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Oklahoma Seismologist: Quakes ‘Very Likely’ Triggered By Oil And Gas Disposal Wells

The offices of Gov. Mary Fallin and the Secretary of Energy and Environment debuted a new web portal, earthquakes.ok.gov, to serve as a "one-stop-shop" for quake research and regulatory news.

Disposal wells used by the oil and gas industry are ‘very likely’ responsible for the recent surge of earthquakes in Oklahoma, the state seismologist at the Oklahoma Geological Survey said Tuesday.

“Based on observed seismicity rates and geographical trends following major oil and gas plays with large amounts of produced water, the rates and trends in seismicity are very unlikely to represent a naturally occurring process,” state seismologist Austin Holland and agency interim director Richard D. Andrews writes in a joint statement.

In its statement, the OGS also noted its efforts to update fault maps with more detailed information provided by oil companies, working with state regulators and emergency planners, and collaborating with the energy industry to “better understand the problem and develop a regulatory framework.”

The agency’s acknowledgement follows years of peer-reviewed research linking the earthquake activity — Oklahoma in 2014 was more seismically active than California — to disposal wells, which the energy industry pumps full of waste fluid byproducts from oil and gas production. In previous interviews and statements, the OGS has suggested the earthquakes were naturally occurring. Internal emails obtained under the Oklahoma Open Records Act detail years of industry pressure on the agency.

In a separate statement, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission — the state’s oil and gas regulator — said many of the OGS findings are already being incorporated into its response, which has included tougher scrutiny of some disposal well permits, anddirectives requiring some operators prove to state officials their wells aren’t injecting waste fluid into granite basement rock — a known risk factor for triggering earthquakes.

“There will no doubt be more steps to take, and all options available to the Commission are on the table. There is no issue that has a higher priority for this agency, and the continuing work and commitment of OGS is central to this effort,” OCC spokesperson Matt Skinner writes.

Also on Tuesday, the offices of Gov. Mary Fallin and the Secretary of Energy and Environment announced the creation of a new website — www.earthquakes.ok.gov— that will serve as the state’s central portal for updates on research and regulations related to Oklahoma’s earthquake activity.

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StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership among Oklahoma’s public radio stations and relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online.

Joe was a founding reporter for StateImpact Oklahoma (2011-2019) covering the intersection of economic policy, energy and environment, and the residents of the state. He previously served as Managing Editor of Urban Tulsa Weekly, as the Arts & Entertainment Editor at Oklahoma Gazette and worked as a Staff Writer for The Oklahoman. Joe was a weekly arts and entertainment correspondent for KGOU from 2007-2010. He grew up in Bartlesville, Okla. and studied journalism at the University of Central Oklahoma.
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