The power and frequency of earthquakes in Oklahoma have been increasing, but the Legislature has done little to try to curb the temblors that scientists have linked to the underground disposal of oil and gas drilling wastewater.
That could change this year, as angry residents have been increasingly turning up at town hall meetings and legislative hearings to call for state leaders to address the problem.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, Oklahoma this year has already had more than 90 earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or greater, which is generally when most people start to feel them. The town of Fairview, in northwest Oklahoma, has been hardest hit, but several large quakes also have rattled the well-to-do suburb of Edmond, including a 4.3-magnitude quake on Dec. 29 and a 4.2 temblor a few days later.
“The state’s given us nothing other than innuendo about what they think it is,” said Fairview resident George Eischen. “Give us some information.”
Gov. Mary Fallin earlier this month authorized nearly $1.4 million in emergency funding for state regulators and researchers. That includes $387,000 for the Oklahoma Corporation Commission to upgrade technology and hire contract geologists, and $1 million for the Oklahoma Geological Survey to install new seismic monitoring stations and update its monitoring network and software.
But the governor didn’t mention earthquakes in her annual address to the Legislature, and Democrats say GOP leaders aren’t doing nearly enough.
“Right now, the 800-pound gorilla in the room for most Oklahoma citizens is the fact that the largest and most important investment that they make in their lifetime, their homes, are shaking underneath them, and the governor didn’t address the issue at all in her State of the State,” said House Democratic Leader Rep. Scott Inman, D-Del City.
Inman said he believes the oil and gas industry should be subsidizing the costs of researching earthquakes, and he said Democrats intend to push for a law to prohibit out-of-state wastewater from being dumped in Oklahoma. He also wants the Legislature to roll back a law passed last year that prohibits cities or counties from regulating oil and gas activities, although the Republican-led Legislature is unlikely to do that.
Fallin spokesman Michael McNutt said the governor didn’t mention earthquakes in her State of the State because she wanted to emphasize Oklahoma’s budget crisis and that she insists any decisions dealing with quakes must be based on science.
“She is interested in actual plans of action rather than political rhetoric that doesn’t do anything,” McNutt said.
House Speaker Jeff Hickman, whose hometown of Fairview is located near a recent swarm of quakes, has said the Corporation Commission has the regulatory authority it needs to shut down wastewater wells, but that he’s open to clarifying that power through legislation.
The commission so far has directed disposal well operators to stop injecting wastewater or to reduce volumes in quake-prone areas, but at least one energy company, Sandridge Energy Inc., ignored the commission’s directive before finally reaching an agreement. That type of response by operators shouldn’t be allowed, said Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie.
“I think that it’s vital for the Legislature to give to the Corporation Commission the power to enforce their cutback directives,” said Murphey, whose district also has been rattled by quakes. “Right now there is no incentive for the operator to comply, short of the issue of morality.”
Another bill that has been introduced this session would require local school districts to develop plans for responding to an earthquake emergency, including regular earthquake drills.
The proposals are House Bill 3158 and House Bill 2455.