Earthquake Issue Needs Grassroots Movement, Political Leadership

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As earthquakes continue to shake things up in record numbers here in central Oklahoma and as more scientific information emerges linking them to the fracking process, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that it will take a broad grassroots movement to force government action on the issue.

Those people who care about the value of their property and the personal safety of themselves, family and friends are going to have to set aside political differences to combat the powerful political lobby of the oil and gas industry in Oklahoma. The reality is that the dominant Republican leadership in state government has been slow and reluctant to act despite the urgency of the issue.

Let’s begin by noting two pieces of new information. One, the state has had more small earthquakes than California so far in 2014. That means the state now leads the continental United States in the number of earthquakes it experiences. Two, a new study, published in the journal Science, links the staggering rise in earthquakes to wastewater injection wells used in the hydraulic fracturing or fracking process.

In that process, wastewater laced with chemicals used to create horizontally drilled oil and gas wells is disposed by injecting it with high pressure into underground rock formations, which scientists believe creates instability along fault lines and thus produces earthquakes.

Oklahoma is experiencing a mini oil and gas boom right now because of the fracking process. The state legislature in its last session passed a bill signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin that gave the industry tax breaks for drilling in the state. This was done even as earthquakes continue to rattle homes on an almost daily basis and the link between the drilling process and earthquakes became more distinct. That tax break and inaction on the earthquake issue in the form of an injection well moratorium is an indication of how much political support the oil and gas industry enjoys here.

The lead author of the Science article is Katie Keranen, a former professor at the University of Oklahoma now at Cornell University. The article pinpoints four injection wells near the Oklahoma City area—named Chambers, Flower Power, Deep Throat, and Sweetheart and operated by the New Dominion company—that could be linked to earthquakes here.

The oil and gas industry continues to argue there’s no definitive evidence that the injection wells are causing the earthquakes.

Let’s get back to the politics of the issue. A recent town hall in Edmond on the earthquake surge attracted several hundred people, according to one news account, which stated many people left unsatisfied with all the official qualifications and lack of action.

In today’s Oklahoma political reality, when people in a Republican stronghold such as Edmond start expressing anger about an issue it probably means there’s an extremely real possibility that a grassroots movement could be successful in forcing government officials to take action.

Here are some questions: Are all these recent earthquakes, some in the 4.0-magnitude or larger range, capable of damaging homes over the long term? Could the repeated shaking damage house foundations or window seals or roofs, for example? Can the oil and gas industry be held liable for the damage? What is the possibility of a larger quake in the 6.0- to 7.0-magnitude or larger range? Would lives be lost if the big earthquake hits?

These questions and more are on the minds of a lot of people in the Edmond and Oklahoma City areas and in central Oklahoma in general.

The state government’s lack of a meaningful response to the issue—in particular, the meager responses of Gov. Mary Fallin and members of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission—means people need to petition and organize for redress for any property damage they may have sustained or will sustain in the future and for some type of a moratorium on injection wells.

It could also open opportunities in an election year for politicians willing to take on the powerful oil and gas industry here in the state. The Democratic nominee for governor, Joe Dorman, has expressed some concern about the earthquakes, but is it enough?

I have written for months now that it will probably take a major earthquake that causes massive damage and injury to motivate action, but the recent town hall gives out hope that people are waking up. No one is trying to shut down oil and gas drilling here, as if that’s even possible, but this is a time when more government regulation is absolutely necessary to protect lives and personal property.