Earthquake Task Force Idea Deserves Support

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An Oklahoma state senator, along with a Tulsa geologist, have called for establishing a federal task force to study the dramatic increase of earthquakes here that scientists argue is related to oil and gas drilling processes.

It’s a good idea. State leaders, including Gov. Mary Fallin and members of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, have been slow to respond to the issue. Will the ultra conservative Oklahoma Congressional delegation get behind the proposal despite the powerful oil and gas industry political lobby?

State Sen. Jerry Ellis, a Democrat from Valiant, and Tulsa geologist Bob Jackman floated the idea on Monday. According to a StateImpact Oklahoma article, Ellis and Jackman issued a press release that called the situation an “emergency.” They want a federal task force comprised of scientists and researchers from universities, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Oklahoma Geological Survey to look into the matter. Representatives from the oil and gas industry would be asked to join the task force as well.

The statistics are incredibly alarming. Oklahoma now leads California in the number of earthquakes of a 3.0-magnitude or higher. So far this year, the state has experienced more than 200 earthquakes of 3.0-magnitude or higher, which can cause damage. A 5.6-magnitude earthquake struck near Prague in 2011, causing damage. The number of temblors has been steadily increasing. It’s not uncommon in parts of Oklahoma these days to feel several earthquakes each week or two or three on any given day.

Scientists claim the earthquakes are caused by the hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” process. Oklahoma is experiencing an oil and gas mini-boom because of fracking. In the fracking process, wastewater is eventually injected underground by high pressure into what are called injection or disposal wells. It is believed that process is causing what have become known as “earthquake swarms” here.

A relatively recent town hall on the issue in Edmond drew hundreds of concerned citizens. Some people, including myself, have called for a moratorium on disposal wells until the matter can be further studied. Scientists and the federal government have long known that injection wells can cause earthquakes. I wrote about that here.

The oil and gas industry’s consistent position, supported by the editorial page of the state’s largest newspaper, is that it’s not conclusive the injection wells are causing the earthquakes. The oil and gas industry, of course, has no compelling reason to accept liability. That’s why a federal task force, operating outside the powerful oil and gas lobby, could be the answer.

I’m only speculating, but prominent members of Oklahoma’s Congressional delegation, including the state’s two senators, could try to squash the idea if the oil and gas industry urges them to do so.

U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe has accepted more than $1.6 million in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry since 1989. U.S. Rep. Tom Cole has accepted $616,250 in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry since 2001. The campaign contribution information comes from the site OpenSecrets.org.

Unfortunately, money has corrupted our political process so much that it’s possible only a large, damaging earthquake or series of damaging earthquakes will generate any real action. The proposed task force, however, remains a solid idea. Who will champion it in Washington?