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Earthquake study needs more time, funding, experts say

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OKLAHOMA CITY - Oklahoma has experienced more than 4,000 earthquakes in 2014, but the cause of those tremors is still unknown, according to state officials.

A House Committee on Utility and Environmental Regulation held an interim legislative study Tuesday at the state capitol to discuss the possible relationship between increased seismic activity and oil and gas wastewater disposal wells.

Everyone agreed the earthquake swarm started around five years ago, but Oklahoma Geological Survey Seismologist Austin Holland said natural causes may be to blame.

"We can't necessarily say, blanket statement, all these earthquakes are being caused by disposal wells," Holland said. "There's a lot of challenges remaining and we're certainly doing our science as fast as we can."

Getting earthquake data to scientists faster is a top priority.

Building better fault maps is an ongoing project.

Corporation Commissioner Dana Murphy is concerned about manpower and budgeting.

"All of that costs money and so we're trying to do that," she said. "That's not an excuse, that's the reality of it."

State Rep. Jason Murphey (R - Guthrie) pointed out there has already been a correlation found between injection wells and earthquakes in Love County.

"If that finding is repeated in other parts of the state, then it gives credence to the fact that there truly is a correlation," he said, "and it's our responsibility to look at that data and see if that is, in fact, the case."

State Rep. Cory Williams (D - Stillwater) said preventing earthquakes is possible, and said he has personally watched seismographs in real-time react to an injection well coming online.

"You can see a small earthquake, (then) you can see the pressure dissipate and then you can start to see the pressure build," Williams said of the experience, "and you can almost predict an earthquake within 20 to 25 minutes based off of some of these injections wells and the pressures that are going on there."

Williams said those oil storage tanks in Cushing could be damaged if they experienced stronger earthquakes than last week's.

The Corporation Commission said for the state's nearly 4,000 disposal wells, oil and gas industry laws had focused on protecting underground sources of drinking water, but that could change with the analysis of more detailed earthquake data.

The legislature may decide to help fund this effort next session.