To Get Data on Disposal Well Earthquakes, State Might Create One

  • Joe Wertz
Oklahoma Geological Survey seismologist Austin Holland.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

Oklahoma Geological Survey seismologist Austin Holland.

While there is a growing amount of scientific research that links central-Oklahoma’s earthquake swarm to wells the oil and gas industry uses for waste-fluid disposal, geophysicists and seismologists don’t fully understand the phenomenon.

Researchers acknowledge that underground fluid disposal can trigger or induce earthquakes, but there is debate on some of the scientific details, and some dissent over whether there’s enough evidence to conclude that Oklahoma’s quakes are drilling-related.

But all seismologists agree on the need for more data. Some have urged the Corporation Commission to require better and more frequent monitoring by disposal well operators.

There’s another way to get more data: Create a small earthquake — and that’s what the state’s official seismologist, Austin Holland at the Oklahoma Geological Survey, is seeking permission to do in Love County, Reuters’ Carey Gillam reports:

That region was rattled by dozens of earthquakes in September, including one that registered 3.4 on the Richter scale, and the quakes began within two weeks of the startup of a new wastewater injection well there. Data showed that as the volume of pressurized wastewater injections grew, so did the seismic activity.

The well operator closed the well after regulators limited its volumes in response to the quakes, but Holland is seeking permission from regulators and the well operator to reopen the well and inject ever-greater amounts of wastewater while monitoring the seismic reaction. He hopes the work can help identify safe levels of injection and strategies to reduce risks for further earthquakes.

The Love County earthquake test hasn’t been scheduled or approved, and the Corporation Commission is waiting for Holland’s final proposal, spokesman Matt Skinner tells StateImpact. But the disposal well owner welcomes the test, Reuters reports:

Tom Dunlap, owner of the injection well Holland wants to use as the test site, said he welcomes Holland’s proposal as a way to limit further earthquake risk.

“What our work does … and how that plays into seismic stuff … we don’t know,” Dunlap said.