Oil companies should pay cost of extra inspectors

Did you hear about the earthquakes in Oklahoma earlier this month? No one was hurt and only about a dozen homes were damaged, but rattlers are rare in the Sooner State and so the event drew a lot of attention.

An interesting, if misleading, theory about the cause of the quakes soon bubbled to the surface.

The cause of the temblors, some speculated, was potentially related to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a common practice in Oklahoma and a fast-growing method of extracting trapped oil and gas deposits in Northern Colorado by injecting water, sand and chemicals deep underground.

This fracking-caused-the-quake line of thinking generated more than its fair share of headlines, blog postings and musings. It also is largely without merit and, more troubling, discredits groups that have expressed more legitimate concerns about fracking operations.

Yes, Oklahoma has seen a huge increase in quakes in the past couple of years. It typically experienced about 50 small quakes a year – until 2009. Then, the numbers began to climb. Last year, more than 1,000 quakes shook the state. Fracking opponents blame the oil companies.

But as Stanford University geophysicist Mark Zoback put it, the typical energy released in tremors triggered by fracking “is the equivalent to a gallon of milk falling off the kitchen counter.” In other words, a seismograph can pick up these quakes deep below the surface but no one above ground would feel them.

Not incidentally, seismologists point out there happens to be a fault line in the area where the Nov. 8 quake and its aftershocks occurred.

“You can have an earthquake … anywhere east of the Rockies,” U.S. Geological Survey seismologist Paul Earle said. “You don’t need a huge fault to produce an earthquake that big. It’s uncommon, but not unexpected.”

The National Academy of Sciences is examining the quake-fracking connection – assuming one actually exits – but it seems to us that the conspiracy theorists might want to give it a rest.

There is another issue, however, that should cause immediate concern for us all.
As Business Report staffer Steve Porter wrote in our Nov. 4 editions, Colorado is woefully understaffed when it comes to the number of inspectors trying to do the job of providing oversight of the industry.

The industry insists fracking is safe. The chemicals used are injected through steel and concrete casings that prevent any contact with aquifers, and are then released thousands of feet below drinking-water sources.

That’s all fine and good, but as our reporter pointed out, with more than 47,000 active wells and only 15 full-time state inspectors, the numbers don’t favor a vigilant inspection program.

“That number of inspectors is not nearly enough to watch over those wells,” Shane Davis, executive chair of the Sierra Club’s Poudre Canyon chapter, told Porter. “I fear the state is not living up to the standards they’re supposed to uphold.”

We agree.

So here’s a solution to consider: Hire more inspectors and have the companies pay more in impact fees so that can they help cover the salaries.

They’ll grouse, sure, but their costs will amount to a drop in the bucket compared to the money they stand to make.

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