Do Injection Well Rules Go Far Enough?

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The Oklahoma Corporation Commission has passed new rules requiring companies to collect more data related to their wastewater injection wells in the state, but do they go far enough and will the legislature and Gov. Mary Fallin even approve them?

The commission’s action came in response to the growing concern that the dramatic surge in earthquakes here in recent years is tied to the wells, which are used to dispose of wastewater in oil and gas drilling processes, including hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.”

There is a growing scientific consensus that the surge in earthquakes here and in other states has been caused by the injection wells. In particular, studies have linked a 5.7 magnitude earthquake near Prague in 2011 to injection well activity. That earthquake damaged several buildings.

In the injection well process, the wastewater, which includes chemicals, is injected by high pressure into underground rock formations. Some scientists believe this can destabilize rock layers connected to fault lines and thus result in seismic activity. There have been hundreds of earthquakes in Oklahoma in recent years, most of them small. The state had the second highest number of earthquakes of 3.0 magnitude or higher in 2013 in the contiguous United States.

Under the new rules passed Thursday, those companies operating wastewater injection wells in the state would have to maintain records of the daily amount of volume and pressure used in the disposal process. This information would have to be available for the commission. The intent is to determine the possible relationship between individual wells and particular earthquakes.

The action might be viewed as a first step, but some citizens and politicians in other states have called for a moratorium on injection wells as the link between them and earthquakes grows more apparent. Why can’t oil and gas companies simply find a different way to dispose of the wastewater produced by the mini-boom related to fracking? Why put lives and property at risk?

Will the new rules even be approved by the Republican-dominated legislature and Republican Gov. Mary Fallin? The oil and gas lobby in Oklahoma is a powerful force in Oklahoma politics. The Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association didn’t protest the new rules, according to a media report, but nationwide industry officials have been reluctant to even discuss the issue in the past. Why would they ever want to admit culpability?

Michael Behar, writing in Mother Jones, reported last year that he encountered this reluctance when doing a story on the issue. Behar writes:

For its part, industry is doing its best to avoid discussing the issue publicly, even as its leading professional guild, the Society of Petroleum Engineers, recognized the matter was serious enough to call its first-ever meeting devoted to "injection induced seismicity." Held in September, the SPE's 115-member workshop sought to "better understand and mitigate potential risks." When I reached out to SPE coordinator Amy Chao, she told me, "I appreciate your interest but press is not allowed to attend in any fashion.”

The most prudent action would be to place a moratorium on injection wells in places that have seen a surge in earthquakes. The question comes down to this for state leaders: Are the profits of the oil and gas industry more important than the safety of citizens?