. Instead, regulators rely on standards written by the industry itself by groups like the American Petroleum Institute. It’s a unique situation that other dangerous industries like construction or mining don’t enjoy. They have to follow strict federal safety rules that cover specific hazards. To make things even more complicated, there’s the business side. You have the major energy companies that typically own or operate the wells, but they usually rely on contractors to do the actual work on their sites. That means when something goes wrong, it’s hard for regulators to find the top company. These are the big corporations we’re talking about because they often don’t have direct employees on the sites.
Justin: We need to start looking at each piece of the puzzle and who’s responsible for what, and who owns what?
Jennifer: Justin Williams is this tall guy. He wears ostrich leather boots, and for decades, he was a corporate attorney for some of the biggest oil companies in the world. Then something happened.
Justin: The beginning of 2008, I developed pancreatic cancer and my life changed. I wanted a little bit more purpose in my life than representing corporate America.
Jennifer: He essentially switched sides. Now, he represents injured oil workers and their families, including 2 of the men hurt or killed in the Oasis explosion. The way that Justin sees it, energy companies are ducking responsibility when mistakes happen and they’re doing it in a couple of different ways: The contracts which we’ll get to in a little bit and one guy, the company man.
Justin: He is the eyes and ears of the company on location.
Jennifer: You might assume the company man is an employee of the company, and if that decades ago, that’s how it used to be. Then companies came up with a new idea.
Justin: We don’t have to keep these people on our payroll when we’re not drilling a well or working over a well. We’ll hire consultants.
Jennifer: Now, most company men are independent contractors like a lot of the workers on these sites, and that is very key because it allows the company to distance itself when something goes wrong. Let’s look at how that played out in the Oasis accident.
Speaker 13: What’s your first name?
Speaker 13: Lauren.
Jennifer: On the day of the accident in 2011, the company man for Oasis was a guy named Loren Baltrusch. Baltrusch declined to speak with us, but you’re hearing him here in this video. It was shot by the McKenzie County Sheriff’s department just after the explosion.
Speaker 13: Just give me a brief overview the day and tell me what happened if you would to the best of your ability-
Jennifer: That day, Loren was overseeing a crew from Carlson Well Service, a small oil service company. Carlson declined to talk with us, but the company was hired by Oasis to get the well to produce more.
Loren: … the water up some morning and we got the rig out there.
Jennifer: Before the Carlson crew could get started, Oasis had to make sure that the well was safe to work on and records show they injected thousands of gallons of salt water into the well to eliminate pressure from the gas. When the Carlson guy started working on it, it blew.
Loren: I turned her on and then guys were burning all over the place. They’re running around trying to get themselves out so I went and started putting out fires on them and stuff, a horrible ordeal.
Jennifer: Oasis said in a statement that the company man arranged and oversaw the saltwater injections, and that the well was safe to work on when the Carlson men started. Oasis says the explosion was caused by a sudden unexpected flow of gas, but Attorney Justin Williams says one of the men working that day warned Loren, the company man, that the well was unsafe.
Justin: He said, “I told Loren that it needed to be closed down and we needed to get away from it. I told him 3 times.”
Jennifer: In a claim against Oasis, Justin argued the company had acted negligently. He said that the company man was at fault for the explosion and he was operating under direct orders from Oasis itself. There’s an exchange in the sheriff’s video that highlights the close connection between the company and the company man. Towards the end, someone comes up and interrupts the interview. He says to Loren, “The guys in Houston are calling.” Oasis’ headquarters are in Houston.
Speaker 14: Hey Loren that’s the guys in Houston, they’re very concerned about you. Do you need to get checked out?
Speaker14: Yeah. We haven’t even had them into … You got smoke accumulation. You got … Of what you’ve been through.
Speaker 13: We’re pretty much just about done here, so.
Speaker 14: I know you’re not in the right frame here.
Jennifer: After the accident, federal regulators didn’t find Oasis. Instead, they find Carlson, the subcontractor, in part for not having the right safety equipment that day but here’s the thing. That safety equipment, it would not have prevented the accident in the first place. When it came to paying money to the victims and their families, Oasis got Carlson’s insurance company to cover some of the cost and that’s by design.
What I have here is the contract that Carlson signed with Oasis. It includes certain protections including what’s called an indemnity clause. Almost every contract involving major energy producers in North Dakota has one of these, and it basically says if something goes wrong, the company can offload its liability.
