Quantcast

Scientists Say Small Fracking Earthquakes Could Lead to Major Ones

Energy

Over the last several years clusters of earthquakes have been occurring in places that rarely saw significant earthquake activity, including TexasOklahoma and Ohio. Those earthquakes have been connected to the wastewater injection techniques used in fracking, which researchers say activate hidden fault lines. It's referred to as "induced seismicity."

One of the homes damaged by the 5.7 magnitude earthquake in Prague, Oklahoma in 2011. Photo credit: Brian Sherrod/USGS

While most of those earthquakes have been minor—in most cases too small to feel and most under magnitude 3 on the Richter Scale—they could be getting much larger according to scientist William Ellsworth of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

"The more small earthquakes we have it just simply increases the odds we're going to have a more damaging event," he said. "To some degree, we've dodged a bullet in Oklahoma."

He added that we shouldn't "expect a large earthquake tomorrow," but that it could happen at any time. Ellsworth presented the still-unpublished research at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Ellsworth has been warning about the danger of fracking-induced earthquakes for several years. In a 2013 paper, he wrote, "Human-induced earthquakes have become an important topic of political and scientific discussion, owing to the concern that these events may be responsible for widespread damage and an overall increase in seismicity. Earthquakes caused by injection have become a focal point, as new drilling and well-completion technologies enable the extraction of oil and gas from previously unproductive formations."

It's not controversial to say that this increase in earthquakes is caused by fracking, but the usual justification has been that they are minor, unfelt and not of sufficient magnitude to cause damage. But Oklahoma provides a dramatic example of how quakes have increased size and destructiveness. According to the USGS, the state had just two quakes greater than magnitude 3 between 1978 and 2008. In 2014, it had 145. That includes 20 with a magnitude of more than 4. In November, a series of three quakes, one reaching 4.2 magnitude, caused some structural damage such as cracks in walls. And a 5.7 magnitude earthquake hit Prague, Oklahoma in 2011, destroying 14 homes in the rural area.

"The rate of earthquakes in Oklahoma has increased remarkably since October 2013—by about 50 percent—significantly increasing the chance for a damaging magnitude 5.5 or greater quake in central Oklahoma," said the USGS.

The government agency said, "They do not seem to be due to typical, random fluctuations in natural seismicity rates. Significant changes in both the background rate of events and earthquake triggers needed to have occurred in order to explain the increases in seismicity, which is not typically observed when modeling natural earthquakes. The analysis suggests that a likely contributing factor to the increase in earthquakes is triggering by wastewater injected into deep geologic formations."

Ellsworth isn't the first scientist to warn that fracking earthquakes could be getting larger. In May at the annual meeting of the Seismological Society of America, several scientists suggested that future quakes could be larger than anticipated.

"Induced seismicity complicates the seismic hazard equation,” Gail Atkinson, a professor at the University of Western Ontario and one of Canada's foremost experts on seismic hazard, said at the meeting. She said that larger quakes in the future might overwhelm structures such as dams and nuclear power plants built for areas of low seismicity. "There is a real dearth of regulations. We need a clear understanding of the likely induced seismicity in response to new activity."

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Why Is It Legal to Cause Fracking Earthquakes In Colorado?

Did Fracking Cause Oklahoma to Have 3 Times as Many Earthquakes as California in 2014?

New Evidence Links Earthquakes to Fracking

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Farm waste being prepared for composting. USDA / Lance Cheung

By Tim Lydon

Can the United States make progress on its food-waste problems? Cities like San Francisco — and a growing list of actions by the federal government — show that it's possible.

Read More
Pexels

By C. Michael White

More than two-thirds of Americans take dietary supplements. The vast majority of consumers — 84 percent — are confident the products are safe and effective.

Read More
Sponsored
Pexels

By Brianna Elliott, RD

Coconut oil has become quite trendy in recent years.

Read More
The common giant tree frog from Madagascar is one of many species impacted by recent climate change. John J. Wiens / EurekAlert!

By Jessica Corbett

The human-caused climate crisis could cause the extinction of 30 percent of the world's plant and animal species by 2070, even accounting for species' abilities to disperse and shift their niches to tolerate hotter temperatures, according to a study published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Read More
SolStock / Moment / Getty Images

By Tyler Wells Lynch

For years, Toni Genberg assumed a healthy garden was a healthy habitat. That's how she approached the landscaping around her home in northern Virginia. On trips to the local gardening center, she would privilege aesthetics, buying whatever looked pretty, "which was typically ornamental or invasive plants," she said. Then, in 2014, Genberg attended a talk by Doug Tallamy, a professor of entomology at the University of Delaware. "I learned I was actually starving our wildlife," she said.

Read More