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Oklahoma state Rep. Corey Williams, D-Stillwater, speaks at a news conference in Oklahoma City, Monday, May 11, 2015. A coalition of environmental and grassroots organizations is calling for a moratorium on the use of wastewater disposal wells by the oil and natural gas industry in areas where they may trigger earthquakes. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Oklahoma coalition wants well moratorium in earthquake areas

OKLAHOMA CITY — A coalition of environmental and activist groups called Monday for a moratorium on the use of wastewater disposal wells by the oil and natural gas industry in some areas after an Oklahoma agency said it is “very likely” a swarm of recent earthquakes was triggered by such operations.

Coalition members delivered 1,500 signatures to Gov. Mary Fallin’s office seeking a moratorium on the use of high-volume, high pressure disposals wells in 16 counties that the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry, has identified as “areas of interest” because of earthquake activity.

“Oklahoma is now the earthquake capital of America. How did this happen?” said Barbara Van Hanken, co-founder of Clean Energy Future Oklahoma and chair of the Oklahoma Sierra Club. Other members of the coalition include Stop Fracking Payne County, the NAACP and the Peace House Oklahoma City.

“This is taking an emotional, physical and a financial toll on everyone in these counties,” said Angela Spotts, who said hundreds of temblors that have shaken the area in recent years have damaged her home near Stillwater and many others.

“Some of them are becoming unlivable,” Spotts said. “I have a seven-year-old home, custom-built brick home that’s cracking all around.”

Earthquake activity in Oklahoma in 2013 was 70 times greater than the rate of earthquakes prior to 2008. “The seismicity rate is now about 600 times greater than the background seismicity rate, and is very unlikely the result of a natural process,” the agency said.

Geologists historically recorded an average of 1.5 earthquakes of magnitude 3 or greater each year. The state is now recording an average of 2.5 magnitude 3 or greater earthquakes each day, according to geologists.

Van Hanken and others said Fallin’s office and state lawmakers need to act instead of waiting for the oil and gas industry to develop its own solution.

“Let’s stop this inhumane inaction in our state,” Van Hanken said. “The earthquakes are still happening at a growing pace.”

A spokesman for Fallin’s office, Alex Weintz, said she cannot legally issue an executive order banning injection wells or order a moratorium.

“What Gov. Fallin can do, and is doing, is to advocate for sound public policy driven by science,” Weintz said in a statement. “The governor continues to support reasonable regulations on the oil and gas industry that protect homeowners and encourage responsible energy exploration and waste-water disposal.”

Research by the Corporation Commission’s general counsel indicates it also does not have the authority to order a blanket moratorium that would prohibit wastewater disposal wells from operating in the 16 counties, said agency spokesman Matt Skinner.

“But there are a number of options available to us and none are being ruled out,” Skinner said. “We currently have directives that are aimed at the highest risk disposal wells and there are other wells that have to be addressed. We are grateful for the commitment shown by the governor to this effort.”

Directives issued by the agency have led to significant changes in the operation of wastewater disposal wells with the potential to trigger earthquakes. But Skinner said it is too soon to know whether they have had an impact on earthquake frequency and magnitude.

More than 50 disposal wells have had to shut down operations and reduce total depth to mitigate the potential earthquake risk. Another 150 disposal wells have reduced their wastewater volumes by 50 percent. Other wells are keeping volumes below 1,000 barrels a day.

In related news, Gas and oil drilling causes earthquakes, studies find.

Online: Oklahoma earthquake information: http://www.earthquakes.ok.gov

This article was written by Tim Talley from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.