The Oklahoman: State agencies, energy companies taking reasonable approach to Oklahoma quakes

Drilling moratorium isn’t the answer

By The Oklahoman Editorial Board Published: May 14, 2015

NOTHING short of a drilling moratorium will satisfy those Oklahomans who are alarmed enough about increased earthquake activity that they went to the Capitol this week urging Gov. Mary Fallin to act. Given that some have seen homes and property damaged by quakes, their position is understandable.

Yet the notion that nothing is being done, or that state officials don’t care and are turning a blind eye to this issue, is simply not true. Suggestions that this is so only serve to hurt the cause of those seeking change.

Nor is it true that Fallin can impose a moratorium on injection wells in the 16 counties that have seen the most earthquake activity, as the group “Coalition to Stop Induced Seismicity” wants.

The group brought petitions to the Capitol, signed by about 1,500 residents, calling for a one-year moratorium on wastewater disposal wells.

Fallin’s spokesman, Alex Weintz, has noted that the governor can’t issue a blanket moratorium and can’t legally issue an executive order banning injection wells. Oversight of oil and gas drilling falls to the Oklahoma Corporation Commission.

A coalition spokesman said Monday that, “Despite repeated warnings of larger quakes to come, we still do not see progress sufficient to protect our citizens and their property.” However the Corporation Commission has taken steps to potentially mitigate the problem of man-made quake activity.

Back in fall 2013, the commission instituted a “traffic light” system to help determine whether a disposal well should be permitted in areas where earthquake activity had increased.

In March of this year, the agency sent letters to the operators of 347 high-volume disposal wells in the Arbuckle formation, directing them to prove that they weren’t disposing wastewater into the formation’s basement. This came after researchers raised concerns that doing so could cause earthquakes.

Since the letters went out, the commission said Monday, more than 50 disposal wells that were found to be touching the basement have plugged back their depths. Another 150 disposal wells have cut their volumes in half. And others are keeping their volumes below 1,000 gallons of wastewater per day.

In addition to the Arbuckle directive, the commission has begun studying disposal wells located within a 6-mile radius of earthquake swarms where at least one quake was a magnitude 3.0 or higher. Oklahoma had 585 such quakes in 2014, and has had 325 so far this year.

“There is no issue more important to us,” said Tim Baker, director of the Corporation Commission’s oil and gas conservation division.

Two other factors argue against a moratorium. One is that the wells in these 16 counties produce about 3.5 million barrels of oil per month and 32 billion cubic feet of natural gas. Industry officials say stopping production would cost the state roughly $20 million per month in severance taxes, and a significant loss of jobs.

And, it’s unclear what short-term effect a moratorium might have. Austin Holland, a seismologist with the Oklahoma Geological Survey, said recently that a sudden end to injections might actually cause new earthquakes. “There’s a fair amount of modeling that shows that might be the case,” he said.

The actions taken thus far by state agencies and energy companies have been reasonable and responsible, even if those most affected by Oklahoma’s quakes feel they’re not nearly enough.