Often, workers and their families aren’t even aware of all these legalese like the parents of Brendan Wegner. He was one of the men killed in the Oasis explosion in 2011.
Kevin: I practice climbing.
Jennifer: I went to Wisconsin to meet them and Brendan’s dad showed me around his backyard where there’s this huge wooden pole.
Kevin: We put a rope up in the tree and we used a tractor to pull it up there and we set it all by hand and …
Jennifer: It stretches up above the roof of the house. Kevin Wegner is an electrical lineman and he always thought Brendan would go into the family trade. He set up this pole for him to practice. How much time did you guys spend talking about safety?
Kevin: I taught him when you come up to the pole, you thump it. If you’re in question, you dig down. You drive your screwdriver into it make sure it’s not rotted. It’s just something you just don’t run up and do. You got to put some thought into it.
Jennifer: Do you think if he had stayed behind in Wisconsin he would have followed in your footsteps and continued as an electrical lineman?
Kevin: I think so, yeah. Yeah. Whether that or farming, he would have been happy either way. Yep.
Jennifer: Do you think about that much?
Kevin: Oh, I do. I guess I wish I wouldn’t have pushed him out to North Dakota and just kept him close to home.
Jennifer: Brendan’s experience on this pole actually helped him get the job at North Dakota. He was comfortable around heights and it’s one reason he was hired. His first down a rig, he died.
Al: Jennifer Gollan, thank you for that story. Before you go, did you get a chance to talk to Oasis Petroleum? What does the company have to say?
Jennifer: Well, the company declined to make any officials available for an interview. Instead, they gave me this written statement that said, “Any suggestion that the company or its company man knowingly put workers in danger is patently false, and that the company really values worker safety.”
Al: Did you visit the site where the accident happened?
Jennifer: I did.
Al: What was that like? What does it look like now?
Jennifer: When we got there, it was this wind swept bluff and the wreckage from the accident that day had been cleared away, but we did see this new rig that had started drilling shortly before we got there. The site was overseen by an Oasis company man named Bruce Jorgenson. His connection to the accident that day was uncanny. It turns out that when the explosion happened, he was working on the same nearby site as Jessie Stanfill, that guy with the gloves.
Al: What did he have to say?
Jennifer: I think he was rattled when he realized he was back on the same site where these guys had died.
Bruce: I'm like, “Ooh, this is where the accident was.” I haven’t talked to any of the rig hands about it yet, but I didn’t want them freaked out by that anyway. I wanted their mind on what we were doing.
Jennifer: Bruce has this interesting perspective. He’s worked in the oil fields for years and he’s worked his way from the bottom up to the top. He says the safety culture in the oil fields has gotten better, but that some companies preach safety and don’t follow through. Back when he was a rig hand he faced that.
Bruce: I had to do it when I was a tool pusher. I had to tell the company man, “Whoa. We’re working. We’re getting it done. We’re not going to get it done any faster with you standing here screaming at us. Don’t make it get worse. Let us do our job.”
Jennifer: I got the sense that Bruce has been permanently shaped by the lessons he’s learned in the oil fields. On the Oasis site, he was reminded everyday of what’s at stake. Right at the edge of the property, stuck in the red clay, there was this simple wood cross. It’s a memorial for Brendan Wegner.
Al: That’s Reveal’s Jennifer Gollan. The story was produced by Delaney Hall. Recently, North Dakota has seen a slowdown in oil production. If oil prices collapsing over the last year, some regulators are worried energy companies are cutting safety corners even more. Thirteen workers have died since the beginning of last year alone. To read more of Jennifer’s investigation and see images from North Dakota, visit revealnews.org. Next, the modern day father of fracking who saw the technology as a way to save the American economy. You’re listening to Reveal.
I'm Al Letson and you are listening to Reveal. Today’s episode is about the energy boom that’s underway in the US. We’ve been talking about the use of hydraulic fracturing or fracking to get natural gas and oil out of the ground. If fracking has a rock star, it’s this man.
George: We knew the gas was there. We didn’t know how to get it free.
Al: That’s George Mitchell and most people in the energy business call him the Father of Fracking. Mitchell passed away in 2013 at the age of 94, but Scott Tong, sustainability correspondent for marketplace, did a rare interview with Mitchell a few months before his death.
