Calls rise for a halt to frack­ing in Texas, Ok­la­homa

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Molly Hen­nessy-Fiske molly.hen­nessy-fiske @la­times.com

HOUS­TON — The re­lease of stud­ies this week link­ing frack­ing to re­cent earth­quakes in Texas and Ok­la­homa came as no sur­prise to those who have been rocked by the tem­blors in re­cent years.

The ques­tion for peo­ple such as An­gela Spotts, 53, of Still­wa­ter, Okla., is what’s be­ing done about the prob­lem. The re­ports, in­clud­ing one by the U.S. Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey on Thurs­day, tied seis­mic ac­tiv­ity to waste­water dis­posal fol­low­ing the oil and gas ex­trac­tion tech­nique known as hy­draulic frac­tur­ing, or frack­ing.

“I’m try­ing to un­der­stand what’s be­ing done to pro­tect us. There’s no ex­cuse for a mora­to­rium not be­ing put in place im­me­di­ately” on waste­water in­jec­tion, Spotts said. “I’m very alarmed that more peo­ple are not con­cerned.”

In­dus­try ex­perts say that some­thing is al­ready be­ing done.

“We’re all try­ing to find out what the heck is go­ing on down un­der the ground. It’s got ev­ery­one con­cerned. No­body wants to be the cause of earth­quakes,” said Alex Mills of the Texas Al­liance of En­ergy Pro­duc­ers, a group of 3,300 oil and gas pro­duc­ers based in Wi­chita Falls.

Kim Hat­field, pres­i­dent of Craw­ley Petroleum in Ok­la­homa City, said he, too, lives in an earth­quake zone where his “house shakes along with every­body else’s.”

He said the in­dus­try was work­ing with state reg­u­la­tors to check, and in some cases plug, the deep­est wells drilled through the state’s Ar­buckle For­ma­tion into the “base­ment” layer of rock linked to seis­mic ac­tiv­ity.

“That’s the type of thing that just makes good sense,” Hat­field said.

A frack­ing mora­to­rium, how­ever, would be “a hor­ri­ble idea on many lev­els,” he said.

Some other states that have been sud­denly rocked by quakes in re­cent years de­clared par­tial bans on frack­ing, in­clud­ing Arkansas and Ohio, noted Casey Hol­comb of the Cen­tral Ok­la­homa Clean Wa­ter Coali­tion.

“They moved very swiftly on this when there were earth­quake swarms. When we talk to the Ok­la­homa Cor­po­ra­tion Com­mis­sion here on this, they say they don’t have the author­ity,” Hol­comb said of the state’s oil and gas reg­u­la­tor.

He added, “The oil in­dus­try is in ev­ery level of gov­ern­ment, and frack­ing has just given them ob­scene lev­els of wealth and they buy po­lit­i­cal power with it.”

Although this week’s stud­ies were sig­nif­i­cant, Hol­comb said, “I don’t see where it’s an­gered peo­ple enough to where they want to take ac­tion. It may take a mas­sive 7.0 earth­quake for peo­ple to re­al­ize some­thing has to change, a wide­spread earth­quake caus­ing cat­a­strophic dam­age.”

He praised Ok­la­homa Demo­cratic state Rep. Cory Wil­liams of Still­wa­ter as one law­maker who wants to take ac­tion now.

Wil­liams this week pro­posed a mora­to­rium on waste­water dis­posal in a 16county sec­tion of cen­tral and north-cen­tral Ok­la­homa that the ge­ol­o­gists iden­ti­fied as be­ing at the high­est seis­mic risk

“We’re fi­nally ad­mit­ting cor­re­la­tion, but we still don’t have a vi­able ac­tion plan in place to stop it. The science says we’ve got build­ing seis­mic­ity. That’s why I’m propos­ing the mora­to­rium,” Wil­liams said. It’s also a per­sonal battle. “We’re the ones who are con­stantly shak­ing and hav­ing our homes de­stroyed,” Wil­liams, 37, said Thurs­day, echo­ing a Cal­i­for­nian sen­ti­ment: “Ev­ery time you hear one or feel one, you won­der if it’s the Big One.”

Most of his con­stituents ei­ther don’t have earth­quake in­sur­ance or have dis­cov­ered that their poli­cies cover only cat­a­strophic dam­age.

At the same time, they have seen their in­sur­ance pre­mi­ums in­crease as their neigh­bor­hoods are re­clas­si­fied as earth­quake zones. Su­ing oil com­pa­nies to re­coup dam­ages would take years, so few do, he said.

“For home­own­ers around here, it’s death by a thou­sand cuts,” he said.

Wil­liams said he had some bi­par­ti­san sup­port for the mora­to­rium in the state’s Repub­li­can-dom­i­nated Leg­is­la­ture, but he was not op­ti­mistic that the pro­posal would suc­ceed. With­out it, he said, reg­u­la­tors would not move fast enough to ad­dress the prob­lem.

“The steps they have taken have not been enough to re­duce the seis­mic­ity,” he said.

Reg­u­la­tors dis­agreed, say­ing they took the find­ings se­ri­ously and have been at­tempt­ing to ad­dress the prob­lem for years.

Matt Skin­ner, a spokesman for the Ok­la­homa Cor­po­ra­tion Com­mis­sion, said that last month the agency be­gan lim­it­ing the deep­est waste­water wells. He said it was also con­sid­er­ing re­stric­tions on the amount of waste­water com­pa­nies are al­lowed to in­ject.

“We’re not say­ing, don’t worry be happy,” said Skin­ner, of Guthrie, Okla., about 35 miles south­west of Still­wa­ter.

“I live in an earth­quake area,” he said. “My house gets hit over and over again.”

Adam Brig­gle, an an­tifrack­ing ac­tivist in Den­ton, Texas, was not op­ti­mistic that in­dus­try would work with reg­u­la­tors to mean­ing­fully re­spond to what he sees as a cri­sis.

“They’re just go­ing to drag their feet,” said Brig­gle, 38, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of phi­los­o­phy at the Uni­ver­sity of North Texas whose group suc­ceeded get­ting a frack­ing ban passed in Den­ton this year.

Now Repub­li­can state law­mak­ers are try­ing to pass a pro­posal that would undo the ban, say­ing that only the state has the power to ban frack­ing.

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