LA City Council: Yeah, that earthquake was probably caused by fracking

Residents of Los Angeles felt another rumbling in the Earth last week, registering a rather tame 4.4 on the scale and leading to a few comic moments for local news crews. A quake that size happening anywhere in Southern California generally isn’t going to make the news beyond the local level… unless you find a way to put some new spin on it. As the Chamber of Commerce noted, some LA politicos couldn’t let a good, moderate quake go to waste, so they came up with a way to try to use it to their own advantage.

Three Los Angeles City Council members want city, state and federal groups to look into whether hydraulic fracturing and other forms of oil and gas “well stimulation” played any role in the earthquake that rattled the city early Monday morning.

The motion, presented Tuesday by Councilmen Paul Koretz and Mike Bonin and seconded by Councilman Bernard Parks, asks for city departments to team up with the California Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, the U.S. Geological Survey and the South Coast Air Quality Management District to report back on the likelihood that such activities contributed to the 4.4-magnitude quake.

In case you’re rubbing your eyes in disbelief, yes… they actually said that. But to be fair to them, it’s not as if they dreamed up the idea themselves out of complete vapor. Odd as it may sound, we have discovered that sustained fracking actually can cause quakes, and it’s been fairly well documented in both Texas and Ohio. Pressure injection in unstable shale deposits can lead to some shifting in the area of the drilling, and it’s apparently allowed a few slips in the strata to be measured at the surface. I didn’t believe it myself until some energy company folks began digging into it.

Of course, there are two things to note about the Texas and Ohio quakes. First of all, the biggest of these events struggle to make it up into the range of a mid 3 level quake. (Think an earthquake on the range of the DC shaker which tragically knocked over several pieces of lawn furniture.) That’s because the strength of a quake depends on both the depth of the originating event and the distance along a fault it travels. Even deep drilling doesn’t make it much past two miles down and they are short lived events. The vast majority of events potentially linked to fracking are never felt by people and require a seismograph to notice.

Second, the quakes are more notable because they have been happening in places which rarely if ever see them. That sort of thing really makes you stand up and take notice. So how does this work out for the theory that fracking must have caused the quake in LA?

According to seismographic data, the quake was six miles beneath the surface.

What’s more, Mark Zoback, professor of geophysics in the Stanford School of Earth Sciences, hydraulic fracturing expert, and a former advisor for the Obama administration’s Department of Energy has said that hydraulic fracturing doesn’t have the oomph to cause earthquakes and poses “no danger to the public”:

The quake was six miles deep. Trust me, nobody is drilling that deep in California. And more to the point, they’re sitting on one of the most famous fault lines on the planet. But hey… don’t let that stop you. Just blame it on whatever you like.

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