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As quakes rattle Oklahoma, fingers point to oil and gas industry

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PRAGUE, Okla. – Yanked without warning from a deep sleep, Jennifer Lin Cooper could think only that the clamor enveloping her house was coming from a helicopter landing on her roof. She was wrong.

A 5.0-magnitude earthquake – the first of three as strong or stronger over several days in November 2011 – had peeled the brick facade from the $117,000 home she bought the year before. Earthquake repairs have cost $12,000 and forced her to take a second job to pay the bill.

At a packed town hall meeting days later, Cooper, 36, said in an interview, state officials called the shocks, including a 5.7 tremor that was Oklahoma’s largest ever, “an act of nature, and it was nobody’s fault.”

Many scientists disagree. They say those quakes, and thousands of others before and since, are mainly the work of humans, caused by wells used to bury vast amounts of wastewater from oil and gas exploration deep in the earth near fault zones. And they warn that continuing to entomb such huge quantities risks more dangerous tremors.

“As long as you keep injecting wastewater along that fault zone, according to my calculations, you’re going to continue to have earthquakes,” said Arthur F. McGarr, chief of the induced seismicity project at the federal Earthquake Science Center in Menlo Park, California, who has researched the Prague quakes. “I’d be a little worried if I lived there. In fact, I’d be very worried.”

But in a state where oil and gas are economic pillars, elected leaders have been slow to address the problem. And while regulators have taken some protective measures, they lack the money, workforce and legal authority to fully address the threats.

More than five years after the quakes began a sharp and steady increase, the strongest action by the Republican governor, Mary Fallin, has been to name a council to exchange information about the tremors. The group meets in secret, and has no mandate to issue recommendations.

The state Legislature is considering no earthquake legislation. But both houses passed bills this year barring local officials from regulating oil and gas wells in their jurisdictions.

The seismologist’s office, short-staffed, has stopped analyzing data on tremors smaller than magnitude 2.5 – even though a recent study says those quakes flag hidden seismic hazards “that might prove invaluable for avoiding a damaging earthquake.”

The governor referred an interview request to Michael Teague, her energy and environment secretary. Teague said the governor’s earthquake council was helping coordinate the response to the shocks and that underfunded regulators and scientists had benefited from efforts to find new state and federal assistance for their work.

“It’s not working well enough if your house is shaking, absolutely no doubt,” he said. “But it’s working very well.”

If scientists see dangers, many Oklahomans are wary of disrupting an industry so woven into everyday life.

The state’s oil and gas wells gush profits to corporate owners, but also royalties to farmers and homeowners, and tax payments to the state and cities. By some accounts the industry supports as many as one in five Oklahoma jobs. It is also a major political contributor to Fallin, legislators and all three elected members of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which oversees oil and gas production and disposal wells.

From 2010 to 2013, Oklahoma oil production jumped two-thirds and gas production rose more than one-sixth, according to federal figures. The amount of wastewater buried annually jumped one-fifth, to nearly 1.1 billion barrels. And Oklahoma went from three earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or greater to 109 – and to 585 in 2014, and to 750-plus this year, should the current pace continue.

Many in the industry were reluctant to comment for this article. But Kim Hatfield, the regulatory chairman of the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association and president of Crawley Petroleum, warned: “A reaction of panic is not useful.”

Privately, some companies are cooperating with regulators and scientists by offering proprietary information about underground faults. Publicly, the industry wants Oklahomans to beware of killing the golden goose.

The Corporation Commission faces a complicated task. It can order a shutdown or operational change only one well at a time, and only if a well violates its operating permit or is clearly tied to an earthquake risk.

But geologists say the sheer volume of waste being buried in an area with many wells – and not any single well – causes most quakes. It often is difficult or impossible to assess blame to a particular well.

The 2011 quakes that damaged Cooper’s home in Prague (pronounced “prayg”) illustrate the regulators’ limited reach.

Acting on geologists’ suspicions after the first temblor, regulators tested and pored over operations data from three wells – two small ones and a huge one, called Wilzetta, sunk by Tulsa-based New Dominion in 1999. They were seeking some definitive cause of the tremor.

They found none. The wells still pump today, even as worried regulators wave off operators who want to sink new ones. Indeed, by December 2013, Wilzetta had nearly doubled its average monthly volume of waste compared with the months before the 2011 shocks.

While scientists worry, political leaders have been slow to recognize the threat.

First elected in 2010, Fallin appointed the earthquake advisory council last September. “Oklahoma has always had seismic activity, but the reality is we are seeing more,” she said then. “It’s important that we study this issue and have sound science that can inform decisions.”

She allowed only last week that wells accidentally drilled into rock containing faults could “potentially” set off shocks. Scientists say that is only one factor at play in the quakes.

Still, in public meetings and in courtrooms, some residents have begun to demand an accounting. In August, Sandra Ladra, a Prague resident injured by a collapsing fireplace during the 2011 earthquakes, sued the Wilzetta well’s operator, New Dominion, and Spess Oil Co., which operates the two smaller wells nearby.

Then, in February, came a class-action lawsuit against the two companies by Cooper, whose house was heavily damaged in Prague. Her suit seeks compensation for quake damage not only to her home, but to any homes in nine counties surrounding Prague.

That case has yet to be heard. But Ladra’s lawsuit, now before the state Supreme Court, previews the industry’s response: The wells operate legally, and regulators should hear complaints against them. Letting juries decide their culpability in earthquakes invites financial disaster.

“I don’t want to belittle the public’s concern about earthquake swarms. I live here, too,” Robert G. Gum, a lawyer for New Dominion, said at an October hearing. “But it’s no more important to the people sitting in this courtroom and the people in this state than the state’s economy. It’s no more important in recognizing how important the oil and gas industry is to that economy.”

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