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Shake Rattle and Oil
Oklahoma’s Quakes Quiet Down

Hydraulic fracturing has an earthquake problem, but Oklahoma is already proving that smart regulation can keep the oil and gas flowing while reducing the associated risks of seismic activity. Researchers have drawn a clear link between the storage of wastewater generated from fracking operations in spent wells with an increase in small-magnitude earthquakes, and nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than in the state of Oklahoma. In March, the state’s drilling regulator ordered companies to start reducing their dependence on this practice, and as the AP reports, Oklahoma is already seeing the results:

For quake-prone parts of Oklahoma, the state ordered what is essentially a 40 percent reduction in injection of the saltwater that scientists generally blame for the massive increase in earthquakes. This year, before the new rules went into effect on May 28, Oklahoma averaged 2.3 quakes a day. Since then the average dropped to 1.3 a day, based on AP’s analysis of U.S. Geological Survey data of earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or larger…”Definitely the rate of quakes have gone down,” said USGS geophysicist Robert Williams. […]

A study published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances by [Stanford seismologist, Mark Zoback] saw the reduction in Oklahoma quakes and used intricate computer simulations to show that the rate of earthquakes will continue to go down and eventually return to near pre-2009 levels.

It’s important to note that, despite this general downward trend in seismic activity in Oklahoma thus far this year, there has been an alarming uptick in larger magnitude earthquakes. As the USGS’s Robert Williams told the AP, “we had more magnitude 5s this year than ever before historically in Oklahoma.”

Still, a 43 percent reduction in seismic activity on the back of a 40 percent reduction in the storage of wastewater in unused wells strongly suggests a link between this industry technique and earthquakes, but also is a clear demonstration of the of the ability of regulators to effectively protect the public’s safety by steering operations towards less dangerous techniques.

And these alternative techniques do exist. Companies have already been experimenting with non-water based fracking mediums—like compressed gas, for instance—that would eliminate the need to find a suitable storage option for the resultant effluent. There’s also an obvious profit motive for firms to develop ways to reduce, reuse, and recycle (greens, you’d imagine, should be pleased about this) the water they do use to break shale rock apart to gain access to the trapped hydrocarbons therein.

Creating and enforcing a set of rules that protect the various interests of relevant stakeholders while simultaneously encouraging growth is always a tricky task, and it’s certainly not one that Oklahoma’s Corporation Commission has taken lightly. Thus far, the state seems to be striking that delicate balance between burdensome red tape and a negligent laissez-faire attitude, and that’s a decidedly positive development both for shake-weary Oklahomans and America’s energy security.

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