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Trump’s EPA pick stood by while human-caused earthquakes spread across his state

“The only person in the state of Oklahoma who had the authority to do anything about this was the attorney general.”

Jess Burrow, left, and James Patterson, look over the damage caused outside the home of Joe and Mary Reneau when their chimney was toppled by Saturday’s earthquake, in Sparks, Okla., Sunday, Nov. 6, 2011. CREDIT: AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki
Jess Burrow, left, and James Patterson, look over the damage caused outside the home of Joe and Mary Reneau when their chimney was toppled by Saturday’s earthquake, in Sparks, Okla., Sunday, Nov. 6, 2011. CREDIT: AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

In 2010, the year Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt (R) was elected, the state experienced 43 earthquakes.

In 2016, the year Pruitt was nominated by President-elect Donald Trump to run the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Oklahoma registered 518 earthquakes. Sixteen of them were magnitude 4.0 or greater, including the state’s biggest ever, a 5.8 quake that rattled houses from their foundations.

There is no question these earthquakes are caused by wastewater injections from oil and gas operations. Over the past decade, the state’s biggest industry has transitioned to hydraulic fracturing technology, which uses massive amounts of chemical and sand-laced water, injected at high pressure into the ground. The industry boomed — but it also was left with significant amounts of unusable water. The cheapest, easiest disposal method is to simply inject the water back into the ground.

As state attorney general, Pruitt is responsible for advising and defending state agencies on legal issues. He is also responsible for protecting Oklahoma citizens. But under his watch, earthquakes grew exponentially, in both size and frequency. Oklahoma’s ground literally can’t take the wastewater. The pressure is chipping away at the state’s fault line. And some legal experts say Pruitt could be on the hook for a potentially devastating earthquake.

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“The only person in the state of Oklahoma who had the authority to do anything about this was the attorney general,” Paul Bland, executive director of Public Justice, a nonprofit advocacy organization, told ThinkProgress.

Data from 2009–2016 shows earthquakes near oil wells (purple). CREDIT: State of Oklahoma
Data from 2009–2016 shows earthquakes near oil wells (purple). CREDIT: State of Oklahoma

In 2015, Public Justice brought a lawsuit against four oil and gas companies under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). RCRA (pronounced “rick-ruh”) regulates industrial waste disposal. It is a federal statute, enforced primarily by states, that allows private citizens to sue for injunctive relief — an end to the action, in other words.

It’s an unusual case, because the hazard to health and human life is usually the waste itself — toxins leached into groundwater, for instance. And while fracking wastewater is not good for people — it has been linked to elevated levels of benzene in groundwater — it’s not the contents of the water that is triggering earthquakes in Oklahoma, it’s the water itself.

“Basically, this fault is like a piece of glass, and if you keep tapping on it with a hammer, you’re starting to see cracks appear on it,” Bland said. “What will keep happening if we keep tapping on it?”

Already, there are a half-dozen private lawsuits — a personal injury case and several class-action cases for property damage — against oil companies operating in the state. Oklahoma was not built for earthquakes. Its homes are not subject to earthquake-resistant building codes like California introduced back in the 1920s. Its buildings, like those at University of Oklahoma, are commonly constructed of brick, which can crumble during earthquakes. In addition, the largest oil reserve in the country — in Cushing, Oklahoma — sits on the fault line. Rupturing the storage facility could cause the country’s largest ever onshore oil spill.

“Oklahoma is not prepared to have a major earthquake hit a city,” Bland said.

Meanwhile, each new big earthquake triggers another round of complaints, insurance claims, and class action cases. But eventually, experts warn, something worse is going to happen. A larger earthquake could cause more damage. An earthquake centered under a population center could kill.

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“The severity of the earthquakes was very rapidly growing — the risk in the future is enormous, and [Pruitt] took no steps,” Bland said.

Pruitt’s ties to the oil and gas industry run deep, and are well documented. He famously sent a letter — on state letterhead — to the EPA that was drafted by lawyers for an Oklahoma oil company. His 2014 campaign was led by oil billionaire Harold Hamm — the same Harold Hamm who pressured administrators at the University of Oklahoma to dismiss Oklahoma Geological Survey scientists who had spoken publicly about the link between earthquakes and wastewater disposal.

The link is now widely acknowledged.

Seismicity rising

Oklahoma’s earthquakes prior to 2009 (blue dots on the map below) were distributed more or less evenly across the middle of the state. Then, from 2012 to 2016, earthquakes — particularly large earthquakes — were clearly clustered in areas with active wastewater disposal wells (red and orange dots).

