There is no lack of opinions regarding the cause of significant increases in earthquake activity in Oklahoma. For many of us, including me and numerous employees of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, this isn’t just a professional issue. It’s also a personal issue since our homes haven’t been spared from the shaking.
In the midst of research and rhetoric, no definitive answer exists as to whether the earthquakes are the result of natural forces or triggered by man’s activities, or some combination of the two. So what do we actually know? We know that researchers agree that hydraulic fracturing isn’t the cause of the major earthquakes in Oklahoma. We know that the bulk of the current concern by seismologists is focused on deep wastewater disposal wells regulated by the Corporation Commission under the review of the Environmental Protection Agency.
We also know that most of the wastewater disposed of into these wells isn’t fluid used in hydraulic fracturing, but rather water existing naturally within the geological formation that comes to the surface with the production of oil and natural gas.
What can we do? Despite the lack of definitive answers, the Corporation Commission can, is and will be taking a prudent, deliberative response. Commission staff responds to seismic events by checking for anything unusual in the operation of any disposal wells within the vicinity of a “seismic swarm.” All relevant data is provided to Oklahoma Geological Survey (OGS) seismologists, who look for possible correlations between wells and seismic activity. Any minor operational issue with any well must be immediately addressed, even if that involves shutting in the well.
The commission has adopted the National Academy of Sciences “traffic light” system for the permitting and operation of disposal wells. The designation of an area or well operation as “red light, yellow light, green light,” has led to fewer applications for wells in areas of concern, applications being dismissed, language requiring seismic monitoring and other safeguards for certain new wells, as well as modifications of some existing well operations.
The commissioners have approved new rules that greatly increase reporting of the volume and pressure of many disposal wells, as well as increased testing requirements. Additional requirements are being discussed and considered.
The Corporation Commission is actively involved in assisting OGS and other researchers in developing more detailed fault maps to locate the most critical areas in terms of potential risk of induced seismicity. We’ve provided matching funds necessary for OGS to obtain a large federal grant to further its studies and obtain more and better equipment.
Oklahoma’s energy industry is volunteering critical (and normally proprietary) information to researchers and regulators and supporting new rules and approaches as well.
These steps are part of an evolving process that includes and concerns all of Oklahoma. The Corporation Commission is committed to doing everything possible to further this critical work.
Murphy, a Republican, was elected to serve a two-year term on the Corporation Commission in 2008 and was re-elected to a six-year term in 2010. She is a former administrative law judge for the commission.