Okla. activists ask EPA to take over regulation of wastewater disposal

By Mike Soraghan | 07/07/2015 08:23 AM EDT

This article was updated at 2:21 p.m. EDT.

Oklahoma activists are petitioning U.S. EPA to take over regulation of oil and gas wastewater disposal, saying state regulators have failed to do enough to stop the state’s swarms of man-made earthquakes.

In a petition mailed last week, Tulsa petroleum geologist Bob Jackman said the Oklahoma Corporation Commission (OCC) hasn’t done enough to restrict disposal under the federal Underground Injection Control (UIC) program.


"The situation in Oklahoma is urgent," the petition states, "yet the OCC continues to do too little too late to monitor, regulate, and fine UIC wells and operators within their jurisdiction that violate requirements and do damage."

Jackman, who has been making himself a thorn in the side of state officials, and Stillwater activist Angela Spotts are distributing the petition to others in the state and encouraging them to sign copies and send them to EPA. The petitions are addressed to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and Dallas-based Region 6 Administrator Ron Curry.

Oil and gas disposal wells are regulated under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. But they’re monitored by state oil and gas officials in states EPA has granted "primacy." In Oklahoma, the OCC oversees oil and gas disposal wells. EPA maintains some oversight of the state programs.

Favorably aligned faults and production methods that create uniquely large volumes of wastewater appear to have combined in Oklahoma to create unprecedented swarms of man-made earthquakes in several parts of the state.

Last year, the state had 585 earthquakes of magnitude 3 or greater, and this year there already have been more than 450. That compares with about two a year before 2009.

The laws that govern disposal wells do not make it illegal to cause earthquakes. But quakes are considered a potential threat to aquifers, and the law does seek to prevent pollution of drinking water.

The most recent EPA evaluation of Oklahoma’s program, filed in April 2013, gave the OCC mixed reviews but made no mention of EPA taking over the program. The evaluation was obtained by EnergyWire through a Freedom of Information Act request.

It commended the OCC for selecting the Oklahoma Geological Survey as the "primary investigative agency" for determining the cause of the earthquakes. Records obtained by EnergyWire and other news outlets have indicated OGS scientists have been subject to pressure from the oil and gas industry (EnergyWire, July 2).

The review questioned the accuracy of some of the data the OCC had received from companies about their disposal wells.

"EPA recommends that OCC consider ways to improve the accuracy or verification of operator-reported injection information," the review said.

In particular, it pointed to potential accuracy problems with injection pressures reported for a disposal well located close to the state’s largest-recorded earthquake, a magnitude-5.7 event in November 2011.

The operators of that well recently acknowledged that it was drilled too deep and applied to reduce its depth (EnergyWire, May 15).

EPA Region 6 spokeswoman Jennah Durant said the agency has received the petitions.

"While I can’t immediately reply to the petitions, I can say that EPA carefully reviews federal programs delegated to the states to ensure they comply with federal law," Durant said.

OCC spokesman Matt Skinner said, "We have always worked closely with the Environmental Protection Agency on meeting the water protection goals of the UIC program, and we are grateful for the assistance Region 6 has provided us for our ever-evolving response to the seismicity issue."

Click here to see the activists’ petition to EPA.

Click here to see EPA’s evaluation of Oklahoma’s regulatory program.