Ohio Officials Halt Fracking Operations After “Suspicious” String of Earthquakes Hits Youngstown Area

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More evidence rumbled in over the holiday weekend tying fracking operations to earthquakes. The most recent and largest tremor – in a “suspicious” string of 11 – to hit the Youngstown area since last March measured 4.0 on the Richter scale. The epicenter, according to a Jan. 1 New York Times report, is “a well that has been used for the disposal of millions of gallons of brine and other waste liquids produced at natural-gas wells…”

Nothing like ringing in the new year with a bang.

The “collateral damage” tied to the controversial extraction process known as fracking includes contaminated groundwater, air pollution, exploding wells and flammable tap water – but all that (as troubling as it is) seems to pale a bit in comparison to earthquakes. Although up to this point the tremors in Ohio have caused little in the way of property damage or injuries to residents, earthquakes are an unpredictable phenomenon. You really never know when “the big one” will hit.

Having said that, I’m happy to report that Ohio officials have taken the prudent step of halting operations in Youngstown until scientists are able to determine the definitive cause of the tremors. Smart move. Other fracking localities – where wastewater disposal wells are in use – should follow suit. More from the NYT article:

An official in Ohio said on Sunday that the underground disposal of wastewater from natural-gas drilling operations would remain halted in the Youngstown area until scientists could analyze data from the most recent of a string of earthquakes there.

…The waste, from the process called hydraulic fracturing that is used to unlock the gas from shale rock, had been injected under pressure into the well, which is 9,200 feet deep. Scientists had suspected that some of the wastewater might have migrated into deeper rock formations, allowing an ancient fault to slip. Similar links between disposal wells and earthquakes have been suspected in Arkansas and Texas.

In fact, earthquakes have been tied to fracking operations in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, British Columbia, the United Kingdom and now Ohio. Last summer, a rash of quakes in Arkansas prompted state officials to ban fracking wastewater wells in the impacted area. From my Aug. 10 post:

As if radioactive wastewater, exploding wells and flammable tap water weren’t bad enough, fracking has now been tied to another environmental threat – earthquakes, thousands of them. Geologists have tied fracking wastewater disposal wells in central Arkansas to an outbreak of more than 1,200 so-called “minor earthquakes” (an oxymoron if ever there was one). At least one startled resident is suing the responsible gas companies for the significant damage one of those earthquakes caused to his home.

The good news is common sense has prevailed in Arkansas. According to the Democrat-Gazette, the state’s Oil and Gas Commission has voted to ban fracking wastewater disposal wells within a 1,150-square-mile area north of Conway in the Fayetteville Shale region.

The Arkansas quakes, all registering below 4.7 in magnitude, began rolling across the countryside after the injections began. After the operations stopped, the number of earthquakes dropped by two-thirds. Go figure.

As for the Ohio tremors, consider this from Columbia University seismologist John Armbruster: “In our minds, we were already pretty convinced that these events were connected to the well. Having that many earthquakes fairly close to a well in Ohio, where there aren’t a lot of earthquakes, was suspicious.”

I’ll say.

And I should note that the seismic problems aren’t confined to the United States. More from my Aug. 10 post:

It’s important to note that Arkansas isn’t the only place fracking has been tied to earthquakes. Just ask residents of the seaside city of Blackpool, England. From a July 28 Wall Street Journal piece:

Mark Miller was hoping to lead an energy revolution in the U.K. Then, earthquakes intervened.

Mr. Miller, an oil-industry veteran from Pennsylvania, is one of a small band of pioneers seeking to replicate North America’s shale-gas boom in Europe. His company, Cuadrilla Resources, has imported a technology used to great effect in the U.S. to try to turn Blackpool, a seaside resort on the west coast of England, into a new Klondike for gas.

…After months of cajoling, Mr. Miller, a 57-year-old petroleum engineer, finally thought he had managed to persuade the locals that fracking was safe. Then, this spring, the area around Blackpool was shaken by two tremors. After the second one, Cuadrilla suspended its fracking operations, pending an investigation.

…The quakes left Blackpool-area residents “angry and distressed,” says Philip Mitchell, chairman of the local Green Party. “They’ve told me they feel like guinea pigs.”

People are funny like that, when earthquakes start rumbling through their backyards.

When an industrial practice – increasingly being conducted in more densely populated areas – is causing earthquakes, we should probably halt its use until we can find a safe way to proceed. You don’t have to be a tree-hugger or a nature freak to get it. You just have to be sane.

Here’s to the courageous folks in Ohio who, at least for the time being, have put public safety and the environment over profits and revenue. Cheers!

Read the full NYT report: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/02/science/earth/youngstown-injection-well-stays-shut-after-earthquake.html?_r=1

Read my entire Aug. 10 post covering fracking quakes in Arkansas and the United Kingdom: http://www.stuarthsmith.com/earthquake-outbreak-arkansas-bans-fracking-operations-inside-thousand-square-mile-area

Find all the latest news on fracking here: http://www.frackingofamerica.com/home

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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