Scott: Sir George Mitchell is a fascinating story, the son of Greek immigrants. Early on, he worked for Amoco, one of the big companies, and then he started his own company with his brother. This is a branch of the industry called the independence. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, the major started focusing on oil. They walked away from the natural gas space and that became the space for independent oil men.
Al: Guys like George Mitchell. As it turns out, back in the early ‘80s, Mitchell had a problem. He made promises to his clients that he knew he couldn’t keep.
Scott: Well, in the early ‘80s, Mitchell pulled these guys into a room and said, “We have a situation here. We have a contract to sell natural gas for a long period of time, and right now we only have 10 years of it. You got 10 years to find a new technology to find me some more natural gas.”
Al: Dan Steward was one of the geologists who worked for Mitchell and he remembers that time well.
Dan: He says, “If you all, if you team don’t think you’re up to this challenge, let me know. I’ll find people who are.” I had a wife and 4 kids. I said, “We can do it boss.”
Al: Mitchell was convinced that he could extract natural gas from shale, a type of sedimentary rock. He bet on an existing technology that engineers have been struggling to perfect for years: Fracking.
Scott: They figured it out with a whole lot of trial and error. What they needed to do was to make these cracks underground by sending a fluid down at great pressure to break the rock. The question was, “What fluid were they going to use?” They tried a whole bunch of gels and thickening agents to try to create cracks in the rock and to keep them open.
Al: That wasn’t working very well. Kent Bowker was one of the petroleum geologists who worked on the project. Now, George Mitchell was a famous tightwad which was a part of the challenge.
Kent: The idea was we need to try something that will save us some money. Let’s try this water frack or slick water frack. When he did that, it cost about half as much, but what we found out was the conventional wisdom was wrong. We want low viscosity fluid, just water.
Al: Once the engineers had fracking technology working for them, their boss placed another unlikely bet. Mitchell told his geologists to map something called the Barnett Shale, a geological formation below Fort Worth, Texas, one that other energy companies had written off.
Kent: What we showed was there is almost 4 times more gas in this rock than we originally thought. I can remember vividly going over exactly what this means and Mr. Mitchell got this big smile on his face. We are at a big conference table. He leans forward and he looks at all of us, “This is huge. This is the biggest thing that’s ever happened to this company. It’s also the biggest secret. No one can talk about this.”
Al: Using fracking to unleash natural gas in the Barnett Shale was a gusher of an idea. It made Mitchell a billionaire and changed the landscape of energy production in America. Remember, Mitchell started his work back in the ‘70s and ‘80s when the US was running out of oil and natural gas and the economy was a mess. This was a big deal. Dan Steward was one of the geologists who worked for Mitchell and these guys were trying to be the saviors of the American economy. They saw fracking in almost religious terms.
Dan: It is easy for me to say this is a gift from God. George Mitchell was a god, but George Mitchell started acting right when it needed to happen. The Barnett gas is important, but it is not near as important as the technology and the understanding it created.
Al: The American energy landscape has changed a lot in just 10 years, in part because of George Mitchell’s vision. Thanks to Reveal producer Jillian Weinberger, Scott Tong, and Marketplace for providing us with tape for this story.
Now, we’re going to head to Oklahoma. Long before fracking came along, the state was known for its oil and gas reserves. Oklahoma continues to be one of the epicenters of America’s energy boom. It’s also the epicenter for something else: Earthquakes.
Speaker 15: I just felt a bomb or something go off.
Speaker 16: It was an earthquake.
Speaker 15: It was?
Speaker 16: Mm-hmm.
Speaker 17: Oklahoma City 911.
Speaker 18: Yes, I -
Speaker 17: Are you calling about the earthquake, Ma’am?
Speaker 18: Is that what happened?
Speaker 17: That’s what it was.
Speaker 19: I was just sitting watching a ball game when my butt started moving.
Al: Most of the time though, it’s not that funny. Brick buildings have crumbled, roads have buckled and people have gotten hurt. How do you go from almost no earthquakes to being one of the most seismically active places in America? That’s what Reveal’s Michael Corey wanted to find out.
Michael: Hi, Al. Yeah. I’ve covered earthquake safety in California in the past, but that makes sense. This place is known for earthquakes. Then I found out that Oklahoma actually is now more seismically active than California, kind of like a lot more. I wanted to know what was going on. Al, check this out.
Al: What was that?
Michael: This is the earthquakes in Oklahoma and we basically ran Oklahoma’s earthquake data through a synthesizer to give you a sense of what’s going on there. This is about 2005, 2006. Each plink there is one earthquake.
