Regulators in Oklahoma are cracking down on oil and gas producers in response to a sharp jump in seismic activity in recent years—an increase that scientists have tied to the storage of wastewater in old, unused wells. Reuters reports:
The guidelines, which go into effect immediately, include provisions that require producers to implement mitigation plans following an earthquake of magnitude 2.5 or more and to suspend operations following a quake of magnitude 3.5 or greater.
While the guidelines are technically voluntary, the Oklahoma legislature this year gave the Oklahoma Corporation Commission powers to make compliance mandatory. “We regard these as a starting point, and the producers have been fully cooperative,” said Matt Skinner, public information officer for the Oklahoma Corporation Commission.
Oklahoma’s earthquake problem is well documented, and is becoming better understood over time. Seismologists have measured an anomalous rise in small-magnitude earthquakes—most of which are undetectable by people living on the surface—that has corresponded with the state’s recent boom in oil and gas drilling, itself a product of the shale revolution. But we should note that, in Oklahoma at least, this seismic uptick has been linked by researchers to wastewater storage practices rather than the actual hydraulic fracturing of shale rock itself.
Regardless of how oil and gas operations are increasing seismic activity, this is a problem that demands prompt solutions. To that end, the state’s oil and gas industry regulatory body, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, stepped in back in March and demanded that companies decrease the amount of wastewater they were storing in old wells by 40 percent. That intervention seems to be having its desired effect, as Oklahoma is looking at a 43 percent reduction in earthquakes this year as compared to last. That’s an impressive cut, but the state’s work is not yet done, and this week its regulators outlined their intention to continue to try and reduce drilling-related seismicity.
If Oklahoma can manage to mitigate these earthquakes without choking the life out of the hydrocarbon industry—a vital part of the state’s economy—it will serve as proof of concept that these sorts of regulations don’t necessarily need to come from Washington. In fact, Scott Pruitt, Donald Trump’s pick to head the EPA and Oklahoma’s own attorney general, will likely be pointing to his home state’s ongoing work to effectively tackle this earthquake problem as evidence that the organization he’s been nominated to lead ought to cede some of its power to the states. This isn’t just about small-magnitude earthquakes anymore—what happens in Oklahoma in the coming years could affect how this country approaches a wide variety of environmental regulations. We’ll be watching.