The Environmental Protection Agency has ordered 17 injection wells shut down in an area of Osage County near Saturday’s record-setting earthquake, bringing the total number of wells closed to more than 50.
Meanwhile, university researchers and state officials are installing new seismometers throughout the area of north central Oklahoma surrounding the 5.6 magnitude earthquake.
But the unique regulatory status of Osage County means the state and public have scant information about injection wells in that county that may have contributed to the earthquake. And the rules are also far less stringent for injection well operators there.
A 200-square-mile swath of Oklahoma impacted by the earthquake is off limits to state regulators scrambling to respond. They say they have no idea how many energy-related operations are there and no authority to close them.
All mineral rights in Osage County are owned by the Osage Nation. Under a 1906 law, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs has limited jurisdiction over the tribe’s energy production, and it has been cited for decades of mismanagement that includes failure to respond to environmental infractions, government records show.
The Environmental Protection Agency also has jurisdiction over a key part of the quake-linked operations: injection or disposal wells. Oil and gas wells produce large volumes of toxic, salty wastewater, usually disposed of by injecting it deep underground in disposal wells.
A spokesman for the EPA’s Region 6 office in Dallas said in an email to The Frontier Monday: “We are working closely with the state of Oklahoma, BIA and Osage Nation to evaluate available information and take appropriate next steps to protect public health and the environment.”
The spokesman has not responded to requests for additional information about EPA’s actions. The tribe and BIA did not respond to calls seeking comment.
In an email Tuesday, EPA officials informed the state that the agency would order injection wells closed in an area of Osage County previously identified by the state as impacted.
The state’s order will impact 37 wells in an area covering more than 500 square miles. It more than doubles the number of injection wells the state previously ordered shut down due to earthqaukes surrounding them.
(Here’s a map of the wells ordered closed by the state.)
The EPA’s order covers 17 injection wells in a 211-square-mile area bordering Pawnee County, state officials said. However a map provided to the OCC showed only 16 wells in the red and yellow zones surrounding the earthquake.
The president of a local energy-producers organization told The Frontier early Tuesday that he was contacted by the EPA and told to shut down an injection well immediately. The EPA’s order appears to be similar to a state order in that it impacts only wells drilled at the deepest level, the Arbuckle geologic layer.
Shane Matson, president of the Osage Producers Association and a geologist with Tulsa-based BlueJacket Energy LLC, said he received verbal and later written notice late Monday from the EPA.
“A producing field I am involved in has an Arbuckle disposal well. The operator was told to shut the disposal well down immediately.” Matson said in an email.
If the EPA’s order for immediate shut down applies to all operators, it would differ from the state’s order, which gave operators until Sept. 13.
Federal officials have not provided details of their order to the Oklahoma Corporation Commission. The commission is in charge of regulating oil and gas operations, including injection wells, in the other 76 Oklahoma counties.
A spokesman for the OCC, Matt Skinner, said the state has no information on the number of wells, locations or operators that would be impacted by such an EPA order.
In fact, the OCC has no information at all when it comes to disposal wells in Oklahoma’s largest county, 2,300 square miles of windswept prairie dotted with farms and oil rigs on the state’s northern border.
“On our maps, Osage County is a blank spot. We don’t know anything about it,” he said.
When asked by The Frontier whether OCC has requested such information from EPA, Skinner said the agency had not done so.
“We’ve got our hands full,” he said.
The Frontier searched the EPA, BIA and Osage Nation websites and found no information on regulatory actions against injection well owners in that county, records that are available on OCC’s website.
Experts and producers interviewed by The Frontier said they cannot recall any EPA actions taken against Osage County well operators due to earthquakes in the past.
Injection wells in that county are also held to a lesser standard in terms of reporting requirements, records show. Well operators in Osage County, even those operating near recent earthquakes, are only required to report their injection volumes and pressures annually.
Meanwhile, injection operators in the rest of Oklahoma must report such information to the state far more frequently, sometimes daily, if their wells are near earthquakes.
‘A serious situation’
Matson said if the EPA’s order does cover the estimated 20-40 injection wells surrounding the epicenter, that action would effectively halt about 30 percent of the oil and gas production in the county.
“I suspect that some companies will push back but this is a serious situation and I would say that everybody appreciates the gravity,” he said.
It’s unclear whether Osage County wastewater injection wells are triggering or contributing to induced earthquakes. Production in the county, like the rest of the state, has been slowing, especially during a recent 16-month period when the BIA stopped granting new permits.
