Seismic effects of fracking have finally started percolating in the American public consciousness this winter, with sturdy shoves from an outspoken government scientist, a famous television journalist, and the chief investment strategist of Grantham Mayo van Otterloo, a huge, internationally recognized asset management firm based in Boston.
Their statements about earthquakes from fracking appear at a time when history seems to be repeating itself: on January 9, 2014, a 3.8 magnitude earthquake struck 6 miles (10 km) northwest of Prague, Oklahoma, less than 50 miles from Oklahoma City. Zachary Shahan, editor of PlanetSave, described research about the potential link between earthquakes and fracking back in 2011, after dozens of tremors up to 5.7 on the Richter scale shook exactly the same area: Prague, Oklahoma. Researchers from the University of Oklahoma and Columbia University conclusively linked the prior earthquakes and subsequent damage to well injection of post-fracking liquids a quarter-mile away (500 meters). This event was the largest quake associated with fracking wastewater injection to date.
UPDATE (March 10, 2014): The US Geological Survey has just reported a huge 6.9-magnitude earthquake off the coast of Northern California 50 miles west of Eureka, California, on Sunday night at around 10:18 p.m. Pacific time. The quake was felt as far south as San Francisco. No reports of injuries had been filed as of half an hour later. As of 11 p.m., USGS reported five aftershocks, which had magnitudes of 3.4, 3.5, 3.4, 4.6, and 2.9 accordingly. A tsunami warning has not been issued. Originally a Gold Rush town, Eureka has natural gas reserves nearby as well as offshore oil wells. Chevron has an shipping terminal there. Another earthquake over 6.0 occurred earlier yesterday near Oaxaca, Mexico. It is not known whether petroleum drilling has any connection to yesterday’s seismic events. Tectonic shift is clearly a factor.
The touchy issues people usually associate with hydraulic fracturing in areas like Barnett Shale in Texas and the six mid-Atlantic states’ Marcellus Shale are chemical and radioactive pollution of drinking water in aquifers, surface spillage of these contaminants, and emissions of methane. These were the only fracking effects considered the last time the American Chemical Society briefed the U.S. Congress on fracking (February 23, 2012).
The fracking process itself isn’t what causes the earthquakes. They occur when drillers have to dispose of huge amounts of injected fluid that re-emerge along with the desired fossil fuel. The industry euphemistically describes this fluid as “flowback” or “produced brine,” avoiding its origin in fresh water, and for economic reasons reinject it into nearby wells. Geologic studies have confirmed that as this wastewater changes pressure underground, it unlocks tectonic stress built up over decades and can actually lubricate existing fault lines, increasing an area’s earthquake potential. The U.S. Geological Survey refers to the process of earthquakes from fracking as “induced seismicity.” It’s especially tricky because the activity that causes quakes at one location may be taking place elsewhere where no vibrations are felt.
A government scientist speaks out on earthquakes from fracking
In a January 31 interview, Dr. Elizabeth Cochran, a calm observational seismologist with the US Geological Survey in Pasadena, California, who worked on the Prague study, gave further details on earthquakes from fracking to Jessica Desvarieux of The Real News Network in Baltimore.
Cochran said the team had found that drillers had been injecting fluid into Oklahoma disposal wells since about the 1990s. It surprised them to see a series of earthquakes occur 20 years later.
“But if you look in detail at the injection pressures, what happened was initially they could inject wastewater without any pressure. It would just basically go straight down the well, and they didn’t have to put any pressure to make it go into the formation. But those pressures gradually rose over the 20-year period until essentially they’d have to keep increasing the pressure at which they’d force the water down in order to continue injecting the same volume of water.
And so we think that was showing that essentially this formation, which had been previously drilled and produced and now is being reinjected into, was essentially filling up, that it was a closed space where they were pumping a lot of water… and essentially it got to the point where the formation was full. That caused increases in core pressure, which may have led to these events along the existing fault systems.”
Cochran added that the Oklahoma Geological Survey, officially equivocal in the matter of the Prague quake, has linked other seismic events over the past several years to known or likely injections. She also cited two other recent studies. One, from Ohio last summer, involved drillers trucking wastewater produced during fracking of the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania to Youngstown, Ohio, for disposal in the Northstar 1 injection well there. Since observations began over two centuries ago, Youngstown had never experienced an earthquake. The well came online in December 2010, and in the following year Youngstown-area seismometers recorded 109 quakes. Cochran noted that in the second study, Won-Young Kim at Columbia showed a direct correlation between seismicity and injection parameters.
When the interviewer pointed out that state governments, not the federal authorities, regulate and keep track of the petroleum industry’s waste fluid disposal, Cochran added that reports vary quite significantly, depending on the oil producer or the oil company involved, as well as the state regulations. The disparities naturally complicate general comparisons. In Oklahoma, the Corporation Commission collects monthly injection pressures from the oil companies.
“However, what we would like to see as seismologists is actually much finer data…. [For the study that Prague, Oklahoma, sequence of events], we went to the specific oil company involved in that and asked for additional information but were not able to receive that information. And so it would be very helpful if we did have greater access to that sort of data.”
