MEDFORD — Asked during a town hall meeting recently whether Oklahoma is learning from other states how to stop man-made earthquakes, state seismologist Austin Holland nodded yes.
“Earthquakes … don’t stop at state lines,” said Holland, chief seismologist for the Oklahoma Geological Survey.
Holland was one of several state agency employees who spoke during the meeting last week at the Civic Center in Medford, near the Kansas border.
While earthquakes don’t stop at the invisible border between Kansas and Oklahoma, the two states have taken decidedly different approaches to stopping the earthquakes.
Kansas officials declared earthquakes in two counties “an immediate threat to public health, safety and welfare” following a complaint hearing March 18, records show. The Kansas Corporation Commission ordered operators of disposal wells in parts of two counties to dramatically reduce the volume of oil- and gas-production wastewater they were pumping underground.
At least 21 wells affected by the order are operated by Oklahoma’s SandRidge Exploration and Production LLC, records show.
Just across the state line from Medford, Kansas’ Harper and Sumner counties have registered a sharp increase in earthquakes in the past two years, and earthquakes in Kansas are on pace to double this year.
A region rich with oil and gas deposits called the “Mississippi Lime play” stretches between the two states, and hundreds of drilling operations and injection wells dot the area. Due to the geology, oil and gas drilling operations there produce large amounts of naturally occurring but toxic saltwater.
Energy companies dispose of the water in wastewater injection wells, with some pumping more than 150,000 barrels per month into the ground. For decades, scientific studies and government reports have shown a connection between wastewater disposal wells and earthquakes.
Kansas resident Frank Smith, who lives about 20 miles northwest of Medford, filed the complaint that resulted in the Kansas Corporation Commission’s new order. He said the frequent earthquakes have resulted in damage to homes, businesses and a historic county courthouse there.
“Prior to the ruling … we had zero protection here in Kansas, and Oklahoma at least gave a bit more than lip service to looking out for the welfare of its residents,” Smith said.
“The KCC has now taken a much more proactive stance than I feel Oklahoma has done.”
While not an outright moratorium, Kansas’ order reducing disposal volumes goes significantly further than Oklahoma’s recent actions to deal with “induced seismicity.”
The Kansas order says the commission can fine companies that fail to comply up to $10,000 per day. It also says the agency will no longer issue permits for some types of high-volume wells in the affected area.
At the Medford town hall meeting last week, more than 100 people sat on metal folding chairs for more than two hours to hear state officials explain their response to the frequent shaking. Grant County recorded 1,071 earthquakes of all magnitudes last year, more than the number of people in Medford, its county seat.
Dakota Raynes, a graduate student at Oklahoma State University, read aloud the Kansas order declaring earthquakes a threat to that state’s public safety.
“When are you all going to do something like that?” he asked state officials on the panel. “We have more earthquakes here than they have there. What’s it going to take?”
Officials with the Oklahoma Corporation Commission say their new approach puts the onus on energy companies to prove that their wells are not too deep.
“We are addressing the highest-risk scenario,” said Tim Baker, manager of the commission’s Oil and Gas Division.
Oklahoma is shifting its focus from only problem disposal wells to include areas of the state that are experiencing “swarms” of earthquakes close together.
The Oklahoma Corporation Commission has directed about 100 companies in “areas of interest” to submit well logs and other records proving that their disposal wells are at the proper depth.
While Baker’s letter to well operators directs them to take certain actions, it does not mention any financial penalty for noncompliance. Companies that do not meet the commission’s new criteria by April 18 must reduce injection volumes by 50 percent until they are in compliance, the letter states.
The Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Commission said in a written statement that it will work with the commission, the Oklahoma Geological Survey and Gov. Mary Fallin’s earthquake committee “to assist in understanding the state’s increased seismic activity and its possible relationship to the oil and natural gas industry.”
The statement by Kim Hatfield, chairwoman of the OIPA’s regulatory committee, said the industry group is “confident that the cooperation between public and private entities will offer a rational and reasonable response to seismic activity concerns.”
The committee established by Fallin has kept a low profile, holding meetings that are closed to the public. The committee does not plan to issue any reports or recommendations.
In contrast, Kansas developed its “seismic action plan,” which is available online, after public hearings and input.
Baker said the Oklahoma commission is focusing on wells at or near the granite “basement” layer of rock because they are at a depth most likely to trigger earthquakes. The commission said at least 25 disposal wells have already reduced their depth or are scheduled to do so as part of the agency’s evolving system.
“I can’t guarantee all of this will make a difference,” Baker told residents at the Medford meeting. “I am cautiously optimistic we will see some progress.”
Several studies have warned of an increased risk that Oklahoma will experience larger, more damaging earthquakes than it has in the past. The state’s largest earthquake, a 5.6-magnitude quake, struck Prague in 2011.
One resident, an emergency management official, asked Holland about the potential for larger earthquakes.
“We know that we are capable of having a magnitude 6 or 7,” Holland replied.