Al: Okay. That is kind of speeding up now.
Michael: Yeah, yeah. This is about 2009 and you’re hearing that something is definitely changing. During the same time, oil and gas prices were way up and Oklahoma was starting a big increase in oil production.
Al: Wow that is a big one.
Michael: Yeah, yeah. That was the big earthquake in Prague, Oklahoma in 2011. We’ll come back to that one.
Al: Okay. It sounds like pinball like a sort of pinball machine. Oh, wow, that’s a lot.
Michael: Yeah. This is like today.
Speaker 7: Yeah, I'm fine. Is there going to be more?
Speaker 8: We have no idea.
Al: Who does know and what’s being done about it?
Michael: Yeah. That’s exactly what I wanted to find out. I went to Oklahoma and teamed up with a reporter who has been covering this story in depth, Joe Wertz.
Joe: Joe Wertz here. I'm a reporter for StateImpact Oklahoma which is a statewide reporting outfit. In the last few years, earthquakes have become a big story in Oklahoma. Sometimes they wake me up in the middle of the night I get a bunch of alerts and beeps, and emails. I have to get up and check it out. Make sure nothing was damaged and make sure no one was hurt.
Michael: We met up in Oklahoma City and we didn’t have to wait long for an earthquake to hit. One night, there was a 3.8 and a 3.9 magnitude earthquake in a town called Guthrie, about 20 miles away. We headed to the epicenter to check it out. Guthrie has had a lot of earthquakes. This is kind of ground zero or one of the ground zeroes in the state in recent years.
Joe: Pulling into downtown Guthrie is like entering the set of Dead Wood. It’s an old timey Western town. The main street is lined with a hundred-year-old brick buildings. Those are some of the most vulnerable structures to earthquakes. Mike and I ducked into a coffee shop down the street. Barista Kiera Hancock has been here since dawn.
Kiera: I come here at 6 so I did have to get up at like 5. I was getting ready and it was like really dark in the house, and then that’s when the huge … I don’t know how big it was, but it felt really big. It may have just been because I was the only one awake, but it was really scary.
Joe: Our next stop was the Ace Hardware store where Brian Johnson was helping his customers.
Brian: Typically, it’s mortar repair, concrete between the bricks when it cracks. I had personally done that myself.
Michael: How often do you think you feel an earthquake?
Brian: Honestly, about every other day.
Brian: There’s typically something. There were 2 or 3 yesterday. Today, it was cool. Five years ago when we had one, the first one I’ve ever felt. Now, it’s just something that’s not going to stop. All the fracking going on and everything else. They’re not going to quit.
Joe: He might be right. The quakes are showing no signs of quitting. In fact, they have increased along with Oklahoma’s energy exploration. In 2002, the state averaged about 91 active rigs looking for oil and gas. In recent years, that number has doubled.
Michael: Some of you are probably wondering. What is the connection between drilling for oil and earthquakes? It’s actually not fracking here that’s the biggest culprit. It’s something called an injection oil. If only I had an instructional video with a funky baseline to help explain …
Speaker 20: How do class 2 injection operations work?
Michael: Thanks, California Department of Oil and Gas. Even in traditional drilling, there’s a lot of toxic water mixed up with the oil. After it’s separated, all the water has got to go somewhere, but where?
Speaker 20: For disposal projects, the saltwater is trucked or pipes into holding tanks and injected into a nearby well.
Michael: Like the one we visited outside of Guthrie. Several 15-foot tall tanks sit in the middle of a farm and they almost look like grain silos. There’s about 3200 in similar wells around the state.
Joe: Out here, we’ve got a lot of these disposal wells and that’s sort of what scientists are looking at, is how injecting millions of gallons of waste water into the earth … Where does it go?
Michael: Yeah. It’s a mile down. No one has been down there. Exactly what’s going on down there and how to control it is currently one of the hottest topics for earth scientists like Mark Petersen with the US Geological Survey. Here, he is speaking to the Seismological Society of America.
Mark: For the first time in this report, we have identified 17 areas in the central and eastern United States with increased rates of induced seismicity that are thought to be stimulated by fluid injection.
Michael: Induced seismicity means man-made earthquakes. Scientists say there could be a lot of reason why Oklahoma is experiencing so many earthquakes now. It could be the increased activity we mentioned earlier or the cumulative effect of decades of injecting waste water into the ground. What we do know is …
Mark: These earthquakes are occurring at a higher rate than ever before and pose a much greater risk and threat to people living nearby.
