Amid Surge in Seismicity, States Join Effort on Regulating Saltwater Disposal Wells

By Paul Stinson

Feb. 17 — Faced with increased levels of seismic activity and ongoing concerns over potential linkages to hydraulic fracturing, a number of states are working together to develop a framework of best practices to regulate saltwater disposal wells, Oklahoma's top environmental official told Bloomberg BNA.

“We spent yesterday talking about induced seismicity and what regulatory framework we should put together—kind of best practices if you will—that the states could use to regulate Class IID injection wells [saltwater disposal wells] as part of a traffic light system,” said Oklahoma Secretary of Energy and Environment Michael Teague.

Speaking by phone from Austin, Texas, Teague offered the comments Feb. 10 following his attendance of an underground injection control conference jointly hosted by the Groundwater Protection Council (GWPC) and the Interstate Oil & Gas Commission.

Additionally, drawing on input from Ohio, Arkansas, Colorado and Texas officials, Teague said a “working group” is in the process of further evolving the currently used traffic light control system of well permitting protocols that would be applied to an instance of induced seismicity.

Taken from a 2012 recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences, under a green light, an operator would be free to inject fluids; under a red light, injection would be stopped to allow for further investigation. Yellow would allow low levels of seismicity but require additional monitoring and mitigation requirements, the academy said.

Serving as something of a traffic light system blueprint or playbook of what needs to be done in terms of data collection, parameter building and public awareness campaigns, Teague said the “end stage” of the process will see the production of “a report that can be shared among the states on a regulatory traffic light system.”

System Used to Shut Pair of Oklahoma Wells 

Highlighting a recent instance of the system's use, Teague pointed to the early February state-ordered shut-in of an Alfalfa County disposal well in Northern Oklahoma operated by SandRidge Energy Inc. following a 4.1 magnitude earthquake.

The order marked the second of its kind following the 2013 closure of a disposal well in Love County suspected of triggering a swarm of earthquakes.

Following a 1975-2008 era that saw 56 earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or greater, Oklahoma registered an estimated 109 earthquakes in that category and more than 500 in 2014, according to Oklahoma Geological Survey data.

“Seismic activity from 2009–2014 far exceeds historic seismicity and, in a few cases, has been correlated to subsurface fluid injection in the midcontinent,” a report published Dec. 30 by the Oklahoma Geological Survey said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Paul Stinson in Austin, Texas, at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at