Is fracking causing earthquakes in Southern California?


When I was a kid growing up in the 1960s and ’70, they always used to talk about “the Big One” — a massive earthquake that was going to hit California and destroy life there as we know it. Well, that never happened, but there have been some major California quakes in my lifetime, such as the one in 1989 that flattened an expressway and killed 63 people. Maybe that’s why it would seem crazy to me that humans would ever undertake an activity that would increase the risk of a California earthquake — yet there’s growing evidence that the boom in hydraulic fracking is doing just that.

There are many, many reasons to be alarmed at the arrival of fracking for natural gas in the Golden State. Indeed, just this weekend, thousands of activists came together in the state capital of Sacramento to urge Gov. Jerry Brown to ban fracking in California:

The process relies heavily on groundwater by injecting a mixture of chemicals and water into rock formations to release oil and gas deposits. California’s recent drought emergency has prompted some lawmakers to push for a statewide moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, as a recent Ceres report found that 96 percent of California fracking wells are located in the areas experiencing drought and high water stress.

The protest, called Don’t Frack California, also attempts to point out that the oil and gas produced from fracking ultimately contributes to climate change, which leading climate scientists have said is the reason why California’s drought has been so bad in the first place.

But the drought isn’t the only thing to worry about:

The Center for Biological Diversity‘s “On Shaky Ground: Fracking, Acidizing and Increased Earthquake Risk in California” says that of the state’s 1,553 active wastewater injection wells used in the processes 6% are within one mile of a known fault, 23% are within five miles and 54% are within 10 miles.

That’s frightening, because other states where the earthquake risks had once been minimal — most notably Oklahoma, Arkansas and even Ohio — suddenly became beehives of seismic activity after the frackers and their huge trucks pulled into town. And increasingly scientists are looking at the deep well injection process, which has sent billions of gallons of water into sensitive zones far under the surface, as a cause.

Then, yesterday, we saw a moderately sized earthquake in Southern California in an area you would not normally expect to find one — a spot just eight miles or so from a deepwater injection facility. Many environmentalists are now asking questions:

In other states, injection wells located 7.5 miles from a fault have been shown to induce seismic activity, points out Andrew Grinberg, the oil and gas project manager for Clean Water Action. “We are not saying that this quake is a result of an injection,” he adds, “but with so many faults all over California, we need a better understanding of how, when, and where induced seismicity can occur with relation to injection.”

“Shaky Ground,” a new report from Clean Water Action, Earthworks, and the Center for Biological Diversity, argues that the close proximity of such wells to active faults could increase the state’s risk of earthquakes. According to the report, more than half of the state’s permitted oil wastewater injection wells are located less than 10 miles from an active fault, and 87 of them, or about 6 percent, are located within a mile of an active fault.

Scientists have long known that injecting large amounts of wastewater underground can cause earthquakes by increasing pressure and reducing friction along fault lines. One of the best known early examples took place in 1961, when the US Army disposed of millions of gallons of hazardous waste by injecting it 12,000 feet beneath the surface of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal near Denver. The influx caused more than 1,500 earthquakes over a five year period in an area not known for seismic activity; the worst among them registered at more than 5.0 on the Richter scale and caused $500,000 in damage. Geologists later discovered that the Army well had been drilled into an unknown fault.

This is the kind of story, frankly, that makes one wonder if mankind has completely taken leave of its senses. This nation spends billions of dollars — and rightfully so — on earthquake prevention. But now, in our insatiable thirst for fossil fuels, we are spending billions on a process that is all but certain to eventually cause them. The 4.4 magnitude earthquake this week did not create any real harm, but what if a swarm of smaller quakes triggers “the Big One”? That is a possibility that must be stopped, at all costs.

 To read more about last weekend’s massive protest in Sacramento, check out:

Read more about the number of fracking injection wells in populated areas of California:

Read Mother Jones on whether fracking may have caused the Los Angeles earthquake:

© Smith Stag, LLC 2014 – All Rights Reserved

1 comment

  • Water that gets fracked can never be cleaned up and used again. Fracking is the largest engineering projects humans have ever attempted. The scope is immense. The scale in terms of time, resources, and (catastrophic) results makes me wonder how any company make promises regarding fracking.

    When we first heard high volume fracking was coming to Southern Illinois, we went to the Murphysboro courthouse. Our protests upset the man they sent from the fracking industry. When our meeting was over, I heard him say under his breath that he’d recently lost a child and if he had the strength go through that he could go through anything. He was making his heart hard. He was trying to withstand the pain because he had a job to do and I’m sure if he didn’t do it, someone else would.

    Later he made a presentation at SIU, I watched how far he’d come. There were three industry representatives to take the heat. This time when everyone got upset, he smiled at the discomfort and stuffed his emotions to keep them under control. We looked at how he was handling things and we knew he was just following orders. He was not listening to us. He was a brick wall.

