Oklahoma’s government is of two minds when it comes to fossil fuel extraction.
In an especially fractious split, the day after the state’s energy and environment cabinet acknowledged that the “recent rise in earthquakes cannot be entirely attributed to natural causes,” state lawmakers passed two bills to limit the ability of localities to decide if they want to allow fracking and drilling nearby.
While at least eight bills were filed this session in Oklahoma to prevent cities and counties from banning drilling operations, the two that passed through the House this week are SB 809 and SB 468. SB 809 would allow “reasonable” ordinances related to “road use, traffic, noise and odor,” but would not allow any outright bans — the bill prohibits the direct regulation of oil and gas exploration, drilling, or fracking. SB 468 would make it so that any interference with oil and gas production would be considered a “taking” of property, meaning royalty owners could seek compensation.
The Oklahoma legislature is one of a number of state governing bodies focused on how local jurisdictions could impede the oil and gas industry’s ability to drill first and deal with the consequences later. Earlier this month, the Texas House approved a bill that drastically curtails local governments’ abilities to say no to fracking within their communities. Authorities and industry leaders in both states are worried that more municipalities might follow the lead of Denton, Texas in instituting a ban on fracking within city limits.
According to Oklahoma government, the current rate of earthquakes is approximately 600 times historical averages — a phenomenon that Oklahoma Geological Survey (OGS) now considers very likely to be caused by wastewater wells associated with drilling for oil and gas.
“The observed seismicity of greatest concentration, namely in central and north-central Oklahoma, can be observed to follow the oil and gas plays characterized by large amounts of produced water,” a report from the agency released this week stated. While the oil and gas industry has pumped produced water associated with fossil fuel extraction back into the water disposal wells for more than half a century, recent studies show that particularly high-volume wells are likely attributing at least partly to the rise in quakes.
According to the report, earthquake “swarms” are occurring over about 15 percent of the state in the same areas that have seen an increase in wastewater disposal wells. According to a new report from the U.S. Geological Survey, prior to 2012, there were virtually no earthquakes in southern Kansas and northern Oklahoma. However, in the last two years, the number of quakes in the region has increased dramatically, with several hundred recorded.
Oklahoma House Democratic Leader Scott Inman referenced the OGS report when voicing his opposition to the bills, saying the people pushing for bills that limit communities from imposing drilling ordinances “are the ones causing the earthquakes in our communities.”
Inman said that the best way residents of these areas can address their concerns is to go “down to your local city council member” and ask them to “pass an ordinance to say please protect my house.”
Other democratic lawmakers also were critical of the bills.
Rep. Cory Williams (D) said those communities considering drilling ordinances are “threatened” by industry and their powerful lobbyists, and that the use of the word “reasonable” in the legislation favors the operators.
“If oil and gas tells you that 350 feet is (a) reasonable (setback), you had better think long and hard about suing,” he said.
The Oklahoma Corporation Commission is the government body charged with overseeing oil and gas drilling operations in the state. The Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, Jeff Hickman (R), said that the Corporation Commission is “addressing” the earthquake problem, and that some of wells have already been closed due to the issue.
“The system is working exactly as it is supposed to work with sound science and the expertise of the Corporation Commission, the Geological Survey and others determining the cause and now determining the course of action,” he said.
This effort in Oklahoma is the latest take on a style of preemption legislation that has been used across the country to bar cities from regulating everything from landlords to the minimum wage. As the New York Times recently reported, these preemption laws invoke “a paradox for conservatives who have long extolled the virtues of local control in some areas, like education, but now say uniform standards are necessary in others.”
The Oklahoma bills will now head back to the Senate where they are expected to move forward.