AOL Online published an online video of the talk. The transcript of the interview was removed from the Real News site during the past 24 hours (“The requested URL /mobile/story.php was not found on this server.”), but it’s available elsewhere on the net. Joshua S. Hill covered the original study findings in PlanetSave last year.
GMO investment honcho agrees in his quarterly report
Under the headline “The Great American Shale Boom Is A Dangerous Waste Of Time And Money,” Business Insider relates why Jeremy Grantham, the highly regarded co-founder of the $117 billion firm GMO, believes fracking is a huge mistake. (Grantham successfully predicted both the dot com crash of the late 1990s and the subprime mortgage crisis and subsequent recession that began in 2008.) The renowned investment analyst, who started his career as an economist for Shell, thinks that any country (including the U.S. and China, who just announced a partnership on climate change causes, effects, and mitigation) still developing fossil fuels is making a serious mistake. One of his principal reasons turns out to be earthquakes from fracking.
Referring to USGS figures of 9/2/13 and showing a related chart from Science magazine for 40 years between 1973 and 2013, Grantham says, “To me at least, the connection is clear and statistically certain… far more certain than anything I ever see in the stock market or the economy.”
“You can see that in the Midwest earthquakes measuring over 3.0 on the Richter Scale occurred with the almost remarkable regularity of 14 a year on average. Decade after decade this pattern continued – producing a remarkably straight line – until 2003, when the line climbed steadily above trend, coincident with the drilling of fracking wells in the, when the line climbed steadily above trend, coincident with the drilling of fracking wells in the region. From 2003 until now the average has risen by over three times to 52 a year, with a peak of 176 in 2011 alone….”
Media also begin to reveal the fracking-earthquake connection
Time magazine and National Geographic both ran stories about fracking and seismicity in 2013, but few other mainstream press outlets have touched on it. The issue finally reached the level of national scrutiny on Valentine’s Day, however.
It came in the form of a story reported Friday in the public television news forum of Bill Moyers, veteran TV journalist, former White House Press Secretary, and Oklahoma native. On February 14 in CONNECTING THE DOTS, Moyers reporter John Little directly addressed the question of earthquakes from fracking. Little first noted that in Oklahoma and Texas, the number of earthquakes per year has increased tenfold since 1970. Second, during the same time period, 20 quakes annually shook the central and eastern U.S.–but by 2013, after the oil companies phased in fracking, the number rose to an average of more than 100. He also took up the fracking link to Youngstown’s hundreds of tremors in 2012.
And he directly quoted the US Geological Survey as saying that the effects of a similar quake “would be much worse if it were to happen in a more densely populated area.”
Grassroots legal efforts come into focus
In the public eyevduring the first six weeks of the new year, though not widely reported, were these other developments about fracking from earthquakes:
• About 900 residents of the town of Azle in North Texas met with Commissioner David Porter of the Texas Railroad Commission, which oversees drilling in the state, at the local high school the day after New Year’s. Porter refused to respond to questions at the local meeting, insisting that he was there only to listen. In an opening statement he told attendees that “The Railroad Commission is concerned and involved, but we have to base our actions on sound science and proven facts, not speculation that appears in some newspaper articles and some blogs.” Local media reported that when Porter ended the meeting two hours later, state troopers escorted the commissioner out a back door. Afterward, the commission announced that it would seek more information from an in-house earthquake expert.
• A group of about 50 from Azle met in Austin with state officials several weeks later. Peter Elkind, an editor at Fortune, picked up the debate story and CNN Money published it. Finding no acceptable answer to its request for a delay in local fracking injection activities, the community sued on January 24 about the fracking-related earthquakes. The commission’s study is expected later this month.
• Although Hawaii does not have petroleum reserves, fracking to release the island’s geothermal energy has been used on the Big Island since 1993. The state Senate is beginning hearings on a bill (SB2940) that would ban the mining technique throughout the state, with a $100,000 fine for violations.
• The Kansas state legislature reviewed the fracking-earthquake link in January. On Monday, AP reported in a Lawrence, Kansas, paper that Sam Brownback, the state’s Republican governor, asked the director of the Kansas Geological Survey to lead a task force that will develop a plan for increased earthquake activity “possibly related to Kansas oil and gas activities.” It will meet in April in Wichita.
• Also yesterday, local NBC News in Columbus reported that “a calendar entry for a meeting in the governor’s office suggests senior policy advisers to Ohio Gov. John Kasich were aware of a controversial public relations plan to promote the idea of horizontal drilling for oil and gas in state parks and state forests. A spokesman for the governor had said earlier that the governor’s office had never seen the plan.” The Sierra Club revealed the governor’s apparent involvement, and Kent State University radio presented details. The reports clearly imply collusion of Ohio’s government with the industry it is supposed to be regulating.
John Little described the effects of Oklahoma earthquakes in his article for Moyers: “More noticeable than the shaking, for many, is the noise these quakes make: a loud boom, like artillery fire.” Bombardment noise from within the earth, twenty-first century sounds that rumble much deeper and more threatening than puny human wars on the surface.