Joe: Around here, everyone knows the earthquakes are continuing. Scientists say they could get worse. After years of hedging, Oklahoma officials now publicly agree with scientists on the cause. Just this spring, our governor, Mary Fallin, for the first time, acknowledged the role oil and gas production has in the earthquakes. Despite this and the fact that a dozen peer reviewed research papers point to a clear link, the oil industry is downplaying the connection.
Chad: For every seismologist or geophysicist that comes out and says, “It’s definitively yes,” we’ve got buildings full of really smart people who say that’s not the case.
Joe: Chad Warmington is president of the Oklahoma Oil and Gas Association. We requested interviews with individual oil companies, but they all referred us to Chad. He’s their industry spokesperson.
Chad: There’s a lot of things we don’t know about what is causing the increased seismic activity in the state. What we really want to focus on is what can we do from a scientific standpoint to minimize the risk of that.
Joe: The oil industry is going to have to make its case in court. Earthquake victims brought 2 high profile lawsuits against disposal well operators after the state’s biggest quake, that one right there, it happened in Prague back in 2011 and it changed everything.
Speaker 21: Now, just 30 miles of the southwest of Prague, the St. Gregory’s University received extensive damage. Three towers of Benedictine Hall crumbled to the ground. Glass windows are shattered. The premises is now blocked off fearing additional towers could fall.
Joe: Many Oklahomans, myself included, heard the noise or felt the shaking. Even people in Milwaukee that’s 800 miles away felt it. Two people were injured, more than a dozen homes were destroyed, and many more were damaged. I visited St. Gregory’s, that school from the news story. It’s a small Catholic university and monastery that’s still reeling from the financial blow of its towers collapsing and crumbling to the ground. They were an icon of the university. The abbot there, Lawrence Stasyszen says it could have been worse.
Lawrence: Yes. Thanks be to God. No one was injured either in the collapse material there or elsewhere on campus. Had anyone been walking along the building when this happened, there could easily have been fatalities.
Joe: The earthquake in Prague was a magnitude 5.7. That’s the largest recorded in Oklahoma ever. Seismologists say it’s possible that parts of the state could see a 6 or an even bigger earthquake. One of those places is Stillwater. That’s the home of Oklahoma State University.
Michael: Oklahoma State has 25,000 students and a lot of brick buildings. We decided to go see how prepared the university is for a major earthquake.
Ron: My name is Ron Hill. I'm the manager for Oklahoma State University Emergency Management.
Michael: Ron is in the emergency command center at OSU.
Ron: Well, we like to think that this is a state-of-the-art emergency operations center. We think it’s one of the better ones for higher ed.
Michael: Ron is responsible for the lives of everyone on campus here, and he also advises a lot of the smaller colleges in the area on emergency planning. He’s evaluated the buildings on campus for how they hold up in a tornado. When it comes to evaluating buildings for earthquakes …
Ron: No. Not yet but I'm sure that will be coming shortly. Again, this is all new to us in Oklahoma.
Michael: How much potential damage are we even talking about here? We took that question to OSU geology professor, Todd Halihan.
Todd: If you look at some of the risks from these types of buildings, this is the brick façade coming off. When you walk between 2 buildings with a narrow walkway in between, you realize that’s a pretty hazardous spot to be.
Michael: Halihan keeps track of scientific papers on the Oklahoma situation, one of which says that a big one could happen here in Stillwater.
Todd: If it were to happen directly under one of the towns here, it would be pretty devastating.
Michael: When you say devastating, you mean people are going to die?
Todd: if we had that kind of large event in the wrong location, yes people will die.
Michael: Oklahoma’s buildings, roads and bridges weren’t built with earthquakes in mind. Emergency authorities here put earthquakes low on their disaster planning priority list. According to the most recent state disaster plan, quakes ranked number 13. That’s after tornadoes and lightning, and something called expansive soils, whatever in the world that is. That’s because in Oklahoma, a truly devastating earthquake hasn’t happened yet. San Francisco learned its lesson from the big one in 1906 and the city has been grappling with how to build for the next big one ever since. We talked to David Bonowitz, a structural engineer and a key figure in advising San Francisco on seismic design. He’s taken a particular interest in Oklahoma and last year, he spoke at a conference of structural engineers at Oklahoma State.
