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Shake Rattle and Oil
Oklahoma Fracker Rejects Anti-Earthquake Regulations

An Oklahoma oil company is rejecting an appeal from state regulators who have asked it to cease storing wastewater from its fracking operations in wells. Oklahoma has seen a sharp spike in low-magnitude earthquakes in recent years, and studies have tied this seismic uptick with the storage of wastewater in wells. But the company in question, Sandridge Energy, doesn’t think the science is settled enough for the state to deny it its cheapest option for discarding its fracking effluent. The WSJ reports:

Sandridge Energy Inc., which has complied with similar requests in the past, said this time it won’t stop using its wastewater disposal wells, which are part of the company’s oil-and-gas fracking operations…The Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which regulates energy companies, is working on legal action to modify Sandridge’s permits in order to force it to comply, said Matt Skinner, a spokesman for the agency. […]

How Sandridge fares in the inevitable legal battle ahead of it could have large implications for the shale industry. The studies mentioned above are part of a sizable body of evidence linking the disposal of wastewater in wells with increased seismicity, and while it may be too early to definitively draw a causal connection between the two phenomena, this is still a very serious issue that deserves the scrutiny it’s getting.

That doesn’t mean capitulating to Chicken Little pronunciations that fracking is going to swallow homes. That kind of breathless fear mongering may be the default state of the modern green movement, but it doesn’t lend itself to constructive policymaking or regulation. It’s important to put these earthquakes in context, because their magnitudes are so low that they often can’t be felt without specific instrumentation. Moreover, while some studies have linked the hydraulic fracturing part of shale drilling (the step from which fracking derives its name) with micro-quakes, the case is a bit stronger against disposing wastewater in wells—and that doesn’t pose an existential threat to the industry because, as the WSJ notes, there are alternatives available:

Some oil-field service companies load wastewater into trucks and haul it to special treatment plants, where it is cleaned for reuse—sometimes recycled back into oil-and-gas operations or, in some cases, used to water crops. But those options are usually more expensive than using disposal wells.

We’ve highlighted the industry’s drive to recycle its fracking fluid, a move that could not only prevent seismic forcing but, if it can be commercially scaled, could end up saving companies money.

There’s a fight brewing in Oklahoma, and it’s one worth paying attention to. Fracking has remade the American energy landscape in just a few short years, but its linkage with earthquakes demands sober analysis, just as its regulation requires consistent but not overly onerous oversight—enough to keep companies from acting irresponsibly but not so much as to stifle the industry’s ability to adapt to these new challenges. Finding that middle way is the perennial challenge for regulators, and it isn’t easy. We’ll be watching to see how Oklahoma manages.

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  • CaliforniaStark

    On this one am with the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, there is not reason the fracking company in question should not be required to either recycle its frack water or adopt a method of fracking that does not utilize water.

  • Andrew Allison

    The State should be thanking the frackers. In the unlikely event that fracking is actually causing this minor eathquakes, it is reducing the pprobability of the really big one of which the region is capable.

    • Jacksonian_Libertarian

      Exactly, reducing pressure with lots of small quakes is much better than having a big damaging quake, and that’s only if fracking is really responsible, it could be the loss of pressure from pumping all this oil and gas out of the shale rocks. This whole controversy stinks of the environmentalist assault on Modern Civilization because mankind is making a mess of their beloved Gaia. What they fail to realize is that Gaia thinks Mankind is her finest creation, and that the Human Ecology includes thousands if not tens of thousands of species that have been rescued from the extinction already suffered by 99.99% of all species that have ever lived, or for as long as mankind exists at least.

    • rheddles

      First, in normal situations minor earthquakes do not reduce the probability of the big one. In fact, the frequency of small ones can be indicative of the approach of a big one. I suggest you read this post by the Oklahoma Geological Survey.

      If you did read that post, you will also notice the graphs that demonstrate a dramatic increase in the number of earthquakes as fracking has increased. Oklahoma is not on a major tectonic fault, nor is it New Madrid. But there’s just a lot we don’t know about specific geological situations. New faults are being found in California regularly and you would think they would be on top of it.

      There were two quakes of 4.7 and 4.8 magnitude in the last day in a sparsely populated part of the state,

      So far the only damage from the Oklahoma quakes is to nerves. But there is something going on. It seems to me the state would be acting prudently to have the frackers post a bond until the problem is better understood.

      • Andrew Allison

        I stand corrected. It seems clear that the injection of produced water (water separated from the oil and gas extracted) is resulting in a marked increase in seismic activity. Whether these small quakes are increasing or decreasing the potential for really large ones is undetermined. The energy being released is stored energy which history suggests isn’t stored indefinitely.

        • rheddles

          What’s going on in Oklahoma is odd. There is plenty of fracking in Texas, North Dakota, and Pennsylvania without this kind of seismic activity. Somehow, the rocks there must be different.

          • CaliforniaStark

            It should also be pointed out that fracking is not causing the earthquakes. The problem is believed to be caused by the deep injection of wastewater into the ground; something that was done in Oklahoma prior to fracking. The solutions are obvious, including recycling waste water; some suggest the one company resisting stopping the practice may be doing so because it cannot afford the increased cost.

            The issue is unique to Oklahoma, but is being used to attack fracking nation-wide.

          • Andrew Allison

            I think you nailed it in your previous comment: we just don’t know enough about the geology to draw conclusions.

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