Unnatural Disasters: Is a moratorium the solution?

Equipment abandoned by energy companies in Searcy, AR. (KATV Photo)

Thousands across Oklahoma and its neighboring states were jolted by Saturday's earthquakes and aftershocks.

"It started rattling and man when I started looking around, first thing I did was run outside and I'm looking at my house," says Gary Gates. "I look over here and I see all this and I'm going oh my gosh… I can't believe this. But here it is."

The tremors caused damage across the state… one security camera video from a liquor store that captures the exact moment the earthquakes happened.

Many, like Gloria Childs, remains rattled today: "It scared me… and I hollered for my daughter… and I'm still shaking."

Remniscent of Arkansas Earthquakes

Activist Emily Lane relates to Oklahomans… she remembers losing a sense of security after the earthquakes started in Arkansas.

"How do you account for that sense of fear?" she asks. "And that sense of security that you no longer have... To me that's very damaging. how do you compensate for that?"

The Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission issued permits for wastewater disposal, a final step in the drilling and fracking process, to several companies between 2008 and 2009.

Between 2010 and 2011, more than 1400 earthquakes occurred in the area.

Lane recalls her family's reaction: "Of course the children were 'What's that,' 'Is it going to happen again?' 'Will it be bigger?' and we just had no idea."

Around this time, many began to question the correlation between drilling and earthquakes. Arkansas Geological Survey Director Scott Ausbrooks placed seismic monitors in the area to track the activity.

"Initially when we were tasked with looking at this issue, back in 2010, and actually in ways before that, we tried to let the evidence, let the date to determine whether there is a relationship or not," explains Ausbrooks.

His determination was consistent with what many scientists suspected: "It would be an extraordinary coincidence if there was not a relationship between the injection--the deep well injection--and the earthquakes."

The Arkansas Moratorium

In March of 2011, the Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission issued a temporary moratorium.

In July, that became permanent closing four wells owned by natural gas companies operated in the Enola Swarm area.

Former Faulkner County Judge Preston Scroggin believes that this was the right thing at the right time: "The Arkansas Gas Commission, I couldn't brag on them enough… And I couldn't brag on the Arkansas Geological Survey enough."

Economic Impact

The number of earthquakes dropped dramatically. But on the other hand, so did some of Arkansas' local economies.

"We experienced a boom," says Searcy Chamber of Commerce Buck Layne. "And now we're on the other side of the boom."

The moratorium--coupled with low gas prices--seriously impacted several cities.

"At one time, we estimated over 2,000 jobs here in Searcy and White County that were directly tied to the natural gas," explain Layne.

In several counties, you can now find compounds like this one that used to house dozens of workers, or old equipment, no longer in use.

"Here we are ten years later, the wells have been abandoned, they've been shut down, people have lost their jobs, social disruption has happened in the community," describes Emily Lane.

Many who allowed energy companies to lease their land are now receiving only a small fraction of the royalty the received during the boom: "It was more of a one time shot if you will... It wasn't going to continue. and some people over extended themselves with purchases," says Layne.

The downturn also causing the petroleum technology program at the Community College of Morrilton to go inactive. And this is a concern for those across Oklahoma.

Is a Moratorium the Solution?

"Oklahoma, as we all know is very dependent on oil," says Scott Poynter, a lawyer who acted on behalf of several Arkansas families who experienced the earthquakes.

In spite of this, Scott Poynter believes that the Corporation Commission in Oklahoma must do more to protect people: "They've been very slow to react to the problems that Oklahoma has seen."

He's now representing several families in Oklahoma who are trying to get reparations for damage to their homes. Poynter is also representing the Ponca Tribe and the Sierra Club. He's hoping to help bring about change, and maybe even a moratorium.

"Through some of the work we're doing in federal court in Oklahoma, we can create solutions to eliminate real potential risk," says Poynter.

Many Arkansans are hoping that Oklahoma will follow suit--to protect not only their state, but also the surrounding areas from tremors.

"I absolutely would recommend Oklahoma take a serious look at what we did here in Arkansas and how they can apply that there in Oklahoma," Lane advises.

What's happening now?

After the last earthquake, the Corporation Commission in Oklahoma shut down 37 of the more than 3,200 active wells.

But during a press conference yesterday, they announced they are changing the plan: only 32 wells will be shut down, while 21 will have to cut volume.

Our sister station KOKH reports that this will mean a total volume reduction of 40,000 barrels a day.

To view Pt. 1 in this series, click here.

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