January 6, 2012. Youngstown, OH. When a 4.0 magnitude earthquake struck Youngstown, Ohio on Christmas Eve, an area not known for earthquakes, the event put the national spotlight on something energy industry experts have known since the 1960’s – fracking probably causes earthquakes. Last week, the American people were reminded of that. One week later, on New Year’s Eve, Ohio suspended mining operations in certain areas believed to be responsible for the Christmas quake. Now, other states have announced they may follow suit.
Oil and Gas corporation lobbyists still argue there is no evidence that fracking results in earthquakes or flammable tap water. Image courtesy of ThinkProgress.org.
Most of us have already heard about the flammable water coming out of kitchen and bathroom faucets in Pennsylvania due to near-by fracking operations. This weekend, the Ohio Dept of Natural Resources officially admitted that the controversial gas mining technique may in fact be the cause of the recent 4.0 Youngstown earthquake.
As the prices of oil and gas have continued to climb over the past half decade, more expensive methods of extracting the valuable commodities have become profitable and cost-effective. Just this morning, CNBC analysts, without talking about the earthquake or any drilling operation specifically, promoted the fact that the unemployment rate in areas with expanded oil and gas drilling, including fracking, was staggeringly low. Their implication – want more jobs, expand fracking. Expect to hear more of the same as the Republican primary heads into states with major fracking operations.
What is fracking?
Fracking is the environmentally devastating method of drilling for gas and oil. Where energy deposits exist not in large pools, but instead in small, thin veins spread out over miles, drillers pump a super-pressurized cocktail of water, chemicals, sand and other items miles underground. The tactic shatters the ground, thus releasing the tiny deposits of oil or gas. Those tiny deposits are collected and together, create a fairly large batch of oil or gas. The remaining chemicals, wastewater and pulverized rock are then buried miles underground.
While the process of fracking would appear to have the potential to impact ground stability, it’s actually the process of disposing of the left-over contaminated waste water that appears to be causing earthquakes. New Year’s Eve’s incident, coupled with other earthquakes directly below fracking operations over the past 50 years in other parts of the country, would seem to confirm that the wastewater’s disposal is the culprit. Industry experts, lobbyists and sympathetic local officials aren’t so quick to point the finger.
While the tactic of fracking has been used since the 1930’s, it wasn’t until the 1960’s that experts and government officials began documenting the relationship between the drilling process and earthquakes. When Ohio announced Sunday it was stopping the drilling at five fracking sites due to the possibility of more earthquakes, a number Colorado state legislators with fracking operations in their districts spoke up.
Yesterday, Channel 7 Denver quoted Colorado State Representative Su Ryden (D-Aurora) saying of the New Year’s Eve earthquake in Ohio, "When you have an earthquake in an area that is not known to be earthquake-prone, certainly that gets people's attention. There has been so much discussion about the fracking process. This sort of adds just another dimension. Now, here's something else we need to look at, that we need to be sure we're dealing with in a proactive manner. A lot of conversations are going on to make sure what happened in Ohio doesn’t happen here.”
Colorado was the epicenter of the fracking-earthquake controversy in the 60’s. At the time, US Geological Survey data showed a direct link between the two. According to the Channel 7 Colorado report, the Federal agency noted that almost immediately after an injection well was drilled and used at the Rocky Mountain Arsonal, mysterious earthquakes followed. Then, as now, it was the deep-tunnel disposal of the contaminated wastewater that was suspected of causing the quakes, not the fracking itself.
How fracking causes earthquakes
The theory behind fracking causing earthquakes is simple. Experts and critics believe that when a wastewater disposal well is drilled, it typically reaches far underground, sometimes miles. The reason it must be disposed of so deep is to insure that none of the deadly chemicals used in the fracking process are close enough to the surface that they may pollute ground-level drinking water. When the contaminated water, sand and pulverized rock is deposited deep underground, it is believed to act as a lubricant for tectonic plates, causing fault lines to easily slide, thus causing earthquakes.
