Rep. Richard Morrissette criticizes Fallin administration’s response on earthquakes

OKLAHOMA CITY – In a House Democratic staff press release on Wednesday (December 30), veteran state Rep. Richard Morrissette D-Oklahoma City, said the Fallin Administration continues to “pass the buck” on oilfield disposal wells linked to earthquakes.

“When I recommended (on Tuesday) that Governor Fallin order all wastewater disposal wells in seismically active areas to be shut in, her spokesman said she doesn’t have the authority to issue a moratorium on disposal wells,” Morrissette related.

He contends the governor should use “the bully pulpit” of her office and send “a strongly worded letter” to the Corporation Commission, urging that panel to shut down all disposal wells in all seismically active areas in Oklahoma – as the Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission did in August 2011.

Fallin has said the state Corporation Commission, which has authority over oil and gas operations in Oklahoma, is the appropriate agency to respond to the recent surge of seismic activity traced to deep-well water injection.

During a commission meeting in September, Commissioner Bob Anthony said, “We need to know what authority we have to deal with earthquakes. We have disposal well authority for the protection of freshwater. To what extent does that enable us to take action for the purpose of mitigating earthquake risk?

”Morrissette says state statutes give the Corporation Commission “exclusive jurisdiction, power and authority” to regulate the oil and gas industry, including wastewater disposal wells. The Oklahoma City Democrat pointed specifically to Title 17, Section 52, and to Title 52, Section 139.

He believes the commission could issue a cease-and-desist order directing operators of all disposal wells in all seismically active areas in Oklahoma – including Oklahoma, Payne, Alfalfa, Garfield, Lincoln, Logan, Grant and Noble counties – to shut them down entirely, at least on a temporary basis, “until these earthquake swarms subside,” said Morrissette.

Oklahoma experienced an average of fewer than two magnitude-3 tremors each year for 30 years, from 1978 through 2008. The statewide average shot up to 247 per year over the past seven years.

The magnitude-4.3 earthquake centered near Edmond early Tuesday morning knocked out power at KWTV-9 and caused property damage in Edmond, such as shattering a window in one house and knocking a chimney off another house, both in Fairfax Estates addition; and was felt in south Oklahoma City and as far away as Sapulpa.

Former State Seismologist Austin Holland of the Oklahoma Geological Survey (OGS) announced on April 20 that saltwater disposal wells likely triggered most of the earthquakes that have occurred in central and northern Oklahoma over the past three years.

“Based on observed seismicity rates and geographical trends following major oil and gas plays with large amounts of produced water, the rates and trends in seismicity are very unlikely to represent a naturally occurring process,” the OGS wrote in a statement issued the next day. 
The seismicity rate in Oklahoma in 2013 was 70 times greater “than the background seismicity rate observed in Oklahoma prior to 2008,” the OGS wrote in its report.

“While unlikely, this rate could have been potentially explained by natural variations in earthquake rates from naturally occurring swarms.” Now, though, the seismicity rate is “about 600 times greater than the background seismicity rate and is very unlikely the result of a natural process,” the OGS reported.

The Oklahoma Geological Survey deems it “very likely” that the majority of recent earthquakes, particularly those in central and north-central Oklahoma, “are triggered by the injection of produced water in disposal wells.” As of noon Tuesday (Dec. 29), the OGS had logged 5,646 earthquakes in Oklahoma, ranging in magnitude from 1.3 to 4.7. Of those temblors, 29 were ranked at magnitude 4.0 or greater and 850 of them were of m-3.0 to m-3.9.

In August, speaking after the meeting of a panel she named met to announce conclusions about seismic activity, Gov. Fallin told reporters, 
“We all know now there is a direct correlation between the increase in earthquakes we’ve seen in Oklahoma and the disposal wells, based upon many different factors, whether it is volume or location or whether it is on a fault line, how deep that disposal well goes into the earth itself.” 

NOTE: Editor Patrick B. McGuigan contributed to this report.