    And that’s something you’re going to want to get a handle on if you’re going to be a leader and not a follower. You can’t afford to burnout, you can’t afford to have your joy and enthusiasm disappear, you can’t afford to feel as if nothing seems meaningful, you can’t afford to feel alienated from other people.

    Karma’s a funny thing, but it doesn’t work the way most people think it does. The idea of karma is you continually get the lessons that you need to open your heart. To the degree that you didn’t understand in the past how to stop protecting your soft spot, how to stop armoring your heart, you’re given this gift of life lessons to help you open further according to Pema Chodron. It’s called the Wisdom of No Escape once you recognize we’re all in this together you can find better solutions based on mutual wisdom.

    Other industries simplify their complex interconnected problems by working backwards to solve problems. Other industries experiment with a bottom up management style to solve problems in the field. Why does the oil and gas industry get to dictate how things are going to go? I’ve got 10 reasons to tell you why they are going to have to change too.

    1. All steel rusts. All concrete cracks. Louis Allstadt former Executive VP of Mobil Oil confirms it. He says

    Sooner or later the steel casing is going to rust out, and the cement is going to crumble. We may have better cements now, we may have slightly better techniques of packing the cement and mud into the well bore to close it up, but even if nothing comes up through the fissures in the rock layers above, where it was fracked, those well bores will deteriorate over time. And there is at least one study showing that 100 percent of plugs installed in abandoned wells fail within 100 years and many of them much sooner.

    Concrete crumbles. Steel rusts. In the United States since the year 2000, sixteen bridges have collapsed. The Federal National Bridge Inventory reports 85,000 U.S. bridges are in bad shape and need to be replaced. What are bridges made of? Steel and concrete. What does fracking use to keep deadly chemicals out of our drinking water? Steel and concrete.

    The fracking industry buries steel pipes thousands of feet underground, fills them with fracked water, effluents and sand, puts them under a tremendous amount of pressure, waits for 20% to 80% of the toxic and radioactive wastewater to come out, and seals the rest of the water inside the steel pipes with an inch of concrete. Then they tell you everything’s going to be okay. You don’t have to worry that fracked water is poisoned with more than 600 toxic and radioactive chemicals. The damage is done. Out of sight is outta mind.

    The poison is eventually going to end up in your water because all steel rusts. The question is this. Why are we betting against a natural process everyone understands and expecting everything to work out to our advantage? All steel rusts. Doesn’t that single fact unhinge all the fracking science?

    When the industry talks to you about fracking, ask them who is going to check the steel pipes in a few generations when all the fracking money is gone and the pipes are still down there in the dark getting rustier and rustier and rustier.

    Don’t be fooled. They are going to hand this problem back to you and you’re the one who will have to find the solution. Not them. They’re in it for the money and if you’ll sell your water cheap, they’ll certainly take that to the bank.

    2. Earthquakes go hand it hand with fracking. Since we are between two active earthquake zones, you’re going to want to take a look at Brent Ritzel’s report. I handed out 50 copies tonight. Here’s the link.

    3. The USGS says we should treat water as if it is all coming from the same source because it does. We can’t keep it separate. Fracking operations dump 10 trillion gallons of toxic liquids into Class II injection wells using broad expanses of the nation’s geology as an invisible dumping ground.

    4. The Bonds the fracking companies put up to do the work won’t be high enough to clean up the environment; if anything goes wrong it’ll be up the taxpayers to flip the bill.

    5. Your infrastructure is going to be undermined. That goes for roads, utilities, health care and police.

    6. Crime rates are going to sky-rocket … especially crimes against women because of the kinds of people these jobs attract. They are drifters with high risk jobs, working hard and playing harder.

    7. Fracking is a 24 hour round the clock operation. The noise is not going to end. The lights are never going to go off. The industrialization of your lives will be complete. I guess with fracking industrialization operations a mile apart, there won’t be much wilderness left even in rural areas. National parks aren’t even safe.

    8. When the fracking lottery comes to town, some people will make money selling their mineral rights. Some people will get poisoned. Doctors won’t know what people are poisoned with because the industry doesn’t want to divulge the ingredients of its fracking effluent. They’re protected as trade secrets. Rest assured with hundreds of toxic ingredients, fracking effluent is even more toxic once you put those poisons together. Many ingredients have 10 serious health side effects on their own.

    9. And you know we’re going to run out of clean water, right? According to the United Nations, water use has grown at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century. By 2025 and estimated 1.8 billion people will live in areas plagued by water scarcity with two thirds of the world’s population living in water-stressed regions as a result of use, growth, and climate change.

    10. The IDNR regulating radiation doesn’t keep it from hurting anyone. If we want to find out what’s beyond the Thunderdome, we’re going to have to take care of the next generation. Not give our children harder problems to solve than the ones we have.

    “…When law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law. These two evils are of equal consequence, and it would be difficult for a person to choose between them.”

    Frédéric Bastiat

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

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