Could Scott Pruitt Have Fixed Oklahoma's Earthquake Epidemic?

Critics say he could have done much more to help the state’s citizens.

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt in his office in Oklahoma City (Nick Oxford / Reuters)

Scott Pruitt is Oklahoma’s attorney general and Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He has an interesting environmental record, to say the least.

In the past few years, he has cast doubt on one of the central findings of climate science. He has sued the EPA to block it from enforcing rules against regional smog and airborne mercury pollution. At one point, he copy-and-pasted a letter from an oil company onto official state letterhead, added his signature, and mailed it to the agency he will soon run.

He even has a long-running kerfuffle about chickenshit. Drew Edmondson, Pruitt’s predecessor, alleged that Tyson Foods and other poultry companies were dumping too much chicken manure into the Illinois River. The river had become choked with toxic algae. But after becoming attorney general in 2011, Pruitt dropped that case, downgrading it to a voluntary investigation. He simultaneously dismantled his office’s in-house environmental-protection unit. The poultry industry later donated at least $40,000 to his reelection campaign.

Amid all of this, though, some critics have focused on an environmental problem of a more cinematic variety: human-made earthquakes.

Oklahoma has been ailed this decade by an “induced-earthquake” problem, the consequences of which have wrecked walls, windows, and property values around the state. In a normal year—that is, in almost any before 2009—the state only saw one or two quakes. It now experiences one to two quakes per day. In 2015, it endured 857 earthquakes with a magnitude of 3.0 or higher, more than struck the rest of the lower 48 states combined.

These tremors are not naturally occurring. They are caused by wastewater injection, a process in which million of gallons of salty water are pumped deep underground. This water is often a by-product of fracking, the natural-gas mining process that has spread across the country and revolutionized the U.S. energy industry.

During Pruitt’s time as attorney general, Oklahoma developed the worst human-made-earthquake problem in the country. The state as a whole was slow to deal with the problem, and, for many years, it did not admit the quakes had a human origin. After that, it neglected to rapidly slow the rate of wastewater injection. This has allowed medium-scale earthquakes to continue: In November, a 5.0-magnitude quake damaged the structures of downtown Cushing, Oklahoma.

Johnson Bridgwater, the director of the Sierra Club’s Oklahoma chapter, says that the failure to address the quakes lies with every state official, Pruitt included.

“There are various places where the attorney general’s office could have stepped in to fix this overall problem,” he told me. “Its job is to protect citizens. Other states were proactive and took these issues on.” He criticized Pruitt for staying “completely silent” in the face of a major environmental problem for the state’s taxpayers.

Bridgwater’s concerns have been echoed by the national Sierra Club. “When a 2015 report from the Oklahoma Geological Survey found a direct link between oil and gas mining and increased destruction and property damage from earthquakes, Pruitt did nothing, even though as attorney general he is responsible for protecting Oklahomans,” said a statement from the organization last month.

This allegation is true, as it goes. There was a human-made earthquake epidemic in Pruitt’s home state, and the best thing you can say about his response is that it didn’t exist. But how much responsibility did Pruitt plausibly bear for the slow-moving disaster? And what could he have done about it?

On November 6, 2011, two earthquakes struck Sparks, Oklahoma, in 24 hours, knocking entire walls of bricks off houses. (Sue Ogrocki / AP)

Oklahoma is not the only state to have seen a surge in earthquakes this decade. Nearly every state in its region—Texas, Kansas, Arkansas, and Colorado—watched the number of earthquakes rise in the years after 2008. So did other states that embraced hydraulic fracturing, like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York.

Each of these states responded to the phenomenon differently, says Cliff Frohlich, a seismologist at the University of Texas at Austin. “If I were to generalize, I’d say it depends strongly on the importance of petroleum in the various states,” he told me. “The states that have been more sluggish—or careful—are the states that have a big financial investment in oil and gas. But at the same time, those were also the states that had more history with it.”

The various state responses present a natural experiment, of sorts. Arkansas saw temblors spike in frequency before Oklahoma did. It had a handful of earthquakes in 2008, then 37 in 2009, and then a whopping 772 in 2010. In July 2011, the state’s panicked oil and gas commission issued a blanket moratorium on new injection wells, and the epidemic immediately began to subside.

Texas and Oklahoma have been more circumspect. In some cases, this caution came from a long history of oil drilling in the state. “People in the oil patch would say, with truth, that they’d been pumping stuff into the ground for decades and it had not caused earthquakes,” Frohlich says.

Oklahoma was also hurt by its own geology. In Texas, underground wastewater tends to travel to the nearest fault and cause small slips. This triggers local, shallow quakes that don’t travel far. But in Oklahoma, the rock can absorb wastewater for years without showing it. Over time, all that built-up fluid pressurizes entire formations and causes deep faults to unclamp and slip. This creates “swarms” or “clouds” of earthquakes, as dozens of minor but harmful quakes strike the same region repeatedly over a matter of days.

Oklahoma was also extremely slow to acknowledge that humans were causing the quakes to occur. By 2013, scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey had made it clear that injection wells were increasing the state’s seismic risk. Yet it wasn’t until April 2015 that the state government of Oklahoma admitted that oil and gas activity was causing the earthquake epidemic. By that time, there were an average of two quakes per day.

Throughout this long period, Pruitt did nothing. He did not issue a statement about the quakes. He did not announce action to stop them. He did not resuscitate the state attorney general’s environmental-protect unit, which he had previously taken apart.

