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Fracking Caused Pennsylvania Earthquakes, New Report Confirms

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Photo credit: Mark Schmerling / FracTracker Alliance

Earthquakes in Pennsylvania are usually rare but fracking operations triggered a series of small temblors in Lawrence County last year, officials at the state's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) announced in a Feb. 17 report.

Hilcorp Energy Co., a Texas-based oil and gas company, was fracking a pair of wells in the Utica Shale when seismic monitors detected five earthquakes measuring between 1.8 and 2.3 on the Richter scale between April 25-26, 2016.

"Our analysis after doing the review... is that these events are correlated with the activity of the operator," DEP Acting Secretary Patrick McDonnell told Penn Live.

While the tremors were too small to be felt by humans or cause any damage, they are the first quakes in the state to be blamed on fracking. Pennsylvania happens to be the second largest natural gas-producing state in the country.

"At least within Pennsylvania, this is the first time that we have seen that sort of spatial and temporal correlation with [oil and gas] operator activity," Seth Pelepko, chief of well-plugging and subsurface activities for DEP's oil and gas management program, told Allegheny Front, a western Pennsylvania public radio program.

"No faults identified along portions of the well bore where these seismic events were detected," Pelepko continued.

Hilcorp spokesman Justin Furnace said operations were immediately suspended after learning about the tremors. Fracking and stimulation operations have since been discontinued at the well pad indefinitely.

The DEP said that Hilcorp was using a technique known as "zipper fracturing" at the time, which involves the concurrent fracking of two horizontal wellbores that are parallel and adjacent to each other.

So how did the earthquakes happen? As Penn Live explains:

Four wells were drilled to depth of about 7,900 feet in that location.

Evidence indicates that induced earthquakes occur when the separation between Utica Shale and basement rocks is lessened during drilling operations. That means, when someone drills too close to basement rocks, there can be earthquakes.

Pelepko said that seems to have been the case in Lawrence County, where the basement rock is shallow compared to other areas in the state.

The distance between Utica Shale and basement rocks were between 2,500 to 3,000 feet at the fracking site.

The DEP has since given a number of recommendations to Hilcorp, including the discontinuation of zipper fracturing near gas wells in North Beaver, Union and Mahoning Townships where the earthquakes occurred. Additionally, the company must shut down operations and notify the DEP should any earthquake larger than 2.0 or three successive quakes between 1.5 and 1.9 in magnitude occur within a three-mile distance of a wellbore path.

Earthquakes caused by fracking a well are uncommon. However, the notorious spate of earthquakes in Oklahoma, which were caused by the disposal of large quantities of fracking wastewater into underground wells, are rampant. The disposal of wastewater produced from fracking, has led to the alarming increase of earthquakes with magnitude-3 or larger by nearly 300 times, or 30,000 percent in north-central Oklahoma alone. In 2014, more than 5,000 earthquakes were reported.

But a 4.8-magnitude frack-quake that struck Alberta, Canada in Jan. 2016 set a world record for the largest earthquake triggered by the controversial drilling process.

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Last week, the Peruvian Palm Oil Producers' Association (JUNPALMA) promised to enter into an agreement for sustainable and deforestation-free palm oil production. The promise was secured by the U.S. based National Wildlife Federation (NWF) in collaboration with the local government, growers and the independent conservation organization Sociedad Peruana de Ecodesarrollo.

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The rallying cry to build it again and to build it better than before is inspiring after a natural disaster, but it may not be the best course of action, according to new research published in the journal Science.

"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.

The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.

"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed," the paper states. "Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when."

The billions of dollars spent to rebuild the Jersey Shore and to create dunes to protect from future storms after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 may be a waste if sea level rise inundates the entire coastline.

"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."

Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.

Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.

If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."

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