EARTHQUAKES Second of Two Parts: Okla. officials ignore advice about injecting into faults

EARTHQUAKES Second of Two Parts: Okla. officials ignore advice about injecting into faults by Mike Soraghan, July 25, 2012, E&E
Seismologists have simple advice for oil and gas companies to avoid unleashing an earthquake — don’t inject millions of gallons of wastewater near active faults. That’s advice Oklahoma’s drilling industry and regulators have chosen to ignore. It’s not an academic debate in this rural crossroads, halfway between Tulsa and Oklahoma City. People here learned they live above an active fault only after it jolted them Nov. 5, 2011, with the state’s largest recorded earthquake. The magnitude-5.6 convulsion injured at least two people and damaged as many as 200 homes and businesses. A number of seismologists, along with many of the people who live around here, think the injection wells are connected to the earthquake (EnergyWire, July 24). ….two oil companies have continued injecting millions of gallons of wastewater — with the state’s blessing — into wells within two and a half miles of the quake’s epicenter, which is just northwest of Prague’s city limits. That risks another damaging earthquake, scientists say, possibly even a bigger one. “Bad idea,” Stanford University professor Mark Zoback said simply when asked last month about the continuing wastewater injection. Zoback is no crusader against hydraulic fracturing. In addition to teaching at Stanford, he became a senior adviser to Baker-Hughes after the multinational well services firm bought the consulting firm where he was chairman in 2008. Zoback started his career as a geophysicist at Amoco Production Co., and before working at Stanford, he was chief of the Tectonophysics Branch of the U.S. Geological Survey Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program. Zoback wrote in the April edition of Earth Magazine that man-made quakes — or “induced seismicity” — are manageable, as long as certain steps are taken. “First, it is important to avoid injection into active faults,” he wrote. Regulators, he wrote, must be prepared to halt drilling if they find a previously unknown fault. The article doesn’t contemplate the idea of continuing to inject into a known fault. In his brief interview with EnergyWire, Zoback said he wasn’t familiar with reports from fellow scientists that the magnitude-5.6 quake was linked to drilling activities. Still, Zoback said, no one should be drilling near active, known faults. … Oil and gas drilling here is regulated by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, a three-member elected panel whose members get more campaign contributions from oil and gas than from any other industry (Greenwire, Dec. 9, 2011). … Since the earthquake, the commission hasn’t put any restrictions on drilling or injection. The commission is awaiting findings from the Oklahoma Geological Survey, which has criticized the work of other geologists linking the earthquake to drilling activities as “premature.” The state is also getting data from seismic testing done in the area after the earthquake by a company looking for oil. … Murphy indicated she was not familiar with the explicit warning not to inject into active faults. Murphy also said campaign contributions play no role in her decisionmaking. “I’m not anybody’s commissioner,” she said. “I’m for the state of Oklahoma.” … But University of Memphis seismologist Steve Horton — whose research was part of the basis for the moratorium in Arkansas — warned in a scientific report in April that continuing to inject brine into the Wilzetta Fault risks another damaging earthquake (EnergyWire, April 19). … In Ohio earlier this year, state officials moved quickly to get an injection well operator to agree to shut down its well, months before they issued a final report linking earthquakes to the well. “Our top priority is the health and safety of the public and the protection of Ohio’s natural resources,” Ohio Department of Natural Resources Director James Zehringer said at the time. EPA oversees state regulation of underground injection wells, but there are no federal requirements banning injection into faults, nor are there penalties for causing earthquakes. Oil and gas injection wells are exempt from the federal environmental laws requiring tests before drilling such wells to ensure they won’t unleash quakes. Part One

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