David: My question which I went to them with was, “Can the thing we do in California … Can they apply here?”
Michael: For example, David led San Francisco’s effort to retrofit some of their oldest most vulnerable brick buildings.
David: In San Francisco, we’re being very proactive. We are recognizing that we’re going to have to rebuild the city after the big earthquake. Let’s do it now. What you may be seeing in Oklahoma now is really what’s behind everyone’s objections. It’s not what has to be done, but who is going to pay for it.
Joe: Who has to pay and how much it will cost is a question that involves politics. In a significant move, the state’s oil and gas regulators recently ordered about 90 companies to prove their wells weren’t pumping waste fluid into granite rock. That’s a known risk factor for triggering earthquakes. For wells that are too deep, companies must either shut down or modify their operation. That’s what you’re hearing right now. I'm at a disposal well named George in Grant County. That’s near the Oklahoma-Kansas border. See, this well is too deep. Workers are pouring cement down the hall and that’s going to lift the bottom of the well up about 200 feet.
Michael: While regulators have put some restrictions in place, lawmakers are going tin the opposite direction. They recently even passed a ban, municipal bans, of disposal wells. That means if a city, a town or a county wants to ban a well they think is causing problems, they can’t do it.
Cory: We don’t do thing anti oil and gas.
Joe: Cory Williams, a democrat from Stillwater, is an outspoken critic of the state legislature’s cozy relationship with the industry. He says to understand the amount of control the energy industry has in Oklahoma, you just have to look out of its Capitol office window.
Cory: You can see the oil derrick gets out there. Literally, used to look north out of this window and there were hundreds upon hundreds of oil wells out there.
Joe: The Oklahoma Capitol building is the only state house in the country built on an active oil field. Today, there are still a few of those derricks towering outside.
Michael: The overwhelming number of earthquakes in the state is making it harder for politicians to do nothing. Williams has found an occasional ally in Jason Murphy, a Republican from Guthrie.
Jason: As soon as an earthquake event of significant size occurs, part of the aftershock experience for me will be fielding very irate calls and emails.
Joe: Last year, Murphy and Williams held a hearing on earthquakes and disposer wells. No new legislation came of it, but Murphy welcomes the new restrictions from state regulators. He thinks they’re good and they’re necessary. He says they not only protect his constituents, but they also protect the state’s most important industry.
Jason: The biggest start to the energy sector would be an induced seismicity event that was damaging in terms of life, livelihood, and property. If that does happen, it’s going to be something that will change over the energy sector for the rest of our lifetime.
Al: Thanks to StateImpact Oklahoma’s Joe Wertz and Reveal’s Michael Corey, and producer, Ike Sriskandarajah, for bringing us that story. Be sure to go to our website, revealnews.org to see an interactive map that shows how the number of earthquakes has grown over the years in Oklahoma. Up next, the story of a group of trainspotters who are tracking oil trades when we come back. This is Reveal.
From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. That sound interrupts our meetings all the time here in our offices in Emeryville, California. We’re right near the foot of the Bay bridge and there are train tracks that run right next to our building. If you think that’s bad, listen to this. Now, I'm standing outside right next to the train tracks. While the noise is distracting, some people are much more concerned about what’s being carried by the trains. The long lines of black, hill shaped cars carry all sorts of stuff: Ethanol, various chemicals, and now, there’s a proposal to transport oil from North Dakota to a refinery in Central California right down this railroad.
These days, there’s a lot more of this type of crude rolling through the country than just a few years ago, 40 times more than in 2008. A lot of locals aren’t crazy about the idea. Here’s why. This type of oil is stuffed at the center of America’s energy boom contains high concentrations of toxic and volatile gases. It’s the most dangerous crude on the rails. Just this year, 5 oil trains have derailed and caught fire. Emergency responders say they need more information from railroads and oil companies so they can be ready for the worst, but they’re having to fight for that information. Ashley Ahearn from member station KUOW in Seattle and the public media collaborative, EarthFix, has a story about crusaders who aren’t taking no for an answer.
Ashley: It’s not every Tuesday night that you get to spend sitting in a car with a complete stranger counting trains, but that’s what I'm doing with Dean Smith.
Dean: I like to park right here when I'm watching trains because I can see the bridge up here and I can see the tracks down below.
Ashley: About a year ago, Dean began noticing those mile-long oil trains coming through town and it frightened him. Washington is one of the biggest oil refining states in the country, with a million and a half barrels arriving here each week.
