Disposal well operators still are actively applying for approval to inject wastewater into the Earth in Pawnee County, records show.
However, the requests don’t involve depositing into the Arbuckle formation, as there has been a moratorium of new Arbuckle requests in a 15,000-square mile area of interest, including Pawnee County, for more than a year. In addition, more than 700 existing injection wells have been either shut in or forced to reduce volume during that time.
Legal notices involving oil companies and published in the Cleveland American have heightened reader curiosity since a historic 5.8 earthquake shook the county on September 3, 2016. More than 150 quakes have rattled the area since, and scientists and regulators have said they believe the temblors are linked to that injection of wastewater into the Arbuckle formation.
The latest public notices in the American are from Cummings Oil, one of the companies targeted in a class-action lawsuit filed by attorneys for Pawnee County property owners who say earthquakes are damaging their homes, businesses and causing them to live in fear.
Some want to know: if there is a moratorium, then why do companies keep applying for new activity?
Such public legal notices printed in newspapers are required by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission. The applications from Cummings Oil printed in The American
on Feb. 1 are regarding proposed disposal wells to dispose oil and gas wastewater and drilling mud into the Wilcox formation, according to OCC spokesperson Matt Skinner.
The Wilcox formation is a shallower layer of the Oklahoma underground, while the Arbuckle is the deepest formation, sitting just above the crystalline basement. Skinner indicated any requests to dispose into the Arbuckle formation would be denied on their face.
“[Cummings’ request] would be non-commercial, so it is not allowed to accept wastewater from any well but the well(s) owned by the operator of the disposal well,” Skinner said. “The request is for permits not to exceed 19,500 barrels a day at a pressure not to exceed 2,000 PSI (pounds of force per square inch).”
The public notices always include instructions on how to file a protest against the request.
“If a protest is filed, the well cannot receive administrative approval, but must go to a full court hearing at the commission,” Skinner said. “After hearing the evidence and testimony, the judge in the case would make a recommendation to the commissioners, who would decide the protested matter.”
Objections must be filed within 15 days of the printing of the notices.
The Oklahoma Geological Survey estimates that for every barrel of oil that can be produced, operators are left with 10 to 15 barrels of wastewater.
“That leaves a big disposal job that continues through the life of the well... For years, in Oklahoma, operators had been injecting that wastewater into the Arbuckle Group, which is the deepest sedimentary rock unit in most of Oklahoma. Over time, the steadily increasing volume raised the pressure in the Arbuckle and in the deep basement, where most of the active faults lie, causing earthquakes,” the OGS website says.
The Arbuckle Group took a lot of water for a long time until producers put so much in that it started causing earthquakes, according to Oklahoma Geological Survey Director Jeremy Boak.
“It’s not a lot of flow into the basement, but it’s transmitting a pressure wave,” he said.
“And the slight increase in pressure is enough to make it easier to move.”
The Fuse, a non-partisan, nonprofit website that claims it is dedicated to educating the public on national energy policy debate, says the roughly 9 million barrels of crude oil produced in the U.S. per day translates to 90 million barrels of produced wastewater daily – or more than 1 trillion gallons of produced water every year.
“By far, most of the waste product that is disposed in Oklahoma from oil and natural gas operations consists of water from producing wells,” Skinner said. “Such water exists in the formation being produced. It comes up with the oil and natural gas being produced and is put back down underground.”
Boak, whose agency has deemed that seismicity has increased in the state due to increased injection of wastewater, also says it is a misconception that the Sooner State is now the earthquake capital of the U.S.
Alaska still has many more earthquakes than Oklahoma. California, while seeing fewer earthquakes, experiences much stronger ones, and Boak estimates that California released 10 times the amount of seismic energy than Oklahoma did in 2015.
“Oklahoma is the small earthquake capital of the U.S.,” he said. “We have a preponderance of smaller earthquakes and they appear to be a feature of this induced seismicity.”
In 2015, Oklahoma experienced 907 magnitude 3-plus earthquakes. In 2016, there were 616 quakes registering at least 3.0, including 18 that registered stronger than 3.0 and caused considerable damage. The decrease has been attributed by some to the stricter regulations put in place by OCC.
Officials say even after reduction in well volume, earthquakes can continue in an area for quite some time.
The oil and gas industry supports one in five jobs in Oklahoma, which is significantly higher than any other industry in the state, according to a study by economist Russell Evans.
In Pawnee and Osage County, it is possible that statistic is even higher.
Local environmental activists and property owners have said they don’t wish to see the
oil and gas industry disappear, because it is necessary. They simply want producers to explore other options, predominantly the recycling of wastewater and reuse of it.
The alternative means the weaker infrastructure of Oklahoma, compared to California, is at stake, an attorney representing homeowners said at a recent public meeting.
According to Oklahoma producers and their proponents, recycling and reusing is too expensive.
The Fuse, however, reports that one company, Omni Water Solutions, has developed portable trailers that scrub produced water on-site in Texas and recycling wastewater is a rapidly growing movement. Pennsylvania also recycles its wastewater.
Skinner noted that Congress gave the authority to oversee the Underground Injection Program (which includes disposal wells) solely to the federal Environmental Protection Agency in the 1970s. The EPA allows some states, including Oklahoma, to operate a state UIC program under EPA oversight and review.
The EPA’s main objective through UIC is the safeguard of drinking water, which it says is not put at risk if wastewater injection wells are operated properly.
“By injecting the brine deep underground, Class II wells prevent surface contamination of soil and water,” according to the EPA.
The UIC program divides injection wells into five classifications, which the state breaks down:
CLASS I wells are used for injection of liquid hazardous and non-hazardous wastes beneath the lowermost underground sources of drinking water. DEQ has jurisdiction over these wells. Oklahoma (as of May 2016) has five Class I non-hazardous injection wells and no Class I hazardous waste injection wells.
CLASS II wells are used for injection of fluids associated with the production of oil and natural gas. The three types of Class II wells are enhanced recovery wells, disposal wells and hydrocarbon storage wells. OCC has jurisdiction over all Class II wells.
CLASS III wells inject fluids to dissolve and extract minerals such as uranium, salt, copper, and sulfur. Currently, there are no Class III injection wells in Oklahoma.
CLASS IV wells were used for injection of hazardous or radioactive wastes into or above an underground source of drinking water. In 1984, EPA banned the use of Class IV injection wells for disposal of hazardous or radioactive waste. These wells may only be operated as a part of an EPA or state authorized clean-up action.
CLASS V wells are those not included in classes I – IV and are generally used for injection of non-hazardous fluids into or above an underground source of drinking water. DEQ has jurisdiction over the majority of these wells; however, OCC has jurisdiction over Class V wells used in the remediation of groundwater associated with underground or above-ground storage tanks regulated by OCC.
The OCC last week presented its 2018 fiscal year budget request to the state, and it is asking for an 11 percent increase or nearly $7 million.
While its biggest hurdle appears to be funding the well-plugging program, another area in dire need of money is induced seismicity oversight as OCC regulates wastewater disposal in light of the earthquake surge and massive data exploration, the commission says.
It has asked for more than a half-million dollars to replace emergency grant funds approved by the Governor to help with the oversight initiatives.
“Seismicity will continue to be a safety concern for Oklahoma citizens after the grant funds have expired; however, the agency has no alternative funding to continue this program unless additional appropriations are received,” the agency said in its budget request.