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PBS Newshour: Oklahoma Links Earthquakes To Oil And Gas Industry Wastewater

Since 2009, there’s been a drastic increase in the number of earthquakes in Oklahoma. Many people think it’s tied to an increase in oil and gas drilling, but due to the energy boom, state officials have been reluctant to draw a connection.

On Tuesday, state officials acknowledged the quakes are likely caused by wells used to dispose of wastewater from both traditional drilling methods, as well as hydraulic fracturing.

During a conversation with PBS Newshour hosts Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill Wednesday evening, StateImpact Oklahoma’s Joe Wertz said prior to 2012, Oklahoma averaged less than two earthquakes per year with a magnitude greater than 3.0. That’s about the threshold where humans start to feel them.

“In 2013, we were getting two of those a week. Now we’re averaging about two of those every single day,” Wertz said. “Now, in 2011, we did get a 5.6, 5.7 that some scientists have linked to oil and gas activity, and that did cause damage. That injured two people, damaged a lot of homes and businesses, toppled a tower at [St. Gregory’s University in Shawnee].”

When you drill as much as Oklahoma does – anywhere from one-fifth to a quarter of all jobs in the state are tied to the oil and gas industry – all that water has to go somewhere. Wertz said historically, injecting that wastewater deep underground has kept it out of the drinking water supply.

“The technology for a disposal well is nothing new,” Wertz said. “Now, there’s been a big boom, drilling boom in Oklahoma in recent years, lots of oil and gas activity, so you do see a big spike in water production, along with the oil and gas production.”

But it’s not necessarily caused by hydraulic fracturing – an increasingly controversial practice that’s actually been banned outright in some municipalities.

“You do get some of this wastewater when you frack and use water and fluid in the fracking process, it’s still a relatively small portion of the total wastewater that has to be disposed of in Oklahoma,” Wertz said. “So, it’s a part of the equation, but a relatively small one.”

Oklahoma lawmakers voted Wednesday to prevent cities and towns from regulating oil and natural gas drilling operations.

House Speaker Jeff Hickman’s bill does allow for local laws involving road use, traffic, noise, and fencing. Responding to a question from House Democratic Leader Scott Inman during Wednesday’s floor debate, Hickman said very few saltwater disposal wells are actually located within the city limits of large urban areas.

“Very few of these are within municipalities where that would be an issue as it relates to earthquakes,” Hickman said. “So we can chase rabbits, but I don’t think it has much to do with this bill.”

The oil and gas industry doesn’t want to see a moratorium on disposal wells, and a widespread ban seems unlikely. As state lawmakers keep the regulatory power in the hands of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, Wertz said regulators are trying to hone in on whether certain types of wells or certain geographic areas might be more dangerous to drill in, or more prone to earthquakes than others.

“That’s really what regulators are trying to hone in on. And they’re hoping that scientists will give them some more details on that,” Wertz said. “And so that’s where they hope the science will head, is to give them more direction on maybe there are certain wells that are riskier, and they could focus their regulatory efforts on a smaller number of wells.”

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