By ALEXIUS BURTON
Oklahoma is on pace for nearly 1,000 earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or greater in 2015, a total that would nearly double the state’s previous record.
In just five months, Oklahoma has recorded a total of 378 earthquakes of at least a 3.0 magnitude. That total is only slightly fewer than were totaled in all of 2014, when the Sooner state faced a record 584 earthquakes of at least that magnitude.
According to the Oklahoma Geological survey, 941 earthquakes magnitude 3.0 or greater are projected to occur by the end of 2015.
In response to the high number of earthquakes — Oklahoma recorded about three times more temblors in 2014 than California — the “Stop Fracking Payne County” campaign was born.
The campaign started last April to ensure that people in Payne County are not only aware of man-made earthquakes and their danger to the community, but also aware of the quakes’ danger to Oklahoma.
“We formed because many of us live near the fracking earthquakes,” said Angela Spotts, one of the founding members.
Fracking — the process of drilling and injecting fluid into the ground to release natural gas from deep below the surface — has not only stirred up environmental concern, it has created debate across the country. Recent research has provided evidence that earthquakes in Arkansas, Colorado, Ohio and Texas are also tied to wastewater injections— a process where wastewater fluid related to oil and gas drilling and fracking is pumped underground for disposal.
In 2013, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission (OCC) created a “traffic-light” system in response to concerns about the increased number of earthquakes occurring in Oklahoma.
The “traffic-light” system has evolved greatly in the last two years, yet its purpose remains the same. According to Matt Skinner, the OCC Public Manager, the program has helped slow down well development.
“The ‘traffic-light’ system is in place to create risk management, and to say where there is risk in the state and at what level,” said Skinner.
With the existing “traffic-light” protocol, disposal wells are required to go through a seismology review and then each well site receives a, “red,” “yellow,” or “green” status.
A disposal well will receive “red-light” status if it is located on an active fault line. However, if the OCC receives an application for a proposed disposal well where there is not enough evidence for a “red-light” argument, but earthquake activity is a concern, the OCC can place limited restrictions on disposal wells without prior notice and they have the authority to check reserve pressure ranges every 60 days.
“Yellow-light” status is granted if a small seismic event occurs. In these areas, caution is advised and well operators are ordered to cut back on volume.
A “green-light” indicates there are no known geological-caused earthquakes or any issues with seismology; however, this status can change if new information about the area develops.
According to Skinner, it is too soon to see if the commission’s efforts have been successful.
“No one expects this to work entirely, and we don’t know that it won’t, and we don’t look at this a s final solution, but something that has to be done for the highest risk behavior,” said Skinner.
Despite efforts to decrease the level of wastewater injections, Spotts is still concerned.
“We have been injecting for 70 years and we don’t know where this water is going and no one wants to have a conversation about the situation,” she said.
Currently, OCC is focusing on high-volume wells located in high-risk earthquake counties found disposing below the Arbuckle formation — the deepest and most commonly used injection formation throughout Oklahoma.
In May, the OCC Oil and Gas conservation publication reported that approximately 150 disposal wells have reduced their volume by 50 percent. And more than 50 disposal wells have been made shallower, in order to reduce volumes and help prevent potential risk.
Skinner said that in order to shut down a disposal well one of two things have to occur: If a well is in violation of existing rules, then it will be shut down.
Otherwise, in order for a shutdown to occur, the OCC Oil and Gas conservation must confirm that the site had directly caused an earthquake.
“A little more than half a dozen wells have shut down due to concerns,” said Skinner.
According to Skinner, much more information about underground geological structures have been discovered since 2013.
“If the old system was still in place over 70 wells would be permitted and in operation without the majority of them reaching the court system for questioning,” said Skinner.
Recently reported by The Frontier, oilman and billionaire Boone Pickens sat down for an interview with Oklahoma City News 9 anchor Kevin Ogle at the Southern Republican Leadership conference and dismissed evidence that Oklahoma is suffering from the rise of earthquakes in the last year.
During his interview, Pickens also argued that the increased number of earthquakes is instead due to the advancement in monitoring seismic activity and not necessarily due to the energy industry.
On May 29, Governor Fallin approved Senate Bill 809, which keeps cities and towns in Oklahoma from regulating oil and natural gas drilling operations. The bill permits the Oklahoma Corporation Commission to allocate the regulation of oil and gas operations however they see fit.
Spotts is frustrated with the new state regulations and, despite efforts driven by OCC, she is not optimistic about recent progress.
“Everyday we shake, the chances of a (magnitude) 5 to 6 man-made (earthquake) increases,” she said.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, Oklahoma’s largest magnitude earthquake was recorded on Nov. 6, 2011 with a magnitude of 5.6 in Prague, O.K.