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More earthquakes rattle Oklahoma: Time for state to take tough measures?

Residents are concerned that state officials are taking too long to respond, and are afraid that the earthquakes could continue to disrupt their lives.

Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman via AP
Todd Halihan, center rear, a hydrogeology professor at Oklahoma State University, speaks to a crowd of concerned homeowners during an earthquake forum at the Capitol hosted by Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City, in Oklahoma City, Okla.

As more earthquakes continue to rattle Oklahoma, many are left to wonder why the state has yet to take tough measures to prevent the causes, which have been attributed to oil and gas drilling.

Hundreds of people flocked the Oklahoma State Capitol last week to voice their concerns and seek answers on steps the state was taking to stop the frequent quakes. Residents are concerned that state officials are taking too long to respond, and were disappointed by the absence of Gov. Mary Fallin at the town hall forum, organized by Rep. Lewis Moore.

Lining up for more that 5 hours to get a chance to speak, many residents including state Rep. Richard Morrissette (D-Oklahoma City) blamed energy companies, saying that the lawmakers aren’t enforcing tough measures to regulate hydraulic fracturing and wastewater injection.

"This is an issue that's taken on legs," Mr. Morrissette said. "It's not a Democratic, Republican or Independent party issue. This is an Oklahoma resident issue. It's an Oklahoma business issue. It's an oil and gas issue, and it's going to be addressed. There's going to be change in public policy in one way or another."

Last week, a group of residents filed a lawsuit against 12 energy companies, saying that their saltwater disposal wells were partly responsible for the recent earthquakes in central Oklahoma. The lawsuit seeks a permanent injunction to stop the use of 16 disposal wells operated by the companies, The Associated Press reported.

Oklahoma has become one of the most earthquake-prone areas in the world, with more than 5,700 earthquakes hitting the state in 2015, according to NPR. The state has already experienced two earthquakes this year, with magnitudes of 4.3 and 4.2.

The Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which regulates the state's oil and natural gas industry, responded by ordering operators to reduce wastewater disposal volumes on wells operating within 10 miles of the center of earthquake activity near Edmond, the Portland Press Herald reported.

Bills to address the state's earthquakes have yet to be filed, according to KFOR-TV. “We know exactly what’s happening. What’s difficult is we’re trying to figure out a way to handle it that doesn't have a negative impact on the industry.” Rep. Cory Williams told the crowd. “There really isn’t a way to do that, we’re going to have to make a decision, do we want to protect the industry or our constituents?”

Oil and gas production is one of the largest industries in Oklahoma, contributing 7 percent of the state’s revenue, according to the Guardian. Politicians have been reluctant to regulate the industry. But experts warn that although most of recent earthquakes have been of smaller magnitudes, the continued hydraulic fracturing and wastewater injection could expose these areas to earthquakes of higher magnitudes.

“Most of the system is now in a critically stressed state and all you need to do is add slight stress changes in areas and you get — earthquake,” Daniel McNamara, a research geophysicist at the US Geological Survey’s National Earthquake Information Center, told NPR.  He added that he wasn’t predicting a magnitude 6.0 earthquake, but said that the “faults near Edmond are likely large enough to produce a magnitude six.”

“I just think that residents of Oklahoma really need to think about being prepared for strong shaking,” McNamara said.

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