More evidence is in that we can make earthquakes now. Earlier this week researchers tied wastewater disposal in oil and gas production to the largest earthquake in Oklahoma’s history. Bloomberg reports:
The earthquake near Prague, Oklahoma, on Nov. 6, 2011, was the state’s biggest and may be the largest linked to the injection of water from drilling process, the researchers reported. […]
The 5.7-magnitude quake in 2011 followed an 11-fold bump in seismic activity across the central U.S. in recent years as disposal wells are created to handle increases in wastewater from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
Researchers at the University of Oklahoma, Columbia University and the U.S. Geological Survey, who published their findings yesterday in the journal Geology, said the results point to the long-term risks the thousands of wells pose and shows a need for better monitoring and government oversight.
The researchers linked Oklahoma’s record-breaking earthquake to wastewater disposal from oil drilling, but their findings apply to fracking as well. Fracking uses a large amount of water to help extract resources. This water comes out of the process as a toxic slurry, often disposed of in abandoned wells. The researchers tied this method of disposal to increased seismic activity. This is a problem that needs to be taken seriously.
In fact companies are already looking into alternatives to well disposal. Many are treating the wastewater so it can be recycled, either back into drilling operations or back into the environment. This saves firms money and cuts down on seismic risks. And some firms are finding ways to frack without using water at all. Companies like GasFrac are blasting rock apart with high-pressure propane. The technology is still in its infancy, but it can actually increase yields for wells, possibly offsetting its higher up-front cost. And most of the propane pumped into the well can be recycled.
The science isn’t “settled” yet. Oklahoma’s state geological office disagrees with the report, saying that the 2011 earthquake was born of natural causes. But while we hope for the best (another clean bill of health for the technology), we should plan for the worst. That doesn’t mean shutting down fracking and the US shale boom; it means encouraging the innovative alternatives to underground disposal already underway.