An Oklahoma fracking company said Tuesday that it will not comply with a request to reduce the amount of water it discards into underground wells, setting up a legal battle.
The state has been hit with a significant, unprecedented rise in earthquakes that has been tied to the increase in hydraulic fracturing and wastewater disposal. In an effort to address the issue, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which oversees oil and gas production in the state, has been regularly issuing directives to natural gas companies to reduce the volume of water injected into the ground. In December, a directive in the Medford, Oklahoma area directed SandRidge Energy to completely stop injecting water into four wells, and restricted volumes in nearly two dozen others.
Now, the company is saying there isn’t sufficient evidence that wastewater injection wells are triggering earthquakes, and it will not comply with the voluntary measures.
In turn, the OCC will file an application to the agency’s commissioners — a group of three elected officials who have judicial authority — to legally change SandRidge’s allowable levels.
The issue is, what does the data suggest in terms of potential risk of induced seismicity?
“We have had 100 percent compliance with the plans that we have issued up until now,” Matt Skinner, a spokesman for the commission, told ThinkProgress. Skinner said staff has been working closely with partners, particularly at the Oklahoma Geological Survey, to make decisions using the best data available.
Without commenting on this specific case, Skinner said that the commission generally views the issue as one of risk mitigation. “We don’t get into the arguments of whether well A caused earthquake B,” he said. “The issue is, what does the data suggest in terms of potential risk of induced seismicity?”
The commission has been increasing both the size and scope of its directives, as more and more data comes to light, Skinner said. On Monday, it issued yet another directive to reduce the amount of water companies are injecting into storage wells underground. It was at least the tenth time OCC staff had issued such a plan, affecting hundreds of wells.
The commission, acting as judges, will have to determine whether the risk — and the evidence — justifies amending SandRidge’s permit to lower allowable injection levels.
Scientists say the connection between Oklahoma’s earthquakes and fracking wells is pretty clear.
“As long as you keep injecting wastewater along that fault zone, according to my calculations, you’re going to continue to have earthquakes,” Arthur F. McGarr, chief of the induced seismicity project at the federal Earthquake Science Center in California, told the New York Times in April.
Even the U.S. Geological Survey is now including human-induced earthquakes on the agency’s official seismic hazard maps.
But SandRidge intends to challenge the connection, anyway, perhaps as a last-ditch effort to keep the company financially afloat.
“Any directive by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission to the industry should be based on solid science — a position that is independent of our financial condition,” David Kimmel, a spokesman for SandRidge, told the Wall Street Journal.
But according to an AP report, the company is overextended and on the verge of a financial collapse. In addition, it is operating in a high-earthquake area and is only in the Oklahoma gas region.
“Forty percent of SandRidge’s wells are within a 9-mile radius in the [affected] county, near hundreds of earthquakes in northern Oklahoma and southern Kansas in the Mississippi Lime formation,” the AP said in November. Further, “The company is the only independent, publicly traded driller that doesn’t have a major stake in other oil and gas formations. And the company’s cash crunch prevents it from moving operations to another region; it has several billion dollars of debt and is racing to cut spending and maintain cash flow.”
This precarious financial position could add increased pressure for the company to resist the commission’s restrictions.
Wastewater is an issue across the industry. During fracking, chemical-laced water is injected at high pressure into the ground, allowing pockets of trapped oil and gas to loosen and be captured. The process creates a huge amount of wastewater, which cannot be reused due to the chemical content and contamination from elements in the ground, often including oil itself. It is possible to truck the water to treatment plants, but it is more expensive.
The SandRidge case could spark the first real test of the earthquake-fracking connection. Another case, in which a homeowner is suing another natural gas company for injuries she sustained in an earthquake, has not yet been heard.
Some say that finding the companies at fault for damages would be devastating for Oklahoma’s fracking industry, but the industry’s official position is that it supports the commission’s attempts to protect the public.
“The Oklahoma Gas Association supports the Oklahoma Corporation Commission’s efforts to identify and mitigate man-made events that have created or aided the advent of the numerous earthquakes that Oklahoma has experienced in the last few years, and most recently in the Edmond area,” Tom Rider, president of the association, told ThinkProgress in an email. “While the actual causes of the earthquakes continue to be explored, we appreciate the efforts of our members which have stepped forward and voluntarily reduced the volume of water placed in disposal wells.”
There has been broad public outcry in the state at the danger and expense the uptick in earthquakes has brought to residents.
Skinner admitted the staff at the commission is under pressure to deal with the earthquake risks.
“We’ve been hearing it right within our own hallway,” he said. “Some of the people here, including me, including our director, live right in the earthquake zones.”
Neither he nor the director lives in areas where SandRidge is operating, Skinner noted.
Repeated outreach to SandRidge was not returned on Wednesday.