How much proof do we need on fracking and earthquakes?


Remember a few weeks ago, when I wrote about earthquakes in Irving, Texas — a stone’s throw from the headquarters of the world’s largest energy company, ExxonMobil? I thought the irony was huge: Texas is just one corner of America where earthquakes had once been rare but are now commonplace — coinciding with the rise of fracking in those regions.

Here’s the thing: The problem is now getting worse. This week, Irving — a suburb of Dallas, once home to the NFL’s Cowboys — was rocked by a 3.5 magnitude quake, and a series of other tremblers of roughly the same impact. By the end of the day, 11 separate events had been recorded. For a time, the “Dallas earthquake” was a top trending topic on Twitter.

The area around Irving had been home to considerable unconventional oil drilling, or fracking, within the last 5 years, as well as the deep well injection of wastewater. We’ve seen the same thing in other parts of the country — most notably in the neighboring state of Oklahoma — which have seen an exponential increase in the number of earthquakes. Initially, the case against fracking has been largely circumstantial. While it’s not easy for scientists to pinpoint the exact cause of the movements underground, we know that little else has changed in these areas — from an environmental standpoint — except the arrival of deep-well injection on a massive scale.

But scientific research has turned a corner on the problem:

Not long after two mild earthquakes jolted the normally steady terrain outside Youngstown, Ohio, last March, geologists quickly decided that hydraulic fracturing operations at new oil-and-gas wells in the area had set off the tremors.

Now a detailed study has concluded that the earthquakes were not isolated events, but merely the largest of scores of quakes that rattled the area around the wells for more than a week.

The study, published this week in The Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, indicates that hydraulic fracturing, commonly called fracking, built up subterranean pressures that repeatedly caused slippage in an existing fault as close as a half-mile beneath the wells.

The number and intensity of fracking-related quakes have risen as the practice has boomed. In Oklahoma, for example, quakes have increased sharply in recent years, including the state’s largest ever, a magnitude 5.7 tremor, in 2011. Both state and federal experts have said fracking is contributing to the increase there, not only because of the fracking itself, but also because of the proliferation of related wells into which fracking waste is injected. Those injection wells receive much more waste, and are filled under high pressure more often, than oil or gas wells, and the sheer volume of pressurized liquids has been shown to widen cracks in faults, raising the chances of slippage and earthquakes.

Why is this important? You can always play the devil’s advocate and argue that no one’s been killed, or even hurt for that matter, by these moderate-sized earthquakes. But earthquakes of that size can damage walls and ceilings, and these costs add up for homeowners — along with the stress of the ground shifting under their feet.

What’s more, the growing confirmation of an earthquake-fracking connection comes on top of all the other problems with the technique — a growing list that includes dangerous levels of air and water pollution. It’s no wonder that New York State — given an opportunity to look at fracking with a fresh perspective — banned it. And since then, prices for oil and gas have plummeted further. How long will it be before other state leaders see the cracks on the wall…and ask, who needs this aggravation?

Read the New York Times coverage of the fracking earthquake connection here:

Check out the latest on the cluster of earthquakes in Irving, Texas:

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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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