Injection Wells Tied to Earthquakes


Rob McClendon: Well, Oklahoma continues on
a record pace of earthquakes that some studies show are being caused by injection wells.
Through the first four months of the year, there have been 468 earthquakes in the state
with a magnitude of 3.0 or greater. Now, compare that to this time last year, and that’s an
increase of over 90 percent, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Joining me now
is our Courtney Maye. Courtney Maye: Well, Rob, in late June, the
Oklahoma Supreme Court reversed an earlier lower court ruling that will allow a Prague
woman to seek damages from an injury she sustained when her fireplace crumbled after an earthquake
she believes was caused by pumping wastewater into the ground. This ruling is just the latest
to expose Oklahoma’s energy industry to litigation over their disposal wells.
Courtney Maye: The oil and natural gas industry is pumping in tens of billions of dollars
to the state’s economy each year. As the fifth largest oil and gas producer in the United
States, Oklahoma is creating jobs. Gov. Mary Fallin: And it employs in the energy
sector one in every four Oklahomans, so it creates a tremendous amount of revenue in
our state. Close to one-third of our revenue that’s generated is generated by some form
of energy. Courtney: However, this comes with some earthshaking
news. Over the past three years, Oklahoma has more than tripled in its rate of earthquakes,
passing California. And scientists have recently linked water injection sites, the aftermath
of fracking, to seismic activity. Todd Halihan: The concern for Oklahoma is
Class II waste water disposal wells, and those wells are used to dispose of fluids that are
produced that aren’t good enough quality to be released in the stream. That process was
first shown to be a problem with causing seismicity back in the 1960s at a place called the Rocky
Mountain Arsenal. Courtney: Todd Halihan is an OSU geologist
who studies earthquakes around the globe and says as this graphic shows, the growth in
Oklahoma earthquakes has been increasing significantly since 2008. And he believes it’s important
for the industry to operate responsibly, which means knowing when, where and how much water
to inject into the ground. Halihan says monitoring the injection wells most likely to trigger
earthquakes will lead Oklahoma on to less shaky ground.
Halihan: It’s actually risky for both the citizens and the industry. And people look
at it as the citizens against the industry, but it’s actually risky for both of them.
Courtney: Attorney Graydon Luthey has dealt with several cases effecting both the oil
and gas companies as well as landowners in Oklahoma and says something must be done to
ensure that the industry is drilling and injecting water back into the ground responsibly and
that landowners are well informed about the issue and are taking reasonable safety precautions,
just like the oil and gas industry. Graydon Luthey: What are the obligations of
the oil and gas company? What are the expectations that policy will recognize that landowners
have and things like this? Shawn Hull: All right, here you see some of
the recent cracks. Courtney: Expectations that homeowners like
Shawn Hull have, whose house is developing new cracks each week from the increasing number
of earthquakes. Hull: Earthquakes happen, then the cracks
develop. I couldn’t say how many there are, probably 15 or 20.
Hull: This here is the garage and what you see is previously repaired cracks and also
brand new cracks that are contributing to the old cracks as well. And a brand spankin’
new one right over there. Hull: I think it’s absolutely important for
the United States to have energy independence, and if this is a result of fracking, I think
that it probably needs to be done. But the, the people that are responsible for drilling
need to be responsible for, you know, the property that they’re destroying.
Courtney: Damages to properties are one of the reasons Gov. Mary Fallin announced the
launch of a Seismic Activity Council at the Governor’s Energy Conference in 2014, consisting
of members from the oil and gas industry, the Oklahoma Geological Survey, the Corporation
Commission and university researchers. Halihan: When they’ve looked at which wells
might be causing this is typically a small number that are at a really high rate. And
so, it doesn’t mean you have to shut the whole thing down. You have an option of pulling
back partway. It’s a difficult industrial process and has risks and needs to be conducted
responsibly. Luthey: The future of the industry is going
to be headed forward in a safe manner, in an economically responsible manner, in a manner
where Oklahomans can all enjoy the benefits of job creation.
Courtney: Without the fear that with the good comes the bad of more earthquakes.
Rob: So, Courtney, recognizing that for every barrel of oil we can now get out of the ground
using the fracking method, we also produce anywhere between 10 and 100 barrels of wastewater.
What do we do with all this water if we don’t pump it back into the ground?
Courtney: Well, and that’s the problem, and there seems to be easy answers but with those
answers comes environmental challenges. Rob: What about using trucks to haul the water
away to environmentally less-sensitive areas? Courtney: Well, if you’ve ever carried a bucket
of water, you know that it’s heavy. So 120 barrels of wastewater into a giant tanker
truck could cause significant damages to our state roads and highways. And also, for every
barrel of oil we produce, it takes a giant tanker truck to carry that wastewater away.
Rob: So lots of traffic congestion then. Then what about pipelines?
Courtney: That comes with costs and also affects to the environment. It would be extremely
expensive to create these pipelines, and also these pipelines would have to be run through
the most densely populated areas of Oklahoma. Rob: So then what about what agriculture does
with their lagoons, like just keeping the water in place and then letting it evaporate?
Courtney: Well, once again, we’re talking about a whole lot of water and a lot people
think that that could affect local weather. And also, once the evaporation process happens,
we would have to go back and dispose of the salts and the chemicals that are left behind.
Rob: So it sounds like this really comes down to a cost-benefit ratio, especially when you
consider that other states may not have some of these same restrictions.
Courtney: Right, that’s true. But we aren’t the only state that’s looking into closer
regulation. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott just recently OK’d a four and a half million dollar comprehensive
earthquake study. Rob: All right. Thank you so much, Courtney.
Courtney: You’re welcome, Rob. Rob: Now, when we return, I’ll sit down with
the state official whose job is to regulate Oklahoma’s energy companies, Corporation Commissioner
Dana Murphy.

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