If there’s been one common theme in both my life’s work as an environmental lawyer and my writing here on this blog, it is that mankind’s ever-growing thirst for fossil fuels has many unintended consequences — and too often these consequences are not good. Over the years, I’ve seen first-hand how drilling and production of oil and natural gas fields across the Deep South has, yes, provided fuel to run our cars and heat our homes — but at the cost of sickening workers and dumping radioactive or toxic wastes at industrial sites, in open pits, in streams and in swamps.
Over the last decade, we’ve seen a rise in even riskier, unconventional methods to extract energy, with even more serious and dangerous after-effects. I’ve focused a lot on two of these: Deep-ocean offshore oil drilling — as most famously mishandled by BP at the Deepwater Horizon site in 2010 — and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, of shale formations. We are drilling deeper, creating massive new waste streams, and then injecting those wastes deep underground with little thought to the consequences.
One of the saddest environmental tragedies to touch the Deep South in recent years has been the small Louisiana community of Bayou Corne, about 70 miles west of New Orleans. Over the last two years, a massive sinkhole, shaking the earth and emitting dangerous amounts of potentially explosive methane, has forced 350 residents to abandon the homes where some had lived their entire lives. The sinkhole was clearly the result of years of extraction at an underground salt dome by the Texas Brine Co., and then structural issues that had been ignored by the firm and by state regulators. But just now are researchers finding out specifics about what actually caused the sinkhole — and the results are troubling:
To find out what might have caused these tremors, scientists analyzed data gathered by a temporary network of seismic stations that the U.S. Geological Survey had set up in the area. The scientists detected 62 tremors — which ranged in magnitude from 1.3 to 1.6 — in the day before the sinkhole was discovered.
Unexpectedly, the scientists found that the tremors originated about 1,540 feet (470 meters) beneath the western edge of the Napoleonville salt dome.
The seismic data suggested that the sinkhole-linked quakes were caused by explosive events similar to volcanic eruptions. While hot magma causes volcanic eruptions, these sinkhole-linked quakes were apparently triggered by high-pressure gushes of either natural gas or water charged with natural gas.
The surges of natural gas that caused the tremors may have weakened the salt cavern and caused its collapse. Alternatively, a collapse of part of the salt cavern may have caused a nearby gas pocket to give off surges of gas, later followed by the complete collapse of the salt cavern.
These findings are striking for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it comes as scientists are also learning more about how the fracking process is intrinsically linked to swarms of earthquakes, many in areas that has seen little seismic activity before the drilling boom:
So far this year, Oklahoma has had more than twice the number of earthquakes as California, making it the most seismically active state in the continental U.S. As recently as 2003, Oklahoma was ranked 17th for earthquakes. That shift has given rise to concern among communities and environmentalists that injecting vast amounts of wastewater back into the ground is contributing to the rise in Oklahoma’s quakes. The state pumps about 350,000 barrels of oil a day, making it the fifth largest producer in the U.S.
The rise in earthquakes isn’t just happening in Oklahoma, challenging scientists and regulators across the country. The growth of seismic activity alongside oil production in fracking states from Colorado to Ohio has sparked a series of studies tying the temblors to drilling activity. Most seismologists around the country are convinced that wastewater injected back into the ground is jolting fault lines and triggering earthquakes. Between 2006 and 2012, the amount of wastewater disposed in Oklahoma wells jumped 24 percent, to more than 1 billion barrels annually, according to the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which regulates the industry.
In spite of this damning and growing body of evidence against fracking, Big Oil and Gas is very clearly looking at southern Louisiana as the next great frontier. Earlier this year, I told you how residents of the Mandeville area just north of Lake Pontchartrain are fighting tooth and nail to prevent fracking and wastewater dumping around the aquifer that supplies water to the population belt in and around Baton Rouge. Other companies are also hoping to drill in the region — but the tragedy of Bayou Corne should remind us that while Louisiana is certainly quite rich in natural resources, it also rests atop a remarkably fragile and sensitive portion of God’s earth. Before it dives headlong into the fracking boom, Louisiana should think long and hard about how many Bayou Cornes it can spare.
To learn more about how small earthquakes may have caused the Bayou Corne sinkhole, please read: http://www.nbcnews.com/science/science-news/gas-charged-earthquakes-linked-louisiana-sinkhole-n150886
To read more about how Oklahoma now has more earthquakes than California thanks to fracking, check out: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-07-07/oklahoma-temblors-outpace-california-as-fracking-booms.html
Read my May 31 blog post about fracking in South Louisiana: http://www.stuarthsmith.com/somethings-happening-in-south-louisiana-and-the-dirty-dozen-doesnt-get-it/
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