Vaughan: Lawmakers Should Reexamine Disposal Well Regulations
At an interim hearing at the state Capitol Tuesday, a state representative from north-central Oklahoma questioned whether the state was properly inspecting oil and gas wells and had the rules necessary to prevent contamination of water supplies.
State Rep. Steve Vaughan (R-Ponca City) conducted the interim study and held the hearing. He’s concerned about saltwater pollution in Kay and Noble Counties, which has had large-scale fish-kills for three years in a row.
Local resident Jack Klinger, who has lived near the river for more than 70 years, spoke at the hearing and said his water wells have been contaminated.
“In 2013, our salt and calcium was just a little over 20,” Klinger says. “We had it tested when we couldn’t use our water and it was 2,180 in salt and calcium. So something has to be leaking, something has to be getting into it in order to do that.”
Officials with the Department of Environtal Quality listed oil and gas pollution as a possible cause of the recent fish-kills, which the Oklahoma Corporation Commission — the state’s oil and gas regulator — is now investigating. Tim Baker, who heads the commission’s pollution division, told StateImpact Tuesday that well inspectors surveyed disposal wells and oil and gas sites near the Salt Fork, but found no clear source of the contamination.
“We went out and inspected all the wells along the Salt Fork and did not find any violation, and did not find any leakage of any kind,” Baker said. “We’re not seeing an ongoing pollution source.”
Briny wastewater from oil and gas prodcuction, also known as “produced water,” often contain high levels of salts that are toxic to fish and other wildlife. But the Salt Fork River is inheriently salty, hence its name, so distinguishing between natrual and artifical sources of salt contaimination is difficult.
Rep. Vaughan said the situation is further complicated because oilfields near the Salt Fork are booming, and they’ve been home to a lot of historical oil and gas production. The combination of new production and old, possibly deteroriated, wells could increase the likelihood of pollution, Vaughan said.
New rules on well integrity testing go into effect later this week, but Vaughan said the Corporation Commission doesn’t have enough field inspectors, a challenge he suggested he and other lawmakers would consider in the 2015 legislative session.
Stricter rules on oil well testing go into effect later this week, but Vaughan says he’s “still exploring his options” regarding new legislation to tighten the regulation of oil field disposal wells. Vaughan said there were 22,000 disposal wells in his district, but only one state inspector assigned to the area.
In a media statement distributed after the meeting, Vaughan said many of the older wells in his district were prone to leaks. "My concern is whether these wells are being maintained to the point that is necessary to protect our fresh water," he said. Vaughan said state laws were decades behind the industry.
“If that law, that was done 50 years ago, says 10 barrels (of oil) could be spilled before it’s cleaned up, well maybe it needs to be changed,” he said.
An oil and gas industry spokesman said hydraulic fracturing was safe. "In every well used to tap into Oklahoma's vast oil and gas reserves, millions of pounds of steel and concrete are utilized in multiple layers to isolate the well from groundwater supplies," Mike Terry, president of the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association, said in a media statement.
"These measures, along with strict environmental regulations and the thousands of feet of rock between the fracture zone and any fresh or treatable aquifers, ensure groundwater supplies are protected," Terry said.
Terry said the oil and gas industry accounts for just 2 percent of the freshwater used in Oklahoma.
"To put that in perspective, one average Oklahoma oil and gas well uses just 5 percent of the water needed to irrigate one Oklahoma City golf course," he said.
During the hearing, J.D. Strong, executive director of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, said Oklahoma’s 23 aquifers have about 320 million acre-feet of water.
Of that amount, Strong said the state has permitted between 6 million and 7 million acre-feet, but only used about 2 million acre-feet of that amount.
“That usage includes everything,” he said. “Industry, agricultural, household – everything.”
An acre-foot of water, the amount needed to cover one acre of land with one foot of water, equals 325,851 gallons.
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