End of earthquakes possible, but who will pay for it?

Four days after the 5.0 magnitude earthquake Sunday night debris is still on the sidewalk in front of the Cimarron Tower Apartments in Cushing, Okla. on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016. (KOKH)

The state may be shaking, but what will it take to shake up the way Oklahoma is dealing with the cause of many of the earthquakes?

The issue underlying Oklahoma’s earthquakes, according to scientists, is what we do with all the stuff that comes up from oil and gas operations that isn’t oil or gas. The oil and gas is mixed with water, usually very salty water that contains the toxic chemicals used in the extraction process.

For decades, the solution for this waste water was to inject it back into natural formations deep within the earth. However, scientists have linked high volume and high pressure disposal in some underground formations with the rise in earthquakes.

After each earthquake, Oklahoma regulators step in to limit volume or pressure of injection wells in the immediate area. Sometime injection wells are shut down.

However, injection is not the only solution to deal with waste water. It is just the cheapest option.

“Any water all over the planet can be treated, any chemical constituent can be taken out of the water it's just a matter of cost,” said Julie Cunningham the interim director of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board.

Cunningham now heads up a committee appointed by the governor to look at options for produced water, which is another name for waste water.

“There is no blanket solution out there,” Cunningham explained, “Because the quantities of water produced out of the different plays are so diverse and the water quality of the different plays are so diverse.”

Injecting dirty water costs around $2 a barrel on average. Options for cleaning it vary depending on what you want to do with it. If you just clean it a little to the point that the waste water can be re-used in oil operations or for cooling operations in energy plants it can cost around $4 a barrel.

According to early estimates presented to the produced water committee, the waste water can also be cleaned up to the point where it is drinkable. However, this is very expensive at around $10 a barrel.

“We've gotten probably a hundred phone calls from [waste water recycling] companies,” Cunningham said, “So i think there is a lot of interest in the oil and gas industry in Oklahoma, a lot of interest in treatment. “

“I think these companies as well as the oil and gas companies would like to find a solution,” Cunningham told FOX 25. She added that right now there is no incentive for oil companies to spend more on waste water and there is no incentive for recycling companies to build in Oklahoma.

One concern for oil companies is regulation and who would own the toxic water once it's out of the ground.

“We need to make sure if we do the right thing and they recycle their water and they are finding a viable use for that and that they can change ownership and not be held liable and the treatment company can be held liable.”

Addressing laws on water ownership may be the first step the legislature takes this next session.

The Oklahoma Corporation Commission also recently gave approval for another treatment plant

That company will offer forced evaporation that will remove the water from the chemicals so salt and other products can be harvested for re-use. That plant hopes to be up and running sometime next year.

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