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Oklahoma’s Largest Earthquake Shuts Down Osage, Pawnee Nation

Oklahoma’s largest earthquake to date on Saturday has shut down operations and damaged areas of Osage and Pawnee Nations.

Operators of 17 disposal wells in the Osage Nation have agreed to shut down operations following a 5.8-magnitude earthquake over the weekend, a move that will help keep people safe but could affect the tribe’s economy, the chairman of the Osage Nation Minerals Council said.

Osage Nation Minerals Council Chairman Everett Waller said he was “very” concerned about the effect the shutdown will have on the local economy, but “the safety of our people is first. It’s an issue of the environment, which we’ve been custodians of for many years. Our oilfield is 118 years old.”

The earthquake Saturday morning was centered 9.3 miles northwest of Pawnee and had a depth of 3.5 miles, according to the Oklahoma Geological Survey. The U.S. Geological Survey had originally said the quake had a magnitude of 5.6, but the agency updated the figure on Wednesday to 5.8, making it the largest ever recorded in the state. Several aftershocks occurred following the temblor.

Andrew Knife Chief, executive director of the Pawnee Nation Business Council, said seven historic tribal buildings received moderate-to-severe damage, while three others received minor damage. The tribe, he said, has been able to maintain its critical support services to citizens, a vital lifeline to some tribal members.

“We are a rural town. We are a rural community. A lot of members still live on allotment lands and there aren’t a lot of services in this part of the world,” he said. “We are critical to them.”

No tribal members were hurt in the quake, Knife Chief said.

Following the earthquake, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission issued a directive to shut down Arbuckle disposal wells within a 725-square-mile area, which included 37 wells, for possible seismic activity. The area also included 211 square miles within the Osage Nation, including 17 wells.

The commission’s Oil and Gas Division has authority to shut down wells under state jurisdiction that could cause an environmental impact or affect public safety.

The Environmental Protection Agency is the permitting authority for underground injection wells within the Osage Nation.

“Injection well operators agreed to shut down their wells consistent with the actions in state jurisdiction, and some well operators had already shut down,” Joe Hubbard, spokesman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said in a statement.

The Osage Nation reservation, also known as Osage County, covers nearly 1.5 million acres in northeast Oklahoma, which includes 18,000 wells, according to Waller. Tribal members receive income from the oil and gas found in the reservation. As of September 1, each full headright is worth $3,230 per quarter.

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Waller said he does not yet have a dollar amount for the economic impact of the shutdown. He added that many questions remain unanswered and he is seeking information from the EPA and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“I’m going to work with everyone. This isn’t the time to say something is amiss. This is a time that we get a protocol in to face what’s coming,” he said.

Matt Skinner, spokesman for the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, noted that nothing had changed in terms of jurisdiction and that the shutdown of the wells was an emergency action.

“We’ve never had a problem involving Osage County before,” he noted.

Oklahoma has seen a spike in the number of earthquakes with a magnitude of 3.0 or greater in recent years. The Oklahoma Geological Survey has said the majority of earthquakes have likely been triggered by wastewater injected into disposal wells deep underground. Saturday morning’s earthquake was felt as far away as Arizona.

Knife Chief, the Pawnee Nation official, said his tribe is done debating about the causes.

“We’ve seen an increase in earthquakes for years now,” he said, noting that the tribe took out earthquake insurance on its buildings several years ago when officials saw the uptick in temblors.

The tribe earlier passed a moratorium on oil and gas leases in Pawnee and Payne counties. Still, Knife Chief said what one tribe decides is not what is best for another tribe. Each must decide the best solution based on the input of its tribal citizens, he said.

“What we fear as a nation is that the environmental impact isn’t known,” Knife Chief said. “We’re in the midst of it. What is it going to look like 20 years from now?”

Pauline Allred said she was cooking in the kitchen of her 50-year-old home on the Osage Nation reservation Saturday morning when the earthquake hit.

“The windows vibrated like they were opening and closing,” she said. Her son came out of a back room and asked what was happening.

Allred, whose home is on the top of a hill, often experiences strong winds but said Saturday was the first time she had felt an earthquake.