Thanks to a revolutionary new energy-extraction technique called hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," America is suddenly feeling a lot like the Beverly Hillbillies. Over the past five years, Al-Jazeera reports, oil production across the country has increased by 3.7 million barrels daily, while the U.S. has also become the world's largest producer of natural gas.
But a growing body of evidence suggests that the operations involved with fracking may be responsible for the increasing number of earthquakes being recorded around the country. In Oklahoma, researchers recorded an unprecedented 585 magnitude-3 earthquakes in 2014 alone, with other spikes noted in states in the Midwest and Southwest involved in energy extraction.
"One of the crises in this industry is what do you do with all the stuff that exists in in these wells?" DeSmogBlog researcher Steve Horn told Mic. "It has to be injected and stored somewhere, and that means more injection wells."
Hydraulic fracking operates by pumping huge quantities of water and chemicals at high pressure into rock formations, cracking them open for energy extraction. The resulting waste, comprised of toxic, chemical-laden saltwater and industrial byproducts, is sucked back out and injected deep into the earth elsewhere at wastewater injection disposal sites.
"I think it's pretty safe to say the injection wells themselves are causing the earthquakes," he added. "It was kind of conspiracy to say that just a few years ago. ... All the impacts of injecting all this toxic waste into the ground isn't really understood."
The research: Horn says that the industry understood the potential for seismological side effects as early as the 1980s. "The industry definitely knew that this could do some damage," he commented. "So they pretended it wasn't hazardous." In both the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush administrations, the industry pressed for and received numerous exemptions from EPA oversight and environmental laws like the Safe Water Drinking Act.
As an article in Science noted last week, fluid-injection activities are now considered responsible for the "large areas of the United States long considered geologically stable with little or no detected seismicity [that] have recently become seismically active."
One study conducted by Miami University seismologists and published in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America earlier this year was able to conclusively tie 77 earthquakes, ranging from magnitude 1 to 3, to hydraulic fracture operations conducted one kilometer away from a Hilcorp Energy oil and gas well site. Although only one was felt by area residents, all 77 took place over the course of just eight days. In a BSSA press release, the organization said that the researchers "found the earthquakes coincided with temporally and spatially with hydraulic fracturing at specific stages of the stimulation."
The Miami University study is among the first to have convincingly linked the fracking process to increased incidences of earthquakes. Another study published in October 2014 in the BSSA demonstrated a link between a fracking operation in Harrison County, Ohio, and 400 mini-earthquakes all registering in magnitude 1.7 to 2.2 over the period of Oct. 1 to Dec. 13, 2013.
It's not just fracking, but what happens with the waste: Aside from the initial hydraulic pumping, the wastewater injection sites used to dispose of chemical-laden fracking waste products deep underground are cause for concern. Since these often operate for many years and pump a much greater quantity of fluid into the Earth's crust, including waste from conventional oil extraction wells, geologists believe they may pose a bigger earthquake threat than fracking itself.
A 2014 study run by United States Geological Survey scientists tied 16 mainly shallow earthquakes of magnitude 3.8 or higher between 2001 and 2013 in southern California/northern New Mexico's Raton Basin to the disposal of coal-bed methane extraction waste. Two earthquakes were measured at 5 and 5.3, the points on the Richter Scale at which the quakes would be considered moderate in scale and capable of causing damage to unprepared buildings. Between 1972 and 2001, just one quake had been measured above 3.8 in the area.
According to the USGS and Oklahoma Geological Survey scientists, the increase of one to three magnitude-3 earthquakes annually in Oklahoma from the period 1975-2008 to about 40 a year from 2009 to mid-2013 is likely tied to wastewater injection.
But as bad as it is, it's getting much worse. Bloomberg View's Mary Duenwald reports that Oklahoma experienced 585 3.0 or higher earthquakes in 2014 alone, as noted in this ominous chart from the U.S. and Oklahoma geological surveys:
The ramifications: The good news is that fracking-related earthquakes aren't about to usher in the apocalypse. Skoumal told LiveScience that the Miami University study only indicated that the drilling company was "unlucky," calling it a "very small event" that "did not pose any risk." In general, scientists expect earthquakes from fracking activities to stay at magnitude 3.0 or lower.
Scientists simply don't know yet whether quakes resulting from wastewater injection wells could be much worse. One fault line capable of causing a magnitude-7 earthquake near Oklahoma City, for example, is located near increasing numbers of wastewater disposal sites.
However, some researchers believe that ignoring the problem today may lead to avoidable calamity in the future. Patrick J. Kiger reports on Discover.com that Gail Atkinson, an earth science professor at University of Western Ontario, told a May 2014 Seismological Society of America panel that shallow man-made earthquakes caused by energy extraction operations pose "a significant and as-yet-unquantified risk" that is not yet adequately understood.
Horn warns that waste injection wells are an "industry in and of themselves," with their own lobbyists and large corporate interests.
"Right now, for example, there's a planned expansion of drilling on public lands that's being hashed out by the Bureau of Land Management and the Department of the Interior," he told Mic. "There's still many areas of the United States that are untapped areas for fracking, and with fracking, the injection wells."
"I don't see it slowing down anytime soon," he added. "This is not just a U.S. industry. They're expanding fracking around the world: in Russia, in China, in Europe."
In other words, Horn says: "It's something that's going to be in the news and something that's studied scientifically for years."