President Obama signed an executive order last week that has gone largely unnoticed by the mainstream media. The order amended the Earthquake Hazards Reduction Act of 1977 which was originally intended “to reduce the risks of life and property from future earthquakes” in all 50 states. This was before hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” became a common practice for oil and natural gas drilling. Since fracking has become more popular, earthquakes have increased from single digits in the early 2000s to 584 quakes in 2015 alone.
Cushing, Oklahoma might be home to fewer than 10,000 people but it has an exponentially higher quantity of gallons of oil. The only place in the United States that has a larger supply of oil is the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The massive tanks are so large that some can fit a Boeing 747 inside of them. The city has so much oil that it “props up the $179 billion in West Texas Intermediate futures and options contracts traded on the New York Mercantile Exchange,” according to a Bloomberg Business report. While the area has always been a potential threat for terrorism, as any federal facility, the oil tanks in Cushing face another major threat: earthquakes.
While the earthquakes in Oklahoma rarely spike above 5.0 on the Richter scale, the frequency and increase in severity could lead to instability in the structures that store and help transport oil. That presents an entirely new threat to federal facilities.
President Obama’s executive order gives these federal buildings “owned, leased, financed, or regulated by the Federal Government” 90 days to comply with heightened structural requirements. The order acknowledges minimum standards that are already in place, but seems to believe they aren’t sufficient:
“The Federal Government recognizes that building codes and standards primarily focus on ensuring minimum acceptable levels of earthquake safety for preserving the lives of building occupants. To achieve true resilience against earthquakes, however, new and existing buildings may need to exceed those codes and standards to ensure, for example, that the buildings can continue to perform their essential functions following future earthquakes.”
The executive order doesn’t attribute the cause of the earthquakes or make any move to work toward preventative measures to reduce quakes, rather it only deals with stabilizing structures to withstand them as the ground continues to shake. Earthquakes in Oklahoma have not only increased in number but they are also slowly increasing in strength as well with many rating 3.0 or higher on the Richter scale around the area of the oil tanks.
In 2014, Oklahoma was the most seismically active in the lower 48 states with three times as many as California. The state gathered a group of experts to help compile a report on the status of the most earthquake-vulnerable buildings, bridges, access ramps and other structures. But the experts were too fearful of their own liability in outlining what was safe and what wasn’t. The report was stalled when the legislature failed to pass a bill absolving them from responsibility if a building they said was safe actually did collapse. Today there is no effort nor plan in place to address the safety of any of the state’s buildings or bridges in a year where the state is projected to reach over 900 earthquakes.
“We have a lot of stuff out there that wasn’t designed for earthquakes, and we need to figure out where that is and develop our mitigation plans,” said Jim Wilkinson, executive director of the Central United States Earthquake Consortium told NewsOk.com. “We need to be in a position to respond as effectively and immediately as possible. … Right now we are not in Oklahoma.”
If the safety of roads, bridges and buildings aren’t enough, homeowners are furious with the damage they’re seeing to their property. To make matters worse, they’re unable to get financial relief from their insurance policies. Those applying for claims to their homeowner’s insurance are denied 9 out of 10 times. Oklahoma Representative Mike Shelton has proposed bills in the state legislature over the last several years to help Oklahomans with insurance problems surrounding the increase in Oklahoma quakes and the damage they’re causing. “They’re buying bogus policies,” he told Raw Story before remarking that his bills keep getting shot down by the legislature.
“My district was the most seismic place in the state back in 2009,” Shelton said explaining how he got involved in the earthquake problem. “They were happening in Jones, Oklahoma. It didn’t happen in other places until 2011 when it hit Prague. Then everyone started talking about it, but even then we knew what was causing it.”
The Oklahoma Supreme Court decided a case last year that allowed for lawsuits to move forward against oil companies that allegedly are responsible the quakes with their fracking. It wasn’t long before a small group of citizens became the first to file a class action lawsuit against 12 oil companies for damage sustained from the earthquakes.
Shelton says that such damage is one of the greatest tragedies that will come from ignoring the quake problem early on. “Oklahomans are going to have to foot the bill for the higher cost in building, the higher cost of insurance, the higher cost for everything that now must be done,” he explained. “People don’t realize the overall impact of what we’ve done to our state and the land. It’s unfortunate that taxpayers and homeowners and families will have to foot the bill for the sake of oil and gas companies.” He went on to say that he understands the importance of the oil and gas industry as job creators but that there must be a way that the state can protect jobs as well as citizens and property.
While state and federal buildings are the concern of the government, Shelton intends to introduce an amendment that will ask for a tax credit for citizens that bought earthquake insurance but are being denied. The uphill battle Shelton faces, however, is that Oklahoma is in a projected $1.2 billion budget shortfall after overspending with tax credits to businesses and high-income wage earners and gas prices fell.
“I understand the state is broke,” Shelton acknowledged. “But the fact of the matter is, the people of Oklahoma are doing everything they can to protect their homes. For many, it’s their biggest investment in their lives.” He said that his parents are a good example of everyday homeowners who can’t afford to pay a 20 percent premium to file a claim to their insurance due to being on a retiree’s fixed income. “It’s a tragedy. If only we had been more responsible and stopped ignoring facts of what was going on many of our citizens wouldn’t have had to buy an insurance policy for insurance policies.”
Shelton continued saying that the situation was forced on Oklahomans by the current Fallin/Lamb administration and the state’s legislature. Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin’s office declined to comment when contacted.