Oklahoma regulators and lawmakers are scrambling to tighten the reigns on hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – after a surge in earthquakes in recent months has shaken the state, including a 5.1-magnitude earthquake that hit northwest Oklahoma Sunday and was felt as far away as Atlanta.
The Oklahoma Corporation Commission has asked the operators of about 250 injection wells to reduce the amount of wastewater they inject into underground shale beds by 40 percent, which amounts to more than half a million barrels every day.
Oklahoma energy producers inject the bedrock with a slurry of unknown chemicals designed to release underground gas deposits. Prior to 2012, earthquakes of any magnitude were fairly rare. When the state gave energy producers carte blanche to frack several thousand square miles of Oklahoma land, the number of significant earthquakes in the state exploded from a few dozen in 2012 to more than 900 in 2015 alone.
Sunday’s earthquake, the third strongest in the state’s history, was felt across 13 other states and up to 1,000 miles away. The sudden spate of earthquakes correlates to the rise of fracking activity in Oklahoma. The amount of waste water injected into the ground by energy companies tripled between 2012 and 2015.
According to the Associated Press, a number of recent peer-reviewed studies of the problem found that injecting high volumes of waste water could destabilize the earth’s natural faults.
Sunday’s earthquake was enough to spur one Oklahoma state representative into action, probably because it hit so close to home. House speaker Jeff Hickman, who lives 20 miles from the epicenter of the quake, is now pushing legislation that gives the Corporation Commission the authority to order the immediate shutdown of the wells or a reduction in volume.
“We will remove any doubt at all that the commission has complete authority in these emergency situations, without so much as a notice or hearing, to take whatever action they believe is necessary in these emergency situations,” Mr. Hickman said.
The Sierra Club has filed one of the first lawsuits in connection with the increase of earthquakes against three major Oklahoma energy corporations. The complaint seeks immediate and substantial reductions in wastewater injections performed by Chesapeake Operating, Devon Energy Production Co., and New Dominion.