But experts say the lack of state authority in the area near the earthquake’s epicenter complicates efforts to head off future earthquakes.
Bob Jackman, a Tulsa-based geologist who has advocated for a tougher stance against energy companies, said the regulatory patchwork prevents the state from taking decisive action.
“To confuse the citizens in Oklahoma, we have this mess in Osage County clouding up the real problems that caused this Pawnee earthquake,” Jackman said.
Bryan Tapp, an associate professor of geology at the University of Tulsa, said Osage County is home to hundreds of injection wells.
“There have been earthquakes in this immediate area this year. … The question is, is this related to injection?”
A map on the Osage Nation’s website shows injection wells dotting the land along the Arkansas River, which forms the boundary between Osage and Pawnee counties.
The number of earthquakes 3.5 magnitude and higher in Oklahoma has increased from just four in 2009 to more than 200 last year.
Wastewater injection more than doubled in the state during that time, facts that are linked according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Geologists believe the waste fluid can add pressure on existing faults, causing them to slip and create quakes.
Earlier this year, the USGS issued a revised earthquake forecast that accounts for induced and naturally occurring earthquakes. “Some places in Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Arkansas may experience damage if the induced seismicity continues unabated,” the USGS study warns.
Though Oklahoma officials were slow to accept the link between injection wells and quakes, most now do. Texas regulators, however, continue to question whether there is a cause-and-effect relationship.
The earthquake that shook residents across Oklahoma at 7:02 a.m. Saturday tied the state record. Its epicenter was 8.6 miles northwest of Pawnee, a small town in north central Oklahoma, and about two miles away from the Osage County border. The quake’s magnitude may be later revised and increased, officials have said.
In response, Oklahoma regulators ordered the deepest injection wells within a 725-square-mile area of the epicenter to close. The order covers 37 of the state’s 3,200 active wells which must close within 10 days. (No wells in Osage County were included in the state’s order, as they are under federal jurisdiction.)
‘A holy mess’
Though the EPA issues permits for disposal wells, applications are submitted to the Osage Nation. The BIA, along with the EPA, regulates the injection wells and answers to an eight-member tribal body called the Osage Minerals Council. The council represents the tribe’s interests in mineral rights it owns, covering the entire 1.5-million-acre county.
Jackman, a petroleum geologist, said the BIA’s records on oil and gas operations in Osage County are “a holy mess.”
In 2014, a report by the Interior Department’s inspector general was highly critical of the BIA’s oversight of oil and gas drilling in Osage County, calling it “fundamentally flawed.”
The agency responded that it was taking steps to improve operations.
Saturday’s earthquake panicked even seasoned residents in Oklahoma’s earthquake zone.
Mark Crismon’s home is about eight miles from the quake’s epicenter. For the past two years, Crismon has monitored a seismic station on his property as part of a research project by Oklahoma State University geology students.
After jumping off his porch when the quake struck, Crismon said he watched his house as he lay on the shaking ground, adding: “I didn’t think there was any way it was going to stand up.”
In his garage, jars of peaches, green beans and other fruits and vegetables crashed to the floor, shattering, he said. “The garage was full of pickle juice.”
Crismon said Tuesday that university researchers from Cornell are bringing hundreds of small seismometers into the area to track earthquake activity. He said officials with the Oklahoma Geological Survey and the USGS are also placing new seismometers in the area.
However, Crismon said closing wells after a large earthquake is akin to closing the barn door after the proverbial horse escapes. What the state should have done is ordered a moratorium throughout the large section of central Oklahoma impacted by earthquakes, which stretches from the Kansas border past Oklahoma City.
“The energy has already been released and it has traveled somewhere else,” said Crismon, a retired telephone systems executive.
According to data from the Oklahoma Geological Survey, 849 million barrels of wastewater were pumped into the ground in Oklahoma in 2009. That year, the USGS reported 20 earthquakes of 3.0 or higher.
In 2014, wastewater disposal had ballooned to 1.5 billion barrels and the number of earthquakes measuring 3.0 or higher totalled 581.
Last year, there were 907 earthquakes of that magnitude or higher in Oklahoma.
Contrary to popular belief, most induced earthquakes are not caused by fracking, but by wastewater injection, the USGS says. (Here’s a list of other misconceptions about induced quakes from the USGS.)