Tahlequah Daily Press

April 2, 2013

Whole lot of shakin’ goin’ on?

Staff Writer

TAHLEQUAH — Being ready for Mother Nature’s wrath is part of what it means to live in Oklahoma.

It’s common for people to build storm shelters to provide protection from severe weather and tornadoes, or buy insurance to cover damage left behind by hail, high-wind damage, twisters, floods, and now, earthquakes.

The largest earthquake ever recorded in the state in November 2011 destroyed 14 homes, buckled roads, and created shock waves felt as far away as Milwaukee, Wis.

Residents in Cherokee County felt the magnitude 5.7 earthquake, as well as the 4.7 fore- and aftershock. At the time, earthquake insurance became a topic of interest and continues to pique some inquiry whenever earthquake activity is reported.

One local insurance company told the Daily Press two years ago it received several calls about earthquake insurance following the series of temblors near Prague, Okla. The endorsement has been available for some time, but its consideration by homeowners only began with the recent earthquake activity, said State Farm agent/owner Mark Hodson.

“It has gotten a lot more attention because of what we’ve experienced,” Hodson said. “There is more awareness now, and more people are adding [earthquake insurance] to their policies. It’s available as an endorsement to the homeowner policies.”

A recently-released geological study suggests oil and gas production may have contributed to the 2011 earthquake, and researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey, Columbia University and the University of Oklahoma believe injection wells used for wastewater disposal may have led to the series of quakes that centered on Prague.

The study proposed the brine- and chemical-laced water injected into the abandoned wells, which were once filled with oil, increased pressure on a nearby fault line identified as the Wilzetta Fault, or Seminole Uplift. The Oklahoma Geological Survey reported the interpretation that best fits current data is that the Prague Earthquake Sequence was the result of natural causes.

The earthquakes occurred on a segment of the Wilzetta Fault, which is favorable to significant tremors. Water injection has been taking place in the Prague/Wilzetta area since 1955, and has remained constant since an increase of activity in 2004-2005. Researchers said the earthquake activity did not increase over time as injection activity increased, but occurred in a distinct “swarm” more typical of a natural event, according to the OGS.

As differing opinions exist, the OGS, as well as the study, recommend more research, improved earthquake monitoring, and acquisition of formation pressure data, as well as careful monitoring in regions where injection wells exist.

The recent controversy is actually over disposal of produced water, said OGS Seismologist Austin Holland.

“That is naturally occurring formation water that is removed from the ground along with the oil and disposed of within disposal wells. I think the majority of water disposed of in Oklahoma is from produced water,” said Holland. “There have been examples of earthquakes large enough to have been felt, but none with damage associated with hydraulic fracturing. These occurrences are rare.”

Though the debate continues in Oklahoma, not every homeowner is concerned with the need to insure property against damage created by manmade or naturally-occurring earthquakes. Bardell & Bardell Insurance Agency Marketing Manager M.T. Smith said people don’t seem to be particularly concerned with earthquake insurance.

“We’ve not had anyone calling specifically for earthquake insurance,” he said. “We can get you coverage, but it’s best to go where you have your homeowner’s policy.”

Farmers Insurance agent owner Donald Brown hasn’t received any customers seeking coverage for earthquake protection, either.

“Yes, we offer it, and no, we haven’t had any inquiries,” he said.

Shelter Insurance agent owner Waco Howard said people inquire about earthquake insurance whenever there’s reported activity in the Oklahoma City area.

“I think we’ve had a pretty good-sized tremor every month in the past few months. We always see an influx of calls right after every event,” he said. “We have more people buying it. The cost is going to be based on the value of the dwelling. On my house, I pay $42 a year, and that’s with a 5 percent deductible. That’s on a $150,000 dwelling. It’s really inexpensive, and it’s something everybody should have. I don’t know of anyone who has ever filed a claim, but that’s not to say it hasn’t happened.”