Perhaps he had nothing to do. Oklahoma’s corporation commission is charged with regulating wastewater injection, as is the state’s secretary of energy and environment. If the state was lax in its response, the fault primarily lies with those two offices.

But experts confided that there were a number of legal questions on which Pruitt could have engaged. The state’s earthquake epidemic created a number of thorny legal problems on which the people’s lawyer could have spoken. These include:

1. As Arkansas and Kansas began restricting wastewater injection, companies operating in those states began importing water across state lines into Oklahoma.  Firms working in Colorado and Texas also imported brine. In 2015, mining companies brought 2.4 millions barrels of wastewater into Oklahoma, where it was injected far underground.

The state’s corporation commission has said it cannot stop the wastewater coming into the state because it would violate the Constitution’s interstate-commerce clause. Yet this is a legal opinion, and Scott Pruitt said nothing about this issue. (Nor did Oklahoma officials seek a new law from Congress restricting the trade.)

2. Other Sooners found that even if they did purchase earthquake insurance, it did not cover their claims. In September of last year, for instance, the town of Pawnee experienced a 5.8-magnitude temblor, the worst quake ever recorded in the state. The shaking dislodged walls, cabinets, and flooring.

Within a month of the event, Pawnee residents had filed 274 claims to insurance providers. Only four were paid out, in part because the insurance companies don’t cover damage that occurs as a result of the quake after the shaking stops. Pruitt’s office has done nothing, and said nothing, about the 270 unpaid claims.

3. No one has ever been able to answer the biggest underlying legal question behind all the earthquakes: Who is liable? In November, the residents of Pawnee sought an answer and filed a class-action lawsuit against 27 oil companies operating in the area.

The state of Oklahoma, through Pruitt’s office, could have taken the side of its citizens and joined the case as an “intervenor.” It did not.

And while it is true that Pruitt does not regulate oil and gas extraction in Oklahoma, other attorneys general have involved themselves in difficult fracking cases. In Pennsylvania, Attorney General Kathleen Kane sued multiple fracking companies, alleging that they had violated environmental laws and leaked toxic chemicals into the water supply. Her elected successor, Josh Shapiro, won his election in part by promising to go even harder on frackers.

Perhaps Pruitt has been distracted by his own allegiances. Harold Hamm is an oil billionaire who first made his fortune by fracking the shale deposits of North Dakota. He believes in the moral imperative to frack: “Every time we can’t drill a well in America, terrorism is being funded,” he told the Republican National Convention last year. “Every onerous regulation puts American lives at risk.”

As recently as last year, and despite all available evidence, he also believed that wastewater injection did not cause earthquakes. He was chairman of Pruitt’s reelection campaign in 2014.

Until they get an answer, the vast majority of Oklahomans have had to deal with repair costs themselves. One of those Oklahomans is Mark Davies, a professor of social and ecological ethics at Oklahoma City University. His home is in one of the safer areas of the state, yet quakes have made small cracks in its ceiling and external stonework. He has handled the costs privately.

“Attorney General Pruitt has been quite proactive in relation to lawsuits that are supportive of the oil and gas industry—for example, his lawsuit against the Clean Power Plan—but [he has been] notably absent in his response to induced seismicity,” he told me in an email. “The question is, Could Pruitt have been more involved to protect Oklahoma and its citizens in relation to the detrimental effects of induced seismicity? I think the answer to this question is yes.”

The aftermath of the Pawnee quake (Reuters)

Rex Buchanan has a distinct outlook on Oklahoma’s problems, as he spent many years analyzing them from the north. Buchanan was acting director of the Kansas Geological Survey from 2010 to 2016, where he led that state’s approach to its own induced-seismicity epidemic. He retired last year after nearly four decades with the state agency.

His role meant that he spent many days in his southern neighbor state, talking about earthquakes. ( “I drove from Lawrence to Oklahoma City more than I would ever want to remember,” he told me. “We were treating this as a regional issue.”) He watched both states come to grips with their earthquake problems and begin to address them. In Kansas, he even did the addressing.

“Through all that time, I never dealt with anyone in the Oklahoma attorney general’s office,” he says. “Before [Scott Pruitt] was nominated for that post, I never even heard his name.”

This wasn’t unusual, he cautioned. It mirrored how the Kansas state government handled earthquakes. In Kansas, he had been asked by the governor to fix the problem, and the attorney general was not involved. In Oklahoma, the state’s corporation commissioners and its secretary of energy, Mike Ming, took the lead.

“Now, having said that, the situation in Oklahoma is way different than it is in any other state,” Buchanan told me. “Oklahoma is much worse, in terms of sheer number and magnitude of earthquakes. They’ve had class-action lawsuits, they’ve had Supreme Court cases. There were days in this process where I felt sorry for myself, but it was pretty easy to look at Oklahoma and not feel so bad.”

And the attorney general could have had a role in managing quakes, he said. “These are people suffering damage to their homes and businesses. But they can’t point to any specific well, and they can’t point to any specific company. You’ve got people suffering damage, with what I couldn’t see as a recourse. That’s an important legal question, I think,” he told me. It remains unresolved.

Oklahoma finally began to impose regulations on wastewater injection last year. Its regulations are considered among the meekest in the country. Bridgwater wants the state to act more aggressively—it still waits to to react to big quakes instead of proactively planning for new ones, he alleges.

An independent report released last month by Stanford seismologists says that the state is on the right track, though it could move faster. In 2017, Oklahoma faces a 40 percent risk of another major earthquake. The state will not return to normal seismicity until the end of the 2020s.