Joel Achenbach at the Washington Post is out to save you all from a potential catastrophe. The evil oil and gas industry is going to cause most of the people reading this to flee in terror from their homes as earthquakes ravage the land and zombies begin to feast on the flesh of the living.
Okay.. it’s not quite that bad, but a quick read of this study will likely have you checking for the nearest exits in your buildings. You see, fracking is causing earthquakes in unusual places (which is actually true, though not nearly on the calamitous scale as is implied) and it could impact up to half the people in the country.
On Monday, the U.S. Geological Survey published for the first time an earthquake hazard map covering both natural and “induced” quakes. The map and an accompanying report indicate that parts of the central United States now face a ground-shaking hazard equal to the famously unstable terrain of California.
Some 7 million people live in places vulnerable to these induced tremors, the USGS concluded. The list of places at highest risk of man-made earthquakes includes Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, Arkansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Ohio and Alabama. Most of these earthquakes are relatively small, in the range of magnitude 3, but some have been more powerful, including a magnitude 5.6 earthquake in 2011 in Oklahoma that was linked to wastewater injection.
As usual, it’s hard to even know where to begin with this sort of “analysis” since the mixture of facts, speculation and hyperbole render the final product something of a mess. While I admit I initially expressed doubts about the entire concept of fracking induced earthquakes back when the first reports emerged, the industry has confirmed that this is indeed a known phenomenon. But the descriptions which seek to compare Oklahoma and Ohio to the communities along the San Andreas fault are laughable.
Waste water injection, after a time, can indeed lead to a resettling of the sub-surface terrain causing tremors, but the vast, vast majority of them are tiny, with some of the “bigger” ones being in the range of 3.0. The other feature of induced tremors to keep in mind is that they tend to be very short duration events which come out of nowhere, but then don’t repeat after a few instances. The geology under your feet is settling after horizontal fracturing disruption takes place, but once settled, it’s… settled. Real earthquakes caused by tectonic activity take place along faults in the plates and they have been going on since the continents existed. They will also continue as long as the Earth’s crust continues to move.
The author also cites the media reports which linked the “big” 2011 Oklahoma quake (magnitude 5.6) to fracking. While drilling may have been a triggering event, that quake actually originated in and was driven by the Nemaha Ridge fault line which runs up to ten miles below the surface. (Trust me… I’ve been working with the energy industry for a while now and nobody is fracking anywhere near that deep.)
Most of the induced quakes, as I already mentioned, are of the garden variety which may come as a surprise to residents in areas not used to them, but they’re not really disaster movie level events. You may recall the 2011 DC earthquake which rang up a 5.8 on the Richter scale. It managed to damage the Washington Monument, which was not build to withstand any sort of shaking, but beyond that the damage was mostly limited to this.
The country is riddled with fault lines. People on the left coast have to live with them on a daily basis (literally) and most of them pass without notice. And there are some real killers waiting out there to be sure. If the fault under the ocean off the coast of Washington State gives way there’s probably going be a tsunami that will destroy a huge, populated area. Folks in Missouri and its surrounding states may not be aware of it, but they’re sitting on top of the New Madrid fault line which once produced one of the biggest earthquakes to hit our nation since its founding. But since it happened in 1811 nobody really noticed because we hadn’t gotten around to building very many structures which might have fallen down. (Remember, kids… earthquakes don’t kill people. Buildings, bridges and elevated highways kill people.) That one is going to give way again some day and when it does there will be hell to pay. But it will have nothing to do with fracking.
In a bit of irony, the WaPo article included (at the bottom) one of those system generated sets of links to “related articles” which many sites employ. Among them was a science piece from last summer which showed an increased risk of tremors in various parts of the country. You’ll notice that the map looks suspiciously similar while the author goes out of their way to point out that they are not including quakes induced by industrial activity.