Hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, has been a boon to the oil industry in the United States. The technique pumps water and sand, along with some chemicals, into the ground to break up rock and free natural gas deposits.
In recent years, scientists have found those very chemicals in the groundwater near fracking sites. The threat of contamination of water sources has been one reason some local and state governments have enacted bans or moratoriums against fracking operations.
In the past year or so, studies have found that fracking operations have another potential side effect: earthquakes. Lawsuits have been filed in Oklahoma already, alleging that earthquakes associated with nearby fracking sites caused damage to homes. It should be noted that it’s generally not the fracking process itself that causes the earthquakes. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) reports that wastewater injection causes the majority of induced earthquakes.
It’s gotten so bad in The Sooner State that, in 2014, Oklahoma displaced California as the state with the most recorded earthquakes. It’s looking like Oklahoma could take the title again this year. In 2008, prior to the fracking boom in Oklahoma, the state recorded just two earthquakes with a magnitude of 3.0 or greater. Last year there were 585 earthquakes at or above that threshold in Oklahoma; 2015 has already seen 680 earthquakes with a magnitude of 3.0 or greater in Oklahoma.
Last month a group known as StatesFirst, an initiative of the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC) and the Ground Water Protection Council (GWPC), released a 141-page guide on dealing with earthquakes caused by wastewater disposal. StatesFirst consists of seismologists, industry experts, and others who have a background in oil and gas drilling. The guide reviews the literature supporting the claim that wastewater injection causes earthquakes, provides current scientific and technical data and case studies, and presents risk management and mitigation strategies. It is intended as a primer for states on how to detect and manage earthquakes induced by wastewater injection.
In response to the increase in earthquakes, states such as Oklahoma, Texas, and Ohio are looking at ways to keep residents safe. In Oklahoma, officials are working to reduce wastewater injection down to levels seen before 2012, which was the last year there were fewer than 100 earthquakes in the state. On August 4, operators of 23 Oklahoma disposal wells were told to reduce the amount of saltwater being injected. However, that’s a small portion of the 3,500 saltwater disposal wells operating in Oklahoma.
With states no longer disputing the link between fracking operations and earthquakes, environmental groups are calling on officials to consider fracking moratoriums. So far, that doesn’t appear to be an option. In Oklahoma, the energy industry is responsible for a quarter of the state’s jobs. Instead of reducing fracking operations, governors are looking for ways to curb the effects of the earthquakes.
As Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin said, the trick is balancing the environmental concerns with the effects regulations could have on the economy.
“We want to do it wisely without harming the economic activity we certainly enjoy and the revenue, quite frankly, we certainly enjoy,” Fallin said. “The council has worked very hard to ensure the energy sector, state agencies, environmentalists and academia are all talking and sharing that data and we have a scientific-based approach to reducing seismicity in our state.”