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The Oil Conundrum: Does ‘Fracking’ Cause Earthquakes?

We’ve seen activists tie themselves to trees, throw paint at celebrities, and go on hunger strikes. But the latest cause of resentment has people strapping themselves to oil drills in Ohio and shooting guns at well sites in Pennsylvania. The controversy has been created by the issue of  ‘fracking.’

During fracking, otherwise known as hydraulic fracturing, rock is broken up when a pressurized liquid composition of water, sand, and chemicals is injected into a wellbore (a hole used to locate and access natural resources); the process releases highly coveted natural oil and gas.

People aren’t necessarily incensed over the oil; the concern is based on the belief that this fracking process is responsible for recent seismic activity in areas of the country that haven't been historically exposed to earthquakes. Fracking isn’t exactly the earth’s best friend (but lets be honest here, neither is humanity in general), but is it actually the culprit? If it’s to blame for recent ruptures and property damage, then what’s can be done?

NPR’s reporting project ‘State Impact’ concludes that disposed drilling wastewater used in fracking is now “scientifically linked to earthquakes” (stateimpact.npr.org/texas). The science that links manmade seismic activity—like fracking-induced earthquakes—to the oil and gas industry isn’t anything new; years ago, researchers discovered they could turn quakes on and off by injecting liquid into the ground (stateimpact.npr.org/texas).

This underground fluid behaves like air pockets that can eventually shift the above rock. Although the disposal method for fracking (which includes injecting wastewater into underground disposal wells) is considered one of the safest techniques, the science, NPR’s report seems to suggest, still stands.

Furthermore, the report documents various areas within the United States that have been rattled due to fracking wastewater disposal. As far back as 2008, a year that, coincidentally, marked a boom in Texan oil and gas exploration, earthquakes have been rumbling through various Texas counties. South Texas experienced a magnitude 4.8 earthquake in 2011 near Eagle Ford Shale Play, and there have been other quakes linked to injection wells in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. There were no earthquakes before then (stateimpact.npr.org/texas). The most recent quake was 3.0 magnitude on January 22 outside the Dallas-Fort Worth airport.

Other U.S. hotspots for fracking-induced earthquakes include Ohio, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Fracking-induced earthquakes are an issue in Canada as well. Near Foxcreek, Alberta, a chain of 25 small quakes ranging from 2.5 to 3.5, between 2013 and 2014, corresponded “closely with hydraulic fracture treatments of oil and gas production wells in the immediate vicinity” (Nikiforuk). Those who believe there is a relationship between oil fracking and seismic activity claim “overwhelming” scientific evidence that shows the oil industry’s desire for wastewater disposal wells have promoted “man-made earthquakes”.

However, not all views are against the practice of fracking. According to a 2013 New York Times opinion article “local effects of drilling and fracking have gotten a lot of press but have caused few problems” (Brantley & Meyendorff). Of the tens of thousands of injection wells used in the U.S., only eight locations have experienced injection-induced earthquakes and most are too weak to cause any significant damage.

The amount of earthquakes reported by the state of Texas in the past year is 85; compare that to the San Andreas Fault region in California which reported 985 earthquakes in the past WEEK (http://scedc.caltech.edu/recent/). In the end, the commotion concerning fracking seems to be causing a larger impact on the Richter Scale than the actual earthquakes themselves.

The connection will most likely be decided in court, but not anytime soon. Just last month, the government of Alberta was ordered to present its Statement of Defense in the Ernst v. EnCana trial, which involves EnCana Co.’s gas and chemical contamination of an aquifer (a body of rock that transmits groundwater) used by a rural community. Although the case does not concern “manmade earthquakes” specifically—and, therefore, won’t decide whether or not hydraulic fracturing cause earthquakes—it does show how far-reaching the issue of fracking has become of late.