Oklahomans rattled by a surge of earthquakes packed a contentious town hall meeting in Edmond on Thursday and demanded answers and action from public officials.
There was booing and shouts for regulators to impose a moratorium on wastewater disposal wells used by the oil and gas industry, which scientists have linked to Oklahoma’s exponential increase in earthquake activity.
The meeting — organized by state representatives Jason Murphy, R-Guthrie, and Lewis Moore, R-Arcadia, officials from the Oklahoma Corporation Commission and the state Geological Survey — was standing room only. Attendees sat in the aisles and stairwells of the Waterloo Road Baptist Church. When the two-hour event ended, there was still a line of people waiting for their turn at the microphone to ask questions.
Many residents left the meeting unsatisfied. Ester D. Blaine brought her two granddaughters to the event, and while she was happy her family learned the basics of what to do when an earthquake occurs — “drop, cover and hold on” is the mantra — she says citizens and scientists don’t stand a chance against Oklahoma’s oil and gas industry.
“It’s a money thing,” she says. “What can be done? Call your legislator, just as they said. What is [sic] they gonna do?”
Representatives from the Corporation Commission, the state’s oil and gas regulator, said the agency lacks the legal authority to impose a moratorium on disposal wells, and acknowledged how scared many Oklahomans are.
“This is not an abstract issue,” he told the crowd. “This is not just a bureaucratic exercise in policy-making. What is happening is frightening. I’m not here in any way to try to put it any other way. It is frightening. It is worrisome. And we’re trying to see what can be done.”
The commission’s pollution abatement manager, Tim Baker, who oversees disposal well permitting and inspection in Oklahoma, told attendees that a ban or moratorium on new wells would likely have little effect because many of the wells were in operation before the surge in earthquakes.
‘Not Your Experiment’
State seismologist Austin Holland of the Oklahoma Geological Survey presented a slideshow about the earthquakes, and fielded most of the earthquake-specific questions. If wastewater injection were halted, Holland said scientists wouldn’t be able to collect data they need to study the phenomenon, a statement that was met with a loud reaction from the audience, including one member who shouted, “We’re not your experiment!”
Holland said his agency is actively studying the earthquakes, and is collaborating with the USGS and other agencies and scientists on new research, but said his office lacks the funding and resources it needs to fully explore the phenomenon.
There’s a general scientific consensus that fluid injection can trigger earthquakes, but none of the documented examples of so-called “induced seismicity” account for the rate and specific characteristics of Oklahoma’s recent earthquake swarms, Holland told the crowd.
This year, Oklahoma has had more earthquakes than California, including 230 magnitude 3.0 or greater. And there is a growing body of research linking Oklahoma’s earthquake activity to wastewater disposal wells, including several peer-reviewed studies that suggest disposal wells may have triggered the 5.7-magnitude November 2011 temblor that shook near Prague, Okla., which injured two people and damaged more than a dozen buildings. That quake, the state’s largest ever recorded, is likely the largest ever to be linked to drilling activity.
In March, the Corporation Commission voted to approve new monitoring rules for disposal well operators. Gov. Mary Fallin recently signed into law the rules, which go into effect in September. The commission is also using red tape to regulate new disposal well permits in earthquake-prone regions of the state. But, in general, regulators in several other states have been more aggressive about adopting new public safety rules that address disposal well earthquakes, a 2013 investigation by StateImpact showed.
Some attendees tried to steer the discussion away from the cause of the quakes, and seemed eager to know what, if anything, was being done to prepare for a larger earthquake in the future. In May, the OGS and the U.S. Geological Survey warned that Oklahoma’s potential for a 5.5-magnitude or greater earthquake had grown “significantly.”
Attendee Angela Spotts was happy she got a chance to ask the panelists questions, but says she left the meeting frustrated by the official response.
“I sincerely feel the industry has a big hold on this state, and I’m learning much of the laws were written in the ’30s,” she says. “I am bothered. Why are we going to be so slow on the reaction? I worry because it’s going to be us taking the risk.”