In an effort to reassure citizens and residents that they are in no danger of earthquakes caused by fracking, energy industry spokesmen have appeared to give up trying to discount the theory and instead are insisting that all fracking operations take steps to avoid any areas where earthquakes might result. Speaking to Colorado Rep. Ryden’s concerns, Todd Hartmann of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, was quoted by Channel 7 Denver explaining:
“As part of the permitting process in 2011, we began including our sister agency, the Colorado Geological Survey, to review seismicity potential and proximity to any faults.” Hartman went on to reassure critics and environmental advocates, “We take this matter extremely seriously and we are monitoring what has occurred in Ohio. We are always evaluating what we do and the effectiveness of our regulations.”
While Colorado oil and gas lobbyists have their PR machine in full swing, things are different in Ohio. When announcing the closure of the five well sites on December 3rd, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources gave the following explanation:
“The area surrounding the well has experienced a series of low-level seismic events over the past eight months. While conclusive evidence cannot link the seismic activity to the well, ODNR Director Zehringer has adopted an approach requiring prudence and caution regarding the site. Our top priority is the health and safety of the public and the protection of Ohio’s natural resources. We are going to make sure this process is done right and won’t hesitate to stop operation of disposal sites if we have concerns. And while our research doesn’t point to a clear and direct correlation to drilling at this site and seismic activity, we will never gamble when safety is a factor.”
Not the first Youngstown earthquake
According to the same ODNR statement, the Christmas Eve earthquake in Youngstown wasn’t the first to occur above the fracking disposal wells. The agency goes on to admit, “So far this year ODNR’s seismic monitoring network has documented 10 seismic events occurring in 2011 within two miles of this injection well. Each of these events registered at 2.7 magnitude or lower. There are 177 class 2 deep well injection sites operating in Ohio.”
The controversy began between the Christmas Eve quake and the New Year’s Eve announcement that Ohio had suspended operations at the site. Won-Young Kim, Professor of Seismology, Geology and Tectonophysics at Columbia University, was invited by the ODNR to place four seismographs around the Youngstown wells to study the possible correlation between fracking and earthquakes. As recently made public, the area had already experienced a number of small earthquakes just in the past year.
According to the ODNR statement, it was the results of the Columbia University monitoring that caused the state to shut down the wells. The statement reads, “Information freshly obtained from the Columbia University scientists, and further analyzed by ODNR geological experts, indicates that an earthquake occurred on December 24 approximately two miles below and within a mile of the injection site. As a precautionary measure we’ve reached agreement with the well’s owner to halt injections until we are able to further assess and determine any potential links with recent seismic events.”
In a Tuesday interview with Reuters, Professor Kim explained, “We know the depth is two miles and that is different from a natural earthquake. There is circumstantial evidence to connect the two. In the past, we didn't have earthquakes in the area and the proximity in the time and space of the earthquakes matches operations at the well."
Kim warned that even if the practice was permanently halted, it may take a few years for the resulting earthquakes to stop. The professor also reminded everyone that this isn’t the first earthquake above fracking operations in Ohio in recent years. He said a January 26, 2001 4.2 magnitude quake in Ashtabula, Ohio was most likely caused by fracking, as well as a 1987 earthquake prior to that.
While the connection between fracking and earthquakes is all but universally accepted, the energy industry and their deep pockets aren’t going to give up without a fight. As recently as September, media outlets including the New York Post began defending the practice publically. The Post article, ‘Why Fracking is Safe’ is anything but impartial. It goes so far as to label critics like the ODNR and Professor Kim as “ignorant”. Their argument reminds this author of that old line, “guns don’t kill people, it’s those pesky bullets”. With a fierce battle taking shape between pro-jobs politicians, businesses and their investors versus environmentalists and independent geologists, this isn’t the last we’re going to hear of the controversy.