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Some environmentalists believe the state of Oklahoma isn’t moving fast enough to curb the amount of wastewater that energy drillers are injecting below ground, a practice that scientists say probably is responsible for the recent increase in earthquakes in the state.
Three months ago, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission directed 12 oil and gas producers operating within a 40-mile tract northeast of Oklahoma City to reduce by 38 percent the amount of wastewater they inject into 23 disposal wells. Yet geologists have designated nearly 600 wells, about 13 percent of all the wells in the states, as potential sources of earthquakes.
So on Nov. 2, the Sierra Club’s Oklahoma branch and Public Justice, based in Washington, along with the New York law firm Weitz & Luxenberg sent a letter to four oil and gas companies saying they plan to sue them unless the drillers “substantially reduce” their wastewater injection. It cited “ongoing violations” of federal law through the injection of wastewater from their drilling activities in the state.
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“This injection has caused or contributed to a huge increase in the number and severity of earthquakes being experienced in Oklahoma and southern Kansas,” the letter said. “These earthquakes have already caused injuries and property damage and are threatening much more damage that is potentially devastating.”
The letter was sent to Devon Energy Production Co., New Dominion, Sandridge and Chesapeake Energy, all based in Oklahoma.
There’s been a sharp increase in the number of earthquakes in Oklahoma and several other central states since 2009. Various scientific studies say they are caused by a corresponding increase in the underground disposal of salty wastewater, a byproduct of the recent boom in oil and gas drilling in the region.
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Producing oil and gas generates this wastewater whether it is extracted conventionally or by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Scientists say this newly disposed wastewater finds its way into cracks in underground rock, loosening them until they slip under the pressure of weight of rocks above them. This slip causes the earth to shake, they say.
“This case is not just about what has happened so far,” Public Justice Executive Director Paul Bland said from Washington. “Where are we going to be in three years if this pollution continues unabated? Where would we be in five years? Those are really important things to consider.”
Under the U.S. Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976, the four energy companies have 90 days to correct the alleged violations detailed in the notice. If they don’t, the environmental groups said, they plan to sue them in federal District Court.
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A lawsuit isn’t the proper way to address the earthquake issue, according to Mark Christian, an independent energy consultant in Edmond, Okla. He said in an email to International Business Times that the threat by the environmental groups “will certainly not answer the questions Oklahomans are asking” about the cause of earthquakes.
Christian also said he wasn’t as sure as the Sierra Club and Public Justice that the quakes are related to the disposal of drilling wastewater, and said more research is needed to upgrade the link from suspicion to confirmation.
“Four generations of my family have called Oklahoma home and made their living in the state’s oil fields, so the earthquake issue is important to me,” Christian said. “It’s also important to those [four] oil companies … because their families live here, too.”
By Andy Tully of Oilprice.com
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Andy Tully is a veteran news reporter who is now the news editor for Oilprice.com