Dean: I was sitting here once and an oil train came through, and I did walk up right next to it. I mean this sense of power of hundreds of those huge cars each carrying 30,000 gallons of crude oil whistling by me and I was scared.
Ashley: Dean tells me he’s worried that one of those trains could catch fire or explode in his community, just like what happened 2 years ago in rural Quebec. Forty-seven people were killed and most of a small town was burnt to the ground. When Dean tried to learn more about the trains, what routes they were taking, how many of them there were, what kind of oil they were carrying, local officials told him they didn’t have that information. Dean decided to find out himself. He organized 30 volunteers to take shifts counting trains around the clock for a week straight. That’s what we’re doing tonight.
Dean: A passenger train and it’s northbound, and that’s all I need.
Ashley: All of the volunteers upload their train sightings into a website Dean made. There are small placards on the train cars with numbers on them. It’s a code for what the train is carrying.
Dean: I hit “Send.” I sent my data to the database. Now, it’s in. It’s recorded. That’s what I'm here for: Data.
Ashley: Dean is retired now, but he was a college student back in the days of Sputnik and the Cold War. He double majored in math and physics which led to an interesting career with the National Security Agency.
Dean: The work that I was doing there was all top secret. It involved going somewhere in the world and collecting some data and analyzing it about some Soviet activities. Enough said. I mean this counting trains is pretty pedestrian. You know, it’s simple and it’s profound in a way. If you can show relationships that can’t be denied, then you can make some progress. I learned that in NSA.
Ashley: I contacted the NSA to verify that Dean worked there. A spokesperson told me the NSA doesn’t confirm what it calls agency affiliation. Dean and I listened to the rain on the roof of the car and wait for an oil train. No sign of one yet, but Dean is a patient and persistent man. Last year, when he started the train watch, Dean was able to gather more information about oil train traffic in 1 week than the railroads had given the state in the 3 years oil trains have been coming here. That information is really important. Dave Byers is the head of oil spill response for the Washington State Department of Ecology.
Dave: It gives us an idea of what to prepare for, what the risk is, the routes that are taken.
Ashley: There have been some close calls already. One morning last July, I woke up and checked the news on my phone like I do every morning, and I saw that an oil train had derailed right here in Seattle at 1:50 AM. I jumped on my motorcycle and raced down to the scene. Here’s the story I filed for KUOW. I'm standing on the Magnolia Bridge looking down as men in yellow coats are trying to get a derailed oil train back on track here. It looks like there’s at least one train car that’s slightly off kilter on the track and they’re moving along the track with an orange or yellow tractor. Trying to put each one back on there.
Seattle was lucky that morning. The 3 train cars that derailed weren’t punctured and no oil was spilled, but Dave Byers says that the company, BNSF Railway, didn’t handle the situation properly. BNSF notified Dave Byers and his team almost an hour and a half after the derailment.
Dave: The dispatcher from the rail company told our responder that there had been a derailment and there were no hazardous materials involved and there was no potential for hazardous materials to be involved.
Ashley: Byers’ team wasn’t told there was volatile crude oil in that train until 5 hours after the derailment. It was the oil refinery that told them, not BNSF Railway.
Dave: We immediately sent responders down there to assess the situation. When we arrived, we didn’t find a BNSF representative on scene.
Ashley: Byers’ team did see workers welding on damaged oil cars. When asked, the workers said they didn’t know what was in the cars. The area wasn’t fenced off from the public and North Dakota crude can catch fire and explode at temperatures as low as 74 degrees Fahrenheit.
Dave: We became concerned because the people were wondering off the street and taking selfies of themselves next to railcars, and there was no preparing for the potential that one of those cars could actually start leaking.
Ashley: There were people welding on cars full of oil that has a flashpoint of 74 degrees?
Ashley: Earlier this year, state regulators recommended that BNSF Railway be fined up to $700,000 for failing to quickly report spills of hazardous materials. The company is appealing and a decision is expected next year. I contacted BNSF Railway about the Seattle derailment, spokeswoman Courtney Wallace emailed the response. She said, “BNSF had its hazardous materials team in place quickly to evaluate the situation, and that ‘this derailment did not cause a release, at any point, nor was there a threat of a release.’”
