Faced With Spate Of Tremors, Oklahoma Looks To Shake Up Its Oil Regulations Oklahoma set a state record last year with more than 5,000 earthquakes. This year, the state is poised to have even more. Now oil and gas regulators have taken notice and are working to curb them.
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Faced With Spate Of Tremors, Oklahoma Looks To Shake Up Its Oil Regulations

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Faced With Spate Of Tremors, Oklahoma Looks To Shake Up Its Oil Regulations

Faced With Spate Of Tremors, Oklahoma Looks To Shake Up Its Oil Regulations

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/440619196/440914166" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

For five years, earthquakes have been rattling Oklahoma. State officials have been hesitant to agree with scientists who blame the oil and gas industry. But as the shaking goes on, the regulatory response is getting more intense. Joe Wertz from State Impact Oklahoma has our story.

JOE WERTZ, BYLINE: To show how an oil and gas boom fueled a massive surge of earthquakes, scientists used algorithms, statistics and computer models of fluid flow and seismic energy. But all of that is useless without a pickup truck that can handle the dirty back roads of the Oklahoma oil patch.

GARY MATLI: You pull onto a well and check the gauges. They're - usually, there are three gauges on the well - one on the tubing, one on the casing and one on the surface casing.

WERTZ: Gary Matli is with the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which oversees the oil and gas industry. Matli is like an oilfield hall monitor. If the industry breaks the rules, he turns their names in. Today, he inspects a bunch of disposal wells north of Oklahoma City.

MATLI: They want to monitor these two to see what possibilities these have of maybe being a part of some of this - these seismic events that have been going on.

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MARY FALLIN: We all know about the recent seismic activity.

WERTZ: Economically, the oil industry is everything in Oklahoma. When Governor Mary Fallin mentioned earthquakes at last year's State Energy Conference, she was skeptical.

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FALLIN: Many have been quick out in the public sector or even in the private sector to draw conclusions about its cause.

WERTZ: As scientific evidence mounted, politicians and government officials changed their tune. Speaking at the state capitol last month, Fallin, for the first time, publicly agreed with what researchers have said for years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FALLIN: I think we all know now that there is a direct correlation between the increase of earthquakes that we've seen an Oklahoma with disposal wells.

WERTZ: Disposal wells are the sewers of the oilfield. Oil and gas companies pump them full of waste fluid from drilling and fracking. That fluid can cause stressed faults to slip and trigger earthquakes. Oklahoma's recent oil boom was followed by a surge of earthquakes. 2014 set the record with more than 5,000 earthquakes - this year so far, more than 4,000.

Back in the oilfield, the inspections come back clear. The oil companies are complying with the earthquake-related cutbacks the agency recently ordered. The commission's Matt Skinner steers his pickup down a rutted road as he heads to the next site.

MATT SKINNER: Up until relatively recently, this was the most seismically active area we have in terms of magnitude and number of quakes.

WERTZ: As Oklahoma politicians and public officials have come to terms with oil- and gas-triggered earthquakes, the regulatory response has quickened. These days, authorities are more likely to shut down a disposal well or slash how much and how fast the industry pumps fluid underground. Still, it could take a long time to know if this has any effect.

SKINNER: Every day that goes by without a serious seismic event in this area is good news.

WERTZ: There's optimism in the Oklahoma oil patch. There hasn't been a 4.0 or greater quake in this area since volume cuts were ordered and other wells were shut down. For NPR News, I'm Joe Wertz in Oklahoma City.

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