Is fracking moratorium the solution for quakes in Texas, Oklahoma?

Oil industry says it's taking steps to address quakes linked to fracking

The release of studies this week linking fracking to recent earthquakes in Texas and Oklahoma came as no surprise to those who have been rocked by the temblors in recent years.

The question for people such as Angela Spotts, 53, of Stillwater, Okla., is what’s being done about the problem. The reports, including one by the U.S. Geological Survey on Thursday, tied seismic activity to wastewater disposal following the oil and gas extraction technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

“I’m trying to understand what’s being done to protect us. There’s no excuse for a moratorium not being put in place immediately” on wastewater injection, Spotts said. “I’m very alarmed that more people are not concerned.”

Industry experts say that something is already being done.

“We’re all trying to find out what the heck is going on down under the ground. It’s got everyone concerned. Nobody wants to be the cause of earthquakes,” said Alex Mills of the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers, a group of 3,300 oil and gas producers based in Wichita Falls.

Kim Hatfield, president of Crawley Petroleum in Oklahoma City, said he, too, lives in an earthquake zone where his “house shakes along with everybody else’s.”

He said the industry was working with state regulators to check, and in some cases plug, the deepest wells drilled through the state’s Arbuckle Formation into the “basement” layer of rock linked to seismic activity.

“That’s the type of thing that just makes good sense,” Hatfield said.

A fracking moratorium, however, would be “a horrible idea on many levels,” he said.

Some other states that have been suddenly rocked by quakes in recent years declared partial bans on fracking, including Arkansas and Ohio, noted Casey Holcomb of the Central Oklahoma Clean Water Coalition.

“They moved very swiftly on this when there were earthquake swarms. When we talk to the Oklahoma Corporation Commission here on this, they say they don’t have the authority,” Holcomb said of the state’s oil and gas regulator.

He added, “The oil industry is in every level of government, and fracking has just given them obscene levels of wealth and they buy political power with it.”

Although this week’s studies were significant, Holcomb said, “I don’t see where it’s angered people enough to where they want to take action. It may take a massive 7.0 earthquake for people to realize something has to change, a widespread earthquake causing catastrophic damage.”

He praised Oklahoma Democratic state Rep. Cory Williams of Stillwater as one lawmaker who wants to take action now.

Williams this week proposed a moratorium on wastewater disposal in a 16-county section of central and north-central Oklahoma that the geologists identified as being at the highest seismic risk

“We’re finally admitting correlation, but we still don’t have a viable action plan in place to stop it. The science says we’ve got building seismicity. That’s why I’m proposing the moratorium,” Williams said.

It’s also a personal battle.

“We’re the ones who are constantly shaking and having our homes destroyed,” Williams, 37, said Thursday, echoing a Californian sentiment: “Every time you hear one or feel one, you wonder if it’s the Big One.”

Most of his constituents either don’t have earthquake insurance or have discovered that their policies cover only catastrophic damage.

At the same time, they have seen their insurance premiums increase as their neighborhoods are reclassified as earthquake zones. Suing oil companies to recoup damages would take years, so few do, he said.

“For homeowners around here, it’s death by a thousand cuts,” he said.

Williams said he had some bipartisan support for the moratorium in the state’s Republican-dominated Legislature, but he was not optimistic that the proposal would succeed. Without it, he said, regulators would not move fast enough to address the problem.

“The steps they have taken have not been enough to reduce the seismicity,” he said.

Regulators disagreed, saying they took the findings seriously and have been attempting to address the problem for years.

Matt Skinner, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, said that last month the agency began limiting the deepest wastewater wells. He said it was also considering restrictions on the amount of wastewater companies are allowed to inject.

“We’re not saying, don’t worry be happy,” said Skinner, of Guthrie, Okla., about 35 miles southwest of Stillwater.

“I live in an earthquake area,” he said. “My house gets hit over and over again.”

He said Oklahoma has far more wastewater injection wells than Arkansas and Ohio — about about 4,500 statewide.

“And in the earthquake areas they are clustered together, so it can be difficult to determine which wells are connected to seismic activity,” Skinner said.

Oklahoma regulators also recently required fracking companies to report wastewater injection volumes monthly instead of annually, allowing regulators to better detect -- and potentially regulate -- high-volume wells, which Skinner said “is certainly still an option.”

Hatfield said industry was open to added regulation, but “we just want it to be something that's based in science rather than a meat cleaver approach.”

The industry has several alternatives to wastewater injection, the preferred method for disposing of water used to extract oil and gas.

“Most of the fluids that we're talking about are heavy in brine, very salty,” Mills said. “So they have to be treated so that they can be reused. It's costly. The industry is doing more and more of this as the technology is evolving … but it's a small part of the water issue. Then we have the price of oil declining, and that has an impact on your ability to use such cost-intensive processes as treating the water for reuse.”

Adam Briggle, an anti-fracking activist in Denton, Texas, was not optimistic that industry would work with regulators to meaningfully respond to what he sees as a crisis.

“They’re just going to drag their feet,” said Briggle, 38, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of North Texas whose group succeeded in banning fracking in Denton this year.

Now Republican state lawmakers are trying to pass a proposal that would undo the ban, saying that only the state has the power to prohibit fracking.

Back in Stillwater, the earthquakes have split two walls in Angela Spotts’ 7-year-old, custom-built brick house, separated the fireplace from the wall and left cracks around her windows inside and out.

“And my damages are nothing,” she said. “I’ve seen foundations split through and porches separated. It’s heartbreaking.”

She bought earthquake insurance two years ago, but it only covers catastrophic damage. Repairs would cost up to $10,000, and there’s no guarantee insurance would pay. For now, she’s not fixing anything.

Because one thing’s for certain, she said: “It’s just going to keep happening.”

Twitter: @mollyhf

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