Seismicity in Oklahoma Declines, Thanks to Collaborative Efforts between Producers and Regulators
Recently, a number of media outlets, such as USA Today and The Oklahoman, have reported that Oklahoma is experiencing fewer earthquakes associated with injection wells, thanks to efforts from state officials and producers. While collaborative efforts between oil and gas operators and the state is being praised for aiding this decline; importantly, this drop in seismicity comes without a ban or moratorium on wastewater disposal in the state – something many activists have argued would be the only solution.
Operators have taken this issue very seriously, actively working with state regulators since 2014 to help mitigate and better understand the issue of seismicity in the state. Such efforts include: operators investing over $50 million to reduce earthquake risks from disposal wells since March 2015; establishing a working group that includes operators, service companies, the Oklahoma Geological Survey and Oklahoma Corporation Commission; and the industry voluntarily contributing around $450 million in seismic data with regulators and researchers. Such extensive collaboration is receiving praise from researchers and state officials alike who, thanks to the support offered by Oklahoma’s oil and gas industry, are optimistic about resolving this issue. As Dana Murphy, Commission of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, stated:
“The amount of collaboration and cooperation we have had around this issue has been tremendous, like nothing I’ve ever seen.”
Dr. Austin Holland from the USGS shared this same sentiment, stating:
“We have a lot of incredible technical people between the oil and gas industry, between regulators, and between researchers. Bring everybody to the table and work on this together, and I’m confident that we’ll find the answers we need.”
This coordination has paid off, as EID reported in May, earthquakes in Oklahoma were down 52 percent between January and April of this year, according to data from the Oklahoma Geological Survey. Additionally, with a lower number of earthquakes so far this year compared to the same time last year, Oklahoma is on track to have its first year-over-year decline in earthquakes in five years.
In addition to showing it’s possible to alleviate seismicity through collaborative efforts instead of imposing an unnecessary bans on fracking and disposal, it’s important to note that this decline occurred while oil and gas production in Oklahoma remained relatively unchanged. According to the U.S. Environmental Information Administration (EIA) oil production has remained on par with 2015 production levels. The same holds true for natural gas, as gross withdrawals in the state are comparable to 2015 production rates, according to EIA data.
Finally, while efforts to mitigate seismicity in Oklahoma have centered on the injection of wastewater, the process still remains the best possible option for the disposal of wastewater. Even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calls the process “a safe and inexpensive option” for the disposal of industrial byproducts, such as wastewater. And, without injection disposal, oil and natural gas production in Oklahoma would severely decline, if not cease to exist. As Chad Warmington, president of the Oklahoma Oil & Gas Association (OKOGA) mentioned in April,
“Underground wastewater disposal is currently the safest and most cost-effective way to dispose of produced water, so it’s important that regulators find the right balance in addressing seismicity concerns without placing needless barriers to the state’s oil and gas development.”
Seismicity in Oklahoma is an ongoing issue and clearly a priority for oil and gas producers and state agencies alike. But as these recent reports confirm, collaboration between these groups – not bans on fracking or disposal – are working in the Sooner State.
There is a great deal of misunderstanding surrounding seismicity in Oklahoma, especially as it relates to oil and natural gas activities. Many falsely blame fracking for the rise in seismic events over the past few years and have therefore called for a ban on the process. However, scientists at both federal agencies and top universities have agreed that fracking is not the source of increased seismicity in Oklahoma, as the risk of earthquakes from fracking is exceedingly low. As the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) notes:
“In the United States, fracking is not causing most of the induced earthquakes. Wastewater disposal is the primary cause of the recent increase in earthquakes in the central United States.” [emphasis added]
In a separate report, USGS noted that even those events that do occur are too small to be felt or cause structural damage:
“USGS’s studies suggest that the actual hydraulic fracturing process is only very rarely the direct cause of felt earthquakes. While hydraulic fracturing works by making thousands of extremely small ‘microearthquakes,’ they are, with just a few exceptions, too small to be felt; none have been large enough to cause structural damage.” [emphasis added]
Dr. Mark Zoback, a professor of geophysics at Stanford University echoed this finding, stating:
“It is not cause by the hydraulic fracturing process at all.”
With scientists in agreement that fracking is not causing earthquakes in Oklahoma, there has been greater focus on the underground injection disposal of wastewater – ancient water that rises to the surface during both conventional and unconventional production – as a possible contributor to seismicity. Currently, there are around 3,200 active wastewater disposal wells in Oklahoma, but only a small fraction are potentially linked to seismicity. As the National Research council recently concluded:
“Injection for disposal of wastewater derived from energy technologies into the subsurface does pose some risk for induced seismicity, but very few events have been documented over the past several decades relative to the large number of disposal wells in operation.” [emphasis added]