Mere mention of the word sends people on all sides of the fracking argument into a frenzy. Fracking proponents say without equivocation that there is no link between drilling and earthquakes. The most vehement fracking opponents scream “earthquake!” and believe that the argument is won.
But the evidence is clear. Fracking wastewater injection wells can cause mid-level earthquakes, and it’s really indisputable at this point. We’ve got scientific proof that this happened in at least 99 earthquakes in Ohio, in a swarm of small earthquakes in Texas, and in an earthquake sequence in Oklahoma. US Geological Survey (USGS) seismologist Dr. Elizabeth Cochrane is a co-author of the Oklahoma study, which she describes in the video above.
If you watch the video, the case is convincing, and despite the reporter’s questions, there is no peer-reviewed evidence that she is wrong.
USGS now tracking man-made quakes
For me, what clinches the link between fracking and earthquakes is that the USGS, which has an impeccable record of tracking earthquake activity, is now recording and tracking “man-made” earthquakes. Here’s what they have to say:
The number of earthquakes has increased dramatically over the past few years within the central and eastern United States. Nearly 450 earthquakes magnitude 3.0 and larger occurred in the four years from 2010-2013, over 100 per year on average, compared with an average rate of 20 earthquakes per year observed from 1970-2000.
This increase in earthquakes prompts two important questions: Are they natural, or man-made? And what should be done in the future as we address the causes and consequences of these events to reduce associated risks? USGS scientists have been analyzing the changes in the rate of earthquakes as well as the likely causes, and they have some answers.
USGS scientists have found that at some locations the increase in seismicity coincides with the injection of wastewater in deep disposal wells. Much of this wastewater is a byproduct of oil and gas production and is routinely disposed of by injection into wells specifically designed for this purpose.
I recommend that you read the entire linked page. The next time you go to a meeting where an oil and gas industry representative says there’s no evidence linking earthquakes to fracking, don’t let them get away with it.
Don’t overstate the issue
Where fracking opponents hurt their own credibility in talking about the Beartooth Front is when they suggest that “fracquakes” might somehow awaken the slumbering Yellowstone Caldera. This, they say, could cause a supervolcano that would spew magma all over the Western US, resulting in global climate change and potentially wiping out civilization. But the Caldera slept through the nearby 1959 Hebgen Lake Earthquake, the largest (7.3 on the Richter Scale) in Montana history. That one killed 28 people, caused a huge avalanche that stopped the flow of the Madison River, created a large 170 foot deep lake and made new geysers erupt in Yellowstone Park. The Caldera hasn’t erupted for 640,000 years and can probably sleep through mid-level earthquakes happening a hundred miles away.
But you don’t need to scream the world is going to end to be concerned about earthquakes caused by fracking along the Beartooth Front. The ecosystem here is fragile. A spill that
infects the Stillwater or the Clarks Fork Yellowstone or the Boulder River would be disastrous. Click on the picture at left and take a look at the tailings pond containing frac water, the liquid that is returned to the surface after fracturing is completed, and you’ll see the problem.
The real danger
An earthquake that breaches the walls of the pond would not only contaminate the adjacent properties, but could migrate into a nearby river as well.
The Stillwater Mine has two tailings ponds, one on site and one near the intersection of Stillwater River Road (Route 420) and Nye Road (Route 419) in Stillwater County. While the Mine tells me that these tailings ponds can withstand a 7.0 earthquake, wouldn’t it make sense to consider a protective zone to ensure they are safe?
The relationship between fracking and earthquakes is not idle speculation, it’s proven. Yet elected officials want to rush headlong into drilling. Wouldn’t it make more sense to consider setting limits based on earthquake risk? The USGS suggests an approach:
One risk-management approach…involves the setting of seismic activity thresholds for safe operation. Under this “traffic-light” system, if seismic activity exceeds preset thresholds, reductions in injection would be made. If seismicity continues or escalates, operations could be suspended.
The current regulatory framework for wastewater disposal wells was designed to protect drinking water sources from contamination and does not address earthquake safety….(O)ne consequence is that both the quantity and timeliness of information on injection volumes and pressures reported to the regulatory agencies is far from ideal for managing earthquake risk from injection activities.
You don’t get a second chance to protect your water.