There were more of them, and they were more severe. The earthquake data corresponds neatly with oil production data: From 2010 to 2014, crude oil production increased from less than 200,000 barrels a day to over 400,000 barrels a day.

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Bland called the RCRA case “one of the strongest environmental cases I have ever seen, with this amazing factual record of just extremely serious threats to human health and the environment.”

Even the state, which long denied or avoided any suggestion that the oil and gas industry was implicated in the rise in earthquakes, now freely admits that there is a link. In 2014, the state set up an earthquake commission and a website for information about the quakes. In March of 2016, after issuing a series of permit withdrawals, the Oklahoma Corporate Commission (OCC), which regulates oil and gas extraction, reduced the allowable level of wastewater injections.

Seven months later, the state saw its largest-ever quake.

The risk of Pruitt

OCC spokesman Matt Skinner told ThinkProgress last year that issuing or rejecting permits for wastewater disposal is a “risk mitigation” issue. But Oklahoma is one of the leading oil producers in the country, and there is only so far regulators are willing to go to rein in a powerful industry.

According to a site set up by the state, “Oklahoma state agencies are not waiting to take action.” The OCC has been changing its wastewater directives “based on the general view that injection of disposal of wastewater into the basement rock presents a potential risk for triggering seismicity,” it says.

“When there are violations of the rules that govern that program in Oklahoma, the OCC takes action,” Skinner said. He did not comment on the pending RCRA case or on the OCC’s approach to enforcing RCRA violations.

Calls to the Department of Energy and Environment, which oversees both the Department of Environmental Quality and the OCC, were not returned. Neither were calls to the attorney general’s office.

“There is a very clear message that the industry has a lot of control over the state government,” Scott Poytner, the attorney behind the personal injury and class action lawsuits in the state, told ThinkProgress. “What is it going to take? Bricks falling off a University of Oklahoma building and killing a student?”

Pruitt is hardly alone in Oklahoma in avoiding the issue. In 2016, state lawmakers didn’t pass a single bill that mentioned earthquakes. In 2015, they introduced, but did not pass, a bill requiring expert witnesses to be approved by the OCC.

But the risk presented by earthquakes raises questions about Pruitt’s fitness as EPA administrator. As attorney general, he could have at least looked into whether oil and gas companies were putting the public at risk. As the lawyer for the state agencies, he could have advised that the OCC suspend wastewater permits. Instead, he did nothing.

Pruitt’s nomination has already been the subject of vociferous opposition from Democrats and environmental groups. He has repeatedly challenged the legality of the EPA’s actions to curb pollution, joining lawsuits over the Clean Power Plan, the Waters of the U.S. rule, and the Mercury Air Toxics Standard. His record portrays a man who opposes the EPA’s central mission.

In an ironic turn, during Oklahoma’s 2014 earthquake spike, Pruitt sent a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, asking the agency to back off regulations of Class II wells. Devon Energy, one of the companies named in Public Justice’s RCRA suit, is the same company whose lawyers drafted that letter to the EPA.

Given Pruitt’s personal ties to the industry, it might not be surprising that he hasn’t gone after those companies for putting Oklahomans at risk. But that doesn’t let him off the hook.

“It is up to the attorney general to investigate and see what kind of potential violations there are out there,” Garvin Issacs, former chair of the Oklahoma Bar Association, told ThinkProgress. Whether those violations were under RCRA or another law meant to protect the public from corporate wrongdoing.

As Pruitt approaches his confirmation hearing on Wednesday, Democratic senators are expected to ask him about his record on industry-caused earthquakes. Public Justice’s Bland is surprised those questions weren’t asked before Pruitt was even nominated.

“It really says something about the president-elect’s appetite for risk-taking,” Bland said. “That you would pick a guy to run the EPA for the next four years where there is this ticking time bomb back in his state is really amazing.”

The window for addressing Oklahoma’s earthquake problems has not closed, but it’s not nearly as open as it was back in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when Pruitt was raising campaign funds from the same companies that were jeopardizing the health and well-being of Oklahomans. Experts suggest — as does the continued presence of earthquakes, post-wastewater reductions — that the fault line may have already been irreversibly destabilized.

“You could have a major earthquake that is a real tragedy, and then everyone is going to say, ‘Why didn’t anyone do something?’” Bland said.

“And the person who was in the best position to do something about it was Scott Pruitt.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misnamed Public Justice. ThinkProgress regrets the error.