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Rumbles Of New Scrutiny As Quakes Continue To Surge In Oklahoma

Oct 16, 2014

Oklahoma’s earthquake surge and possible links to oil and gas activity have been studied in scientific papers, discussed at heated town-hall meetings and explored regulatory hearings.

The quakes are now triggering some rumblings at the state Capitol.

About 4,000 earthquakes have shaken Oklahoma this year, data from the Oklahoma Geological Survey show. Most of the quakes have been small — roughly 10 percent were 3.0-magnitude or greater, the threshold at which seismologists say the temblors are likely perceivable.

But two-dozen magnitude-4.0 or greater quakes have been recorded in Logan, Garfield, Grant, Logan, Oklahoma and Payne counties. While still classified as “light”earthquakes by seismologists, the temblors nonetheless touched off a frenzy of concern from everyday Oklahomans.

A half-dozen peer-reviewed scientific papers have linked Oklahoma’s earthquake surge to so-called injection or disposal wells — a type of well into which the oil and gas industry pumps waste fluid from drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Many state lawmakers and oil and gas regulators, however, have been less conclusive about the link.

'A lot of speculation'

In her opening remarks at the Governor’s Energy Conference in September, Gov. Mary Fallin announced the creation of the Coordinating Council on Seismic Activity, a committee charged with coordinating a response from industry, academics and state agencies.

“One in four jobs in the State of Oklahoma is related to the energy sector,” Fallin told StateImpact in an interview at the conference. ”We think it’s our duty and responsibility to get accurate information that’s based on science, not speculation, because there’s a lot of speculation out there.”

Fallin tapped Michael Teague, the state’s Secretary of Energy and Environment, to lead the group.

Synchronized seismicity

The council’s first meeting was held Oct. 6. Staff from the the Corporation Commission, the Governor’s office, Oklahoma Energy Resources Board and state Geological Survey attended, along with representatives from oil and gas industry groups. The press and public were not invited, however.

“Everyone recognizes there’s been this huge upswing in the number of quakes, and the number of larger quakes, too,” Teague told StateImpact in an interview after the council’s first meeting. “There’s a lot of work being done, but it’s not synchronized very well.

Teague thinks some of Oklahoma earthquakes are likely being triggered by disposal wells, but he’s not sure how widespread the phenomenon is. But Teague is skeptical of recent research, published in July in the journal Science, that suggests disposal wells could trigger quakes a lot farther away than previously thought.

“Some of the recent studies have drawn that distance a long way,” he said. “In my civil engineer brain, I don’t know if I can make that kind of connection.”

Fill in the gaps

Teague said the first earthquake council meeting was largely organizational, but there was some technical discussion, like what kind of format and system the energy industry, seismologists and regulators can use to record and share disposal well data.

In September 2014, new Corporation Commission rules imposing stricter monitoring requirements for disposal well operators went into effect. Teague said energy companies are cooperating, and are sharing a lot of information — including valuable, closely held and proprietary data on underground formations — with researchers and state officials. But analysis has been stymied by the lack of a standardized system and format to collect and share the information, Teague said.

“Those are exactly the kind of gaps we hope this council can work to help fill in,” Teague said.

The committee also discussed ways to better communicate with the public about earthquake hazards, Teague said.

The earthquake council can’t write rules and doesn’t have any real authority, and its formation wasn’t accompanied by any executive order or formal declaration of responsibilities or oversight. And Teague is not planning on preparing a report or making any policy recommendations, he said.

The council is toothless, but Teague says it’s not useless.

“People in Oklahoma need to be comfortable that their state government is responding, is doing something,” he said. “And that’s not just PR.”

Some earthquake and energy industry scrutiny is likely to continue at the state capitol. On Oct. 28, lawmakers will convene at the capitol for a legislative study led by state Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie, which will examine the earthquakes and state disposal well rules.

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