Is Oklahoma's New Earthquake-Reduction Plan Enough to Stop the Shaking?

Following an earthquake swarm that included the state's third-largest quake ever, regulators moved to reduce wastewater disposal by oil and gas producers.
Earthquakes in Oklahoma have some residents protesting the fracking industry

Oklahoma's rising earthquakes have rattled some residents into protesting, and some groups suing, the oil and gas industry. Credit: George Thomas via Flickr

Just hours after the third-largest earthquake ever to hit Oklahoma struck near the town of Fairview last week, state regulators announced a plan to dramatically cut oil-and-gas wastewater disposal to halt the quakes. While the aggressive initiative drew praise for demanding widespread reductions, it stops short of spanning the entire state or halting the disposal activity altogether, drastic efforts some say are needed to best address the issue.

Launched on Tuesday and in development for several months, the plan requires energy companies to cut their injection of oil-and-gas wastewater at 245 disposal wells by a combined 40 percent over the next two months. The targeted region includes Fairview and spans more than 5,200 square miles of Oklahoma—nearly four times the size of Rhode Island.

"This plan is aimed not only at taking further action in response to past activity, but also to get out ahead of it and hopefully prevent new areas from being involved," Tim Baker, director of the OCC's Oil and Gas Conservation Division, said in a statement Tuesday.

But will the new efforts be enough to reverse the trend that caused Oklahoma in 2014 to surpass California as the state with the most earthquakes? Many Oklahomans, rattled by the recent magnitude 5.1 quake and the dozens of smaller ones that surrounded it, are not convinced.

"I am glad to see the [Oklahoma] Corporation Commission act to implement a regional wastewater reduction plan, but I feel like we are about three years late to the party," state Rep. Cory Williams, who has been outspoken on this issue, told InsideClimate News in an email. "Simply put, I feel it is too little, too late." A better response, according to Williams, would be an immediate statewide moratorium on oil-and-gas wastewater disposal. Williams also said he felt the 5.1 quake over the weekend, and it had opened new cracks in the walls of his house in Stillwater.

Even if the new plan does work as regulators intend, scientists have warned it could take many months, possibly years, to see earthquakes decrease.

"The recent and swift actions by the OCC are welcome," said George Choy, a scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey who has been following the earthquake activity in Oklahoma.

"However, the problem took years to develop. From past case histories we can expect it will take [an] equally long time, perhaps years, before seismicity abates."

Jeremy Boak, director of the Oklahoma Geological Survey, and his staff have been studying whether the state's earthquake activity changed due to the state's past regulatory actions, or other factors, such as a decrease in oil (and thus waste) production related to low oil prices.

Based on his team's preliminary analyses, earthquake activity has decreased around many central Oklahoma wells that were told to reduce their waste disposal levels. This "is at least consistent with the idea that the Corporation Commission's actions are having an effect," said Boak, who anticipates the new initiative will reduce seismicity in the northern part of the state.

The new plan is voluntary, but regulators told InsideClimate News they expect all the companies to comply. "The operators know that if they don't comply, the Oil and Gas Division will go to Commission court to get their well permits changed to match what the plan calls for. That would make it mandatory," Matt Skinner, spokesman for the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, wrote to InsideClimate News in an email. The commission has not yet had to resort to this option, Skinner added.

The state also announced on Tuesday it would fund more data collection on wastewater disposal wells.

The Big One

The recent magnitude 5.1 earthquake struck at 11:07 a.m. local time Saturday in the rural northwestern corner of the state. Despite the event's strong shaking, there was little damage reported. The state's Department of Transportation checked 34 bridges in a 25-square-mile area and found no damage.

"We haven't had official reports of damage through our local emergency managers," said Keli Cain, a spokeswoman at the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management. "We've seen through social media some anecdotal mentions of damage—cracks on walls, for example, things that have broken, fallen off shelves."

The Fairview earthquake activity started late last year and has ramped up in intensity this year.

"The really interesting thing about Fairview is it's a really long way away from really large wells," Boak told InsideClimate News.

The earthquake activity "appears to be due to the broad regional pattern of injection and not necessarily to any one injection well. The 5.1 [earthquake] just put a punctuation mark on that," Boak said. That's why the new waste reduction plan covers such a widespread area, he explained.

Lawsuit Filed

In the days following the big earthquake, the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit against three energy companies for allegedly triggering the earthquake activity in Oklahoma and neighboring Kansas.

The new lawsuit targets Chesapeake Operating LLC, Devon Energy Production Co. LP, and New Dominion, LLC, the largest oil operators in the state, for their underground disposal of wastewater. This water is largely a result of the oil-and-gas production process.

This is the first of a string of earthquake-related lawsuits against energy companies to accuse them of violating the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, a federal law relating to industry waste disposal. The defendants aren't asking for monetary compensation, but for stricter measures to end the earthquake activity once and for all.

Devon Energy and New Dominion did not respond to requests to comment on the lawsuit at hand by deadline.

According to Johnson Bridgwater, the Sierra Club's Oklahoma chapter director, the areas most affected by these earthquakes are rural communities, such as Fairview, which has a population of about 2,600. These people "truly feel they are being ignored" by the government on the issue, he said.

"The Fairview order was definitely a step closer toward doing the right thing," Bridgwater added, but he insists much more action is needed, including an even larger waste reduction order across the state and convening an independent panel of experts to assess possible responses. Both solutions are outlined in the lawsuit.

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