OK allows various states to inject wastewater into Arbuckle wells

Posted at 12:07 AM, Sep 14, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-14 01:09:14-04

The recent earthquake in Pawnee was the largest in state history. It shook the state into shutting down wells that hold water left over from oil and gas production. They're called wastewater injection wells and scientists have linked them to some earthquakes. 2 Works for You Investigators wanted to know why, when the state is swarmed with earthquakes, would they allow other states to inject their wastewater right here in Oklahoma?

Mona Stieber has a farm in Pawnee. She says her house sits on a fault line. Stieber says she's felt the rumbles for years, but nothing compared to what she felt two weeks ago. 

"I thought something was underneath the house," she said. "It started at one end and went to the other and then it sounded like it was in the attic. "It was an earthquake."

The recent earthquake in Pawnee is just one of more than 2,500 that rattled Oklahoma so far this year. Scientists have linked the increase in seismic activity to wastewater disposal wells in the Arbuckle. The Arbuckle is a rock formation seven thousand feet beneath the ground where oil and gas producers get rid of water left over from drilling. 

Mickey Thompson used to own one in Arkansas. 

"We were really excited, this was 2009 or 2010, and then the earthquakes started," he said. 

Soon after, earthquakes swarmed around wells in north central Arkansas. The state took immediate action and studied seismicity in the area and eventually plugged four wells. One of those wells belonged to Thompson. 

"They confiscated our property and they confiscated our well in the name of public safety and put us out of the business," Thompson said. 

Thompson's reversal of fortune led to a reversal of opinion on whether wastewater from oil and gas drilling could induce earthquakes.

"The earthquakes stopped in short order, so they made the case and it's pretty hard to refute that it was our disposal wells," he said. 

Thompson thinks the state of Oklahoma should have taken the same action a long time ago. Four years ago, Arkansas sent hundreds of thousands of barrels of wastewater to Oklahoma to be injected into wells. 

"I guess the first question is why is wastewater coming into Oklahoma?" Thompson said. "Because it is a business."

"The legal opinion that was given to us was, 'You can't,'" Oklahoma Corporation Commission spokesperson Matt Skinner said. "It's interstate commerce and it is protected in the Federal Interstate Commerce Act and you have to allow it." 

Skinner says it's difficult to know exactly how much wastewater is trucked in from states like Ohio, Kansas, Colorado and Texas. The Oklahoma Corporation Commission regulates oil and gas throughout most of the state. 

"We were very concerned about the number of trucks coming in," Skinner said. "There is no way we could keep track of them."

2 Works for You Investigators learned Oklahoma well owners made money injecting more than two million barrels of wastewater from other states last year. In total, that is more than 101 million gallons trucked across state lines. 

"We have had instances and we have prosecuted over those instances where there have been deals made with what we call, 'false run tickets,'" Skinner said. 

Skinner says year after year the federal government fails to follow through on promises to mandate GPS tracking on trucks carrying hazardous material. 

"For us, the less trucking the better," Skinner said. "Because once it goes on a truck, it's very difficult to track." 

"I don't like it if that's what's causing all the earthquakes," Mona Stieber said. 

Wastewater continues to pour across state lines as Oklahoma studies the earth beneath Mona Stieber's farm. Like many Oklahomans, she waits and wonders. 

"There must be a solution to that and still be able to get our oil," she said.