The fact a Republican legislator in an extremely conservative state is pointing out the lack of government oversight of oil and gas wells exposes the dirty business of extracting fossil fuels.
Here’s the larger, local philosophical question right now: Can one acknowledge the positive impact of the energy industry on the Oklahoma economy while also arguing for stricter regulations and oversight protecting the environment?
State Rep. Steve Vaughan, a Republican from Ponca City, held an interim study last week on the issue of water contamination related to oil and gas wells. According to a media release, here’s what Vaughan had to say on the topic:
There are more than 22,000 producing as well as disposal wells in my area. Less than 50 percent have been tested for their mechanical integrity in the last four years, according to DEQ. I think we learned in today’s study that we could give some of our fish and wildlife guys and other agencies some power to report and shut down problematic wells. We could also give the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality and Oklahoma Corporation Commission more resources to look into these wells.
The concern is whether oil and gas pollution is contributing to fish kills in the Salt Fork River and water well contamination in north central Oklahoma in Vaughan’s District 37.
Another pressing issue is that scientists claim wastewater disposal wells used in the hydraulic fracturing or fracking process are responsible for the state’s earthquake emergency. The state is now experiencing more 3.0-magnitude earthquakes than California. There have been so many earthquakes that it’s literally difficult to keep track of them. As I write this, the number could change. As of July, there were 258 3.0-magnitude quakes. I use that low number only because it’s cited in this excellent National Geographic story about Oklahoma’s earthquake swarm.
The larger issue is that all this points to the need to develop cleaner, renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power and hydropower. Even those energy sources don’t come without their own negative environmental impact, but there’s no doubt the extraction of fossil fuels, along with carbon emissions, continues to critically damage our planet.
Could recent protests against the oil and gas drilling process known as fracking trickle up I-35 to Oklahoma from the north Texas city of Denton?
A group of anti-fracking protestors in Denton has forced the city council there to take their concerns seriously after a petition drive calling for a ban on the process collected about 2,000 signatures. The council recently voted 5 to 2 against issuing the fracking ban, but the fact such a vote was even taken in a Texas city—just north of Dallas—has the oil and gas industry paying attention.
Those opposed to fracking in the area argue it can create heath problems. Environmentalists have long contended that fracking leads to water contamination. Wastewater disposal wells used in the fracking process have been linked to earthquakes here in Oklahoma and elsewhere.
In the hydraulic fracturing or fracking process, chemicals and water are injected by high pressure into rock formations to release gas and oil. The wastewater from the process is then often stored in underground wastewater disposal injection wells.
In the Denton case, government officials had to weigh the rights of mineral owners in the Barnett Shale area against the health and pollution concerns of the wider public. In Oklahoma, the issue has seemingly become narrower. A dramatic surge in earthquakes over the last three years or so has been tied by scientists to disposal wells. A recent town hall in Edmond about the issue attracted several hundred people concerned about their property and safety. Some people have suggested the state place a moratorium on injection wells.
The larger point is that these protests against the fracking process are most likely to continue as the oil and gas boom continues here in Oklahoma, Texas and elsewhere. The oil and gas industry, for now, has no motivation to admit any culpability when things go wrong and no amount of scientific evidence will probably convince it to do things differently. It’s going to take coordinated grassroots protest movements like the one in Denton and the town hall in Edmond to change things.
Feel that 3.0-magnitude earthquake Tuesday morning in central Oklahoma?
Well, here’s something else to shake things up even more in the growing case to be made against hydraulic fracturing: Possible nuclear disaster.
The site Truthout recently published an article in which experts argue that a cavern that stores radioactive waste near Carlsbad, New Mexico could be threatened by nearby hydraulic fracturing or fracking activity. Energy companies, according to the article, are drilling and establishing fossil fuel wells within five miles of the site.
According to the article:
Given that it is already well known that fracking causes earthquakes, it is clear that the nuclear waste storage site is now in danger of having its structural integrity compromised.
The site is part of the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP), which was established to store radioactive waste. It’s one of the deepest and largest such facilities in the world.
Could a major leak of that radioactive waste make its way to Oklahoma?
Of course, here in Oklahoma we know all about fracking, a process in which chemicals and water are injected by high pressure into the ground to release oil and gas. Our new and growing earthquake problem, though, appears to be caused by the injection wells that store the wastewater from the process, according to scientists.
A 3.0-magnitude earthquake rumbled Edmond Tuesday morning, but that’s nothing unusual anymore. It’s all just part of our reality now in a state once known more for its killer tornadoes than its seismic activity.
Oklahoma was ranked second in the nation among the lower 48 states for earthquakes 3.0-magnitude or higher in 2013. The state has already surpassed that total this year.
Oil and gas industry leaders continue to argue that there’s no definitive proof that their drilling processes are causing the huge number of earthquakes here and elsewhere in this country’s current fracking boom, and state leaders and a complacent corporate media are happy to oblige their argument.
Here are some questions: Are we going to experience a major earthquake soon in this area that causes massive damage? Will that wake up our state leaders? What is the structural impact of so many repeated earthquakes on our property and buildings? What are the legal ramifications of human-caused earthquakes?