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ALERT -- Oklahoma Earthquakes aAre Now a National Security Threat...

ALERT -- Oklahoma Earthquakes aAre Now a National Security Threat...

by Matthew Philips, BLOOMBERG

In the months after Sept. 11, 2001, as U.S. security officials assessed the top targets for potential terrorist attacks, the small town of Cushing, Okla., received special attention. Even though it is home to fewer than 10,000 people, Cushing is the largest commercial oil storage hub in North America, second only in size to the U.S. government's Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The small town's giant tanks, some big enough to fit a Boeing 747 jetinside, were filled with around 10 million barrels of crude at the time, an obvious target for someone looking to disrupt America's economy and energy supply.

The FBI, state and local law enforcement and emergency officials, and the energy companies that own the tanks formed a group called the Safety Alliance of Cushing. Soon, guards took up posts along the perimeter of storage facilities and newly installed cameras kept constant surveillance. References to the giant tanks and pipelines were removed from the Cushing Chamber of Commerce website. In 2004, the Safety Alliance simulated a series of emergencies: an explosion, a fire, a hostage situation.

After the shale boom added millions of additional barrels to Cushing, its tanks swelled to a peak hoard of more than 60 million barrels this spring. That's about as much petroleum as the U.S. uses in three days, and it's more than six times the quantity that triggered security concerns after Sept. 11. The Safety Alliance has remained vigilant, even staging tornado simulations after a few close calls.

Now the massive oil stockpile faces an emerging threat: earthquakes. In the past month, a flurry of quakes have hit within a few miles of Cushing, rattling the town and its massive tanks. According to the Oklahoma Geological Survey, more than a dozen quakes have registered 3.0 or higher on the Richter scale within a few miles of Cushing since mid-September. The biggest, registering at 4.5, hit about three miles away on Oct. 10.

This is all part of the disturbing rise in earthquakes in Oklahoma, which has corresponded to increased fracking activity and oil production in the state. Since 2008, Oklahoma has gone from averaging fewer than two earthquakes per year that measure at least 3.0 in magnitude to surpassing California as the most seismically active state in the continental U.S. This year, Oklahoma is on pace to endure close to 1,000 earthquakes. Scientists at the National Earthquake Information Center in Colorado recently published a paper (PDF) raising concerns that the welter of moderate-sized earthquakes around Cushing could increase the risk of larger quakes in the future. 

Seismologists believe the quakes are the result of wastewater injection wells used by the fracking industry. Horizontal oil wells in Oklahoma can produce as many as nine or 10 barrels of salty, toxin-laced water for every barrel of oil. Much of that fluid is injected back underground into wastewater disposal wells. It is this water, injected near faults, that many seismologists—including those at the U.S. Geological Survey—say has caused the spike in earthquakes.

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