Communities along the railroad tracks are worried. This spring, several hundred people packed into the Anacortes City Hall to get information from oil companies and BNSF Railway. Anacortes is north of Seattle on the coast. There are 2 refineries here that receive oil by rail from North Dakota.
Speaker 28: I want to thank you guys for coming today. This is obviously a very important issue to our community and -
Ashley: Just that morning, a BNSF oil train had derailed and caught fire in North Dakota. No one in the audience was allowed to talk. They could just submit written questions. The oil refineries talked about the safety precautions they have at their facilities to prevent a spill. They talked about their commitment to getting newer oil train cars. Courtney Wallace, the spokeswoman with BNSF Railway was there. She talked about the company’s commitment to safety. She said that BNSF believes that every accident is preventable. I walked over to her after the event.
Ashley: Can I ask you a couple of questions?
Ashley: Can you tell me? How much information is the railroad sharing right now with first responders?
Courtney: We have always provided information to first responders, emergency managers, about historically what has moved through their towns. We’re always cognizant of what information is shared because we don’t want to see an incident happen that involves terrorism or anyone else who might have that kind of frame of mind.
Ashley: BNSF Railway has said that information about oil train movements is proprietary, and sharing it could put the company at a competitive disadvantage. It took a federal emergency order to force BNSF to share oil train traffic information with states. Washington state is going one step further. The legislature just passed a new law that requires more detailed information about oil train traffic. It forces the refineries to share that information, since the state doesn’t have the authority to get it from the railroads. They’re regulated federally.
Rep. Farrell: We’re going to learn, I think, how much we don’t know by having some of this information. We may find that there’s gaps and we need to do more.
Ashley: Jessyn Farrell is a state representative from Seattle and a Democrat. She was the lead author of the new legislation. I met up with her at a local park.
Rep. Farrell: We’re going to get the information. I don’t really care who gives it to us as long as it’s good information and it stands in court, because we need that information now.
Ashley: Farrell’s bill passed with bipartisan support after a long fight and heavy lobbying from the oil industry and the railroad. Dean Smith, the train watcher near Seattle, says that no matter how hard the railroad fights the new law, it’s pretty hard to hide an oil train. At this point in his shift, we’ve been waiting for 4 hours by the tracks north of Seattle. Still, no oil train. The street light reflects off Dean’s glasses in the dark and I can see the shadows gathered in the furrow of his brow, and then…
Dean: There’s something coming. Yeah.
Ashley: The orange BNSF engine emerges from the tunnel and then the black, hill shaped oil cars one after another. The minutes tick by car after car after car. I watched Dean Smith standing in the rain, shoulders hunched.
Dean: Sometimes I wonder why fight it, why not just move. That would be an easy thing to do. I think we have to fight and I would like to see citizens, groups acting like this all over the country. That’s a form of checks and balances that we can create. All it takes is a few people.
Al: Ashley Ahearn is a reporter for EarthFix, a public media collaboration that covers science, energy and the environment of the Pacific Northwest. She’s based at KUOW in Seattle. I have this memory from when I was a kid. I was about 7 or 8. With my dad and we’re waiting in a line of cars that seemed stretched for miles to get to the gas station. After what felt like an eternity, my father got out the car and walked to the pumps with gas cans because we ran out of fuel before we could get there. It was hot, miserable, and I could feel my dad’s frustration just flowing from him.
All these years, it stuck with me just as it’s stuck with this country, the desire to never be in that position again, at the whims of OPEC and others. We searched, pushed, and fracked. Now, we find ourselves closer to controlling the production of our own oil, but this journey isn’t free. It’s taking the toll on our water, on our air. It’s even making the earth tremble. Decades ago when gas was cheap and plentiful, America refused to look beyond the price of the pump. We didn’t worry too much about the human costs. The question is, “Will we do that again?”
If you want to talk to us about one of the stories, you can always reach us at Facebook or Twitter, or visit revealnews.org. Thanks for listening. Our show was edited this month by Taki Telonidis and is produced by Julia B. Chen, Delaney Hall, Michael Montgomery, Neena Satija, Ike Sriskandarajah, and Amy Walters. Thanks to editors Fernando Diaz and Jennifer LaFleur. Our lead sound designer and engineer is Mr. Jay Breezy, Jim Briggs. Our editorial directors, Robert Salladay, and our managing director isChrista Scharfenberg. Deb George is our senior editor. Susanne Reber is our executive director and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music today was provided by Camarado Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation and the Ford Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson and remember, there is always more to the story.