by Patrick B. McGuigan, editor
OKLAHOMA CITY – The Oklahoma Coordinating Council of Seismic Activity met last week at the state Capitol. As in the past, its deliberations took place out of the public eye. However, after meeting members of the Council sat in Gov. Mary Fallin’s large conference room.
Fallin, her Cabinet Energy and Environment Secretary Michael Teague and other members of the Council answered questions from reporters. Nothing said in response to questions was quite as stark as the chief executive’s opening remarks before more than a half-dozen cameras and a dozen or more print/online reporters in attendance.
Gov. Fallin said, “We all know now there is a direct correlation between the increase in earthquakes we’ve seen in Oklahoma and the disposal wells, based upon many different factors, whether it is volume or location or whether it is on a fault line, how deep that disposal well goes into the earth itself.”
The state’s chief executive said in public what her administration first began to detail last year at the state’s website focused on the problem:
“Oklahoma recognizes there is an earthquake problem in our state. We’re trying to actively deal with it, come up with solutions and make sure they are based on scientific fact. That helps develop a response plan to address this problem and ensure that homeowners and business owners and agencies are all working together.”
Fallin stressed that although the Council itself is not a rule-making group, its work has contributed to decisions from the state Corporation Commission and other agencies addressing the increase in earthquakes. She pointed out the depths for 347 injection wells have been reduced, and steps are being taken to to reduce depths for some 220+ others.
Teague, in his own opening remarks, praised the work of the Council, which includes government officials, academics and representatives of the oil and gas industry.
That’s not to say the exchange with the journalists was without substance.
Reporters pressed, referencing “fracking” as a cause of increased earthquakes, but members of the Council remained largely agnostic on any such link. The governor’s news media spokesman, Alex Weintz, said the consensus thus far centers aroud “injection wells going deep,” not fracking per se.
Secretary Teague declined repeated opportunities to call for additional legislative powers, or even for increased taxpayer funds to finance the research. He said, “We think we’re gaining ground with an administrative approach.” Teague said he would sustain the Council’s efforts to find private sector or grant resources to finance the ongoing work: “There are a lot of resources out there. This is going to take some time.”
Gov. Fallin praised the administrative steps the Corporation Commission has taken.
The governor established the Oklahoma Coordinating Council on Seismic Activity last September.
Her move came after three years of steadily mounting seismic activity in the state.
From the start, Fallin put the Council under the leadership of Secretary Teague, the veteran of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers she recruited into her administration in 2013.
According to Adam Wilmoth, energy reporter for The Oklahoman, after last week’s meeting Council member Chad Warmington, president of the Oklahoma Oil and Gas Association, said concerning the injection well-seismological link:
“I think we’ve been saying all along — even when there wasn’t a definitive tie in the public consciousness — that as long as the decisions are based on data and good science and not an overreaction, that we’ll be fine. We agree with the approach.”
Before the recent session, the state had been edging toward heightened scrutiny of oil and gas drilling activity, especially in the Arbuckle Basin, where much of the spike in earthquakes has occurred.
However, several recent notable quakes, in the Logan County area north of Oklahoma City, took place outside the region where recent investigations have centered.
The state Corporation Commission, according to the earthquake.ok.gov website “has been implementing evolving directives for wastewater disposal operators, known as the ‘traffic light’ system, based on the general view that injection or disposal of wastewater into the basement rock presents a potential risk for triggering seismicity.”
Several academic studies have pointed to the link between a jump in disposal of wastewater resulting from the half-decade jump in oil and gas drilling, and the increased number of earthquakes in the Sooner State.
A June 18, 2015 report published by “Science Advances” is perhaps the best-known of these studies.
The investigation by R. Rall Walsh III and Mark Zoback at Stanford University examined historic data, concentrating on the last five years of seismic activity.
The abstract of their report summarized, “In three study areas that encompass the vast majority of the recent seismicity, we show that the increases in seismicity follow 5- to 10-fold increases in the rates of saltwater disposal. Adjacent areas where there has been relatively little saltwater disposal have had comparatively few recent earthquakes.
“In the areas of seismic activity, the saltwater disposal principally comes from ‘produced’ water, saline pore water that is coproduced with oil and then injected into deeper sedimentary formations. These formations appear to be in hydraulic communication with potentially active faults in crystalline basement, where nearly all the earthquakes are occurring.
“Although most of the recent earthquakes have posed little danger to the public, the possibility of triggering damaging earthquakes on potentially active basement faults cannot be discounted.”
The Walsh-Zoback analysis was posted online less than two months after a New York Times report detailed the state government’s abandonment of “years of official skepticism” about possible links between drilling and seismic activity. As The Times’ Michael Wines summairzed, “Oklahoma’s government …embraced a scientific consensus that earthquakes rocking the state are largely caused by the underground disposal of billions of barrels of wastewater from oil and gas wells.” … Creation of Oklahoma’s website earthquakes.ok.gov “coincided with a statement by the state-run Oklahoma Geological Survey that it ‘considers it very likely’ that wastewater wells are causing the majority of the state’s earthquakes.”
These words are included in an overview of data available at that site:
“We know that Oklahoma experienced 109 magnitude 3+ earthquakes in 2013 and five times that amount in 2014. The pace of earthquake activity has accelerated this year. The current average rate of earthquakes is approximately 600 times historical averages.
“While we understand that Oklahoma has historically experienced some level of seismicity, we know that the recent rise in earthquakes cannot be entirely attributed to natural causes.
Seismologists have documented the relationship between wastewater disposal and triggered seismic activity. The Oklahoma Geological Survey has determined that the majority of recent earthquakes in central and north-central Oklahoma are very likely triggered by the injection of produced water in disposal wells.
“Oklahoma’s response to the recent rise in earthquakes is constantly evolving based on the growing body of knowledge dedicated to exploring the issue. The resources on this page inform our understanding of Oklahoma’s earthquakes and provide the foundation for our regulatory response.”
The website features elaborate, and cumulatively shocking, details on the surge of earthquakes, drawing on information spanning decades of energy industry history.
Members or staff for the Coordinating Council on Seismic Activity at the August 4 Capitol meeting included Fallin, Weintz, Teague, Warmington, Tim Baker and Charles Lord (Oklahoma Corporation Commission), Mike Paque (Groundwater Protection Council), state Rep. John Enns, R-Enid, Mindy Still (Oklahoma Energy Resources Board), Mike Terry and Kim Hatfield (Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association), Dr. Jeremy Board and Professor Austin Holland (Oklahoma Geological Survey), and Teague’s deputy, Craig Sundstrom.
Not present at the session were academics from the University of Oklahoma’s Mewborne School of Earth & Energy, Oklahoma State University’s Boone Pickens School of Geology and the University of Tulsa’s Department of Geosciences.
However, representatives of all three institutions have participated in the Council’s deliberations.
Critics of the Council and of Fallin’s administration contend recent steps have come several years too late, but Fallin and Council members defend the efficacy of what they call unprecedented levels of cooperation among government officials and elements of the energy industry.