The technique of “fracking”, or injecting water in high-pressure jets to fracture shale deposits and release pockets of oil and gas to the surface, has been widely touted by its supporters as a way to achieve energy independence from foreign sources of fuel. We all remember cries of, “Drill, Baby, drill!” echoing throughout the land. In the wake of 2005’s Energy Policy Act, fracking started taking hold, and it has been growing ever since.
Is Fracking Causing Earthquakes?
In the Dallas metro area, which had seen almost no earthquake activity in the 58 years prior to 2008, there have been more than 130 temblors since. Irving, Texas recently experienced 11 quakes in 24 hours. Oklahoma has been hit particularly hard: Having only had a handful of quakes measuring a magnitude of 3.0 or greater on the Richter scale per year from 1975 to 2008, it has seen a huge increase in seismic activity: In 2009, there were 20 earthquakes measuring 3.0 or greater; in 2011, among almost 60 such quakes, the largest earthquake in Oklahoma’s history, a 5.7 magnitude tremor, occurred. The number of earthquakes has shot up even more since then: 2013 saw 109 such earthquakes, and in 2014 there were 585. Based on numbers so far this year, it’s possible that Oklahoma will have 900 such earthquakes.
In a report issued early in May, researchers at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas concluded that oil and gas activities are “most likely” the cause for the increased seismic activity in the area they studied around the towns of Azle and Reno, near Fort Worth, which sit atop the Barnett Shale, an oil-and-gas-rich geological formation into which 17,500 new wells have been drilled over the past 15 years. The specific activity that could be linked with the quakes is not the fracking itself, but the disposal of wastewater by-product by injecting it, also at high pressure, into deep wells, which apparently causes shifting around existing faults, thereby causing the tremors.
While the SMU report resists drawing a definite conclusion as to cause, the United States Geological Survey doesn’t hedge: A USGS report released in April states that, “Earthquake activity has sharply increased since 2009 in the central and eastern United States. The increase has been linked to industrial operations that dispose of wastewater by injecting it into deep wells.”
States Prevents Cities from Banning Fracking
In its most recent legislative session, The State of Texas passed a law prohibiting local communities from enacting bans on any fracking or drilling activity–including the use of injection wells. This law is seen as a reaction to a municipal ban enacted by the town of Denton in North Texas, whose citizens were concerned about wells that were being drilled in residential areas. The oil and gas industry felt that this ban impinged upon their property rights, and The Texas Oil and Gas Association (TXOGA), along with the state’s General Land office, filed a lawsuit against the City of Denton the day after the ban was passed.
The industry went to the Texas legislature to head off any further municipal uprisings, and House Bill 40, which prohibited any further bans, was born. Passed by the Republican legislature and now signed into law on May 18 by Republican Governor Greg Abbott, who characterized the legislation as a move to limit government bureaucracy.
Denton Residents say the wells have polluted the local water, and there has been increased drilling within 200 feet of schools, public parks, and even homes.
For its own part, after years of denying any link between the burgeoning seismic activity and the growth of the fracking industry, specifically the use of wastewater injection wells, Oklahoma has taken a surprisingly strong step in acknowledging it. The Office of the Oklahoma Secretary of Energy and Environment has created a website called Earthquakes in Oklahoma ( http://earthquakes.ok.gov/ ), which features an interactive earthquake map that shows how earthquakes have gone from being very few and scattered around the state in the pre-fracking era to being numerous and concentrated in very specific locations.
Although the map itself does not state that these are the areas in which fracking activity is also concentrated, the section of the website labeled “What We Know” does affirm that the recent rise in seismic events can’t be attributed fully to natural causes and goes on to state that “The Oklahoma Geological Survey has determined that the majority of recent earthquakes in central and north-central Oklahoma are very likely triggered by the injection of produced water in disposal wells.”
However, the state of Oklahoma has followed Texas with similar legislation against fracking bans. A week after Abbott signed off on the Texas law, Oklahoma’s Governor Mary Fallin, signed a bill into law that would prevent municipal regulations of drilling activities, causing Norman, OK Mayor Cindy Rosenthal to voice concern that cities might not be able to regulate the disposal of wastewater into the drainage basins of municipal water supplies.
In Texas, natural gas is the largest source of electricity generation electricity companies and consumers have both benefited from cheap natural gas in the last several years.