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M. Scott Carter
M. Scott Carter

M. Scott Carter reports on politics, legislation and other issues from the State Capitol.

A state representative, concerned about possible water pollution caused by oil and gas drilling, said Tuesday he was considering new rules governing disposal wells, following an interim hearing on the use of sub-groundwater in hydraulic fracturing.

State Rep. Steve Vaughn, R-Ponca City, said he was “still exploring his options” regarding new legislation to tighten the regulation of oil field disposal wells. Vaughn said there were 22,000 disposal wells in his district, but only one state inspector assigned to the area.

In a media statement distributed after the meeting, Vaughn said many of the older wells in his district were prone to leaks. “My concern is whether these wells are being maintained to the point that is necessary to protect our fresh water,” he said. Vaughn said state laws were decades behind the industry.

Credit: M. Scott Carter / Oklahoma Watch

“If that law, that was done 50 years ago, says 10 barrels (of oil) could be spilled before it’s cleaned up, well maybe it needs to be changed,” he said. Vaughn, who requested the hearing, said most oil and gas companies were good stewards of the environment, but added more could be done to protect ground water. “I would say that they do what they need to do, until they’re pushed,” Vaughn said. “That’s probably where they are at. I think some are good stewards. It’s the ones that aren’t, they are the ones that need to be looked at.”

On Sept. 9, Vaughn and members of the House of Representatives’ Agricultural and Wildlife Committee held a two-hour hearing at the state Capitol on the use of sub-groundwater for hydraulic fracturing, a way to stimulate oil and gas wells by fracturing rock with pressurized liquid.

An oil and gas industry spokesman said hydraulic fracturing was safe. “In every well used to tap into Oklahoma’s vast oil and gas reserves, millions of pounds of steel and concrete are utilized in multiple layers to isolate the well from groundwater supplies,” Mike Terry, president of the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association, said in a media statement. “These measures, along with strict environmental regulations and the thousands of feet of rock between the fracture zone and any fresh or treatable aquifers, ensure groundwater supplies are protected.”

Terry said the oil and gas industry accounts for just 2 percent of the freshwater used in Oklahoma. “To put that in perspective, one average Oklahoma oil and gas well uses just 5 percent of the water needed to irrigate one Oklahoma City golf course,” he said.

During the hearing, J.D. Strong, executive director of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, said Oklahoma’s 23 aquifers have about 320 million acre-feet of water.

Of that amount, Strong said the state has permitted between 6 million and 7 million acre-feet, but only used about 2 million acre-feet of that amount. “That usages includes everything,” he said.

“Industry, agricultural, household — everything.” An acre-foot of water, the amount needed to cover one acre of land with one foot of water, equals 325,851 gallons.

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