Risk

Earthquakes Are Rising in Oklahoma, and Insurance Is Booming


Earthquakes Are Rising in Oklahoma, and Insurance Is Booming

Earthquakes used to be rare in Oklahoma, a handful per year or so. Not anymore. So far this year, the state has experienced some 2,300 earthquakes, according to the Oklahoma Geological Survey, an average of more than 11 per day.

Accordingly, the number of Oklahomans with earthquake insurance has jumped a startling 500 percent in less than three years, reports the Oklahoma Department of Insurance. While the cause of increased tremors in the Plains States remains under contention, residents, at the least, are preparing for the worst.

The state agency doesn’t typically track the data and insurance companies don’t report it, but “we were getting calls from around the country,” says communications director Kerry Collins. So Collins called the state’s top five homeowners insurance companies—accounting for more than 70 percent of the market—and estimated an average: In 2011, only 3 percent of the state’s homeowners had an earthquake rider on their homeowners insurance policies; this year, 15 percent did.

“It’s not something people worried about before,” Mark Tedford of Tedford Insurance in Jenks, Okla., told the Tulsa World. “Now it is.”

While most of the seismic uptick has been too small to cause much damage, a 2011 temblor hit 5.6 on the Richter scale, setting a new state record and damaging more than a dozen homes. Two years later, the insurance commissioner advised residents to buy the extra coverage, which typically costs about $100 to $150 per home. The same year, insurers sold $11.6 million in earthquake insurance premiums, more than double the $5.7 million they sold in 2011. By comparison, homeowners insurance premiums were up just 18 percent in the same period.

As the frequency and intensity of seismic activity has increased throughout the central region—add Arkansas, Colorado, Ohio, and Texas—so has speculation that hydraulic fracturing is to blame. As part of the process of extracting oil and gas from rock, wastewater is pumped back into the ground, a process scientists say could be exerting undue pressure and triggering quakes.

The U.S. Geological Survey cautions that more research is needed; its own research so far indicates that fracking may not be responsible for the increase in small quakes, but it may be to blame for boosting the magnitude of the biggest quakes. In Oklahoma, the largest quakes occurred near injection wells.

Aho writes about risk. Follow her on Twitter: @AhoReport.

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