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Earthquakes + Massive Water Consumption = Consequences of Fracking

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Earthquakes + Massive Water Consumption = Consequences of Fracking

Ryan Hoecker is a freshman undergraduate student at Duke University pursuing a double major in economics and environmental science and policy. His interest in the environment comes from his many years immersed in nature, specifically hiking and snowboarding in the mountains.

Earthquake! We must be in California, right? Wrong. As of mid-2014, Oklahoma surpassed California in number of 3.0 or higher magnitude earthquakes. How? Scientists are beginning to speculate that hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is the cause behind this phenomenon. Currently occurring in more than 25 states, the process uses “massive amounts of water” which “could be responsible for creating a wave of pressure … that triggered the earthquakes.”

Fracking is linked to the increase in earthquakes in Oklahoma and other heavily fracked states. Photo credit: Occupy.com

These “frackquakes” are not the only effect this water-intensive practice of retrieving natural gas has on our environment. In recent years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has reported this method to annually deplete between 70-140 billion gallons of water in the U.S. That’s equal to the water consumption of approximately eighty 50,000-person cities! So why is such an exhaustive system gaining popularity?

Well, many people are led to believe that it is the “greenest” way to obtain natural resources. And yes, most agree that burning natural gas inherently emits roughly half the amount of greenhouse gases as burning coal (although even that is debatable). But not to worry: fracking more than makes up for it with its contribution to water contamination. With hydraulic fracturing, more than 40,000 chemicals are pushed deep into the Earth where “fluid leak-off … can exceed 70 percent of the injected volume …” Coupled with the overwhelming amounts of liquid necessary to achieve the desired amount of pressure, “frackers” seem to be playing with fire (literally).

The majority of the used water-chemical compounds we do manage to retrieve are infused straight back into the ground. Federal officials continue to insist, however, that such practices have limited risks—accidents are uncommon! But as the British novelist Roald Dahl said, and this may be taken just a bit out of context, “the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely of places.”

A prime example of this occurred earlier this July in Kingfisher, Oklahoma where 480 barrels of fracking-related acid spilled out into an alfalfa field, “nearly enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool.” The leaked acid, which was used to clean the wells and stimulate the flow of gas, can now easily infiltrate nearby water supplies—a simple “rainstorm could result in contamination.” Although the company will compensate the property’s owner for his loss of crops over the next six years, many believe that this is far from sufficient. Accidents such as this leave underground aquifers much more susceptible to pollution, threatening their almost certain use in the future. Even with all of the rules and constraints surrounding this industry, there will always remain the possibility of contamination. There are regulations in place, right?

An aerial view of fracking sites shows fracking's impacts on the landscape. Photo credit: Galleryhip.com

Terrifyingly, no. Because of this industry’s rapid expansion, governments are being forced to play policy catch-up. The field of fracking is extremely vulnerable right now, and I implore you to get involved. Do research. Write to your local officials. Voice your opinion. It is becoming increasingly more apparent that there is a limited supply of clean water on this Earth: we must think deeply about how and why it is being put to use, or risk the chance of losing access to it forever.

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A plume of smoke from wildfires burning in the Angeles National Forest is seen from downtown Los Angeles on Aug. 29, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

California is bracing for rare January wildfires this week amid damaging Santa Ana winds coupled with unusually hot and dry winter weather.

High winds, gusting up to 80- to 90 miles per hour in some parts of the state, are expected to last through Wednesday evening. Nearly the entire state has been in a drought for months, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which, alongside summerlike temperatures, has left vegetation dry and flammable.

Utilities Southern California Edison and PG&E, which serves the central and northern portions of the state, warned it may preemptively shut off power to hundreds of thousands of customers to reduce the risk of electrical fires sparked by trees and branches falling on live power lines. The rare January fire conditions come on the heels of the worst wildfire season ever recorded in California, as climate change exacerbates the factors causing fires to be more frequent and severe.

California is also experiencing the most severe surge of COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, with hospitals and ICUs over capacity and a stay-at-home order in place. Wildfire smoke can increase the risk of adverse health effects due to COVID, and evacuations forcing people to crowd into shelters could further spread the virus.

As reported by AccuWeather:

In the atmosphere, air flows from high to low pressure. The setup into Wednesday is like having two giant atmospheric fans working as a team with one pulling and the other pushing the air in the same direction.
Normally, mountains to the north and east of Los Angeles would protect the downtown which sits in a basin. However, with the assistance of the offshore storm, there will be areas of gusty winds even in the L.A. Basin. The winds may get strong enough in parts of the basin to break tree limbs and lead to sporadic power outages and sparks that could ignite fires.
"Typically, Santa Ana winds stay out of downtown Los Angeles and the L.A. Basin, but this time, conditions may set up just right to bring 30- to 40-mph wind gusts even in those typically calm condition areas," said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Mike Doll.

For a deeper dive:

AP, LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, Weather Channel, AccuWeather, New York Times, Slideshow: New York Times; Climate Signals Background: Wildfires, 2020 Western wildfire season

For more climate change and clean energy news, you can follow Climate Nexus on Twitter and Facebook, sign up for daily Hot News, and visit their news site, Nexus Media News.

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