Shake Rattle and Oil
Fracking’s Earthquake Problem, and How to Tackle It

Oklahoma is shaking and scientists are pointing the finger at the oil and gas industry. Four years ago the state endured its biggest-ever earthquake near a town called Prague, an event that drew attention to the potential effect the shale boom was having on the startling rise in seismic activity in the region. Studies bore out the initial hypothesis: the storage of wastewater from fracking in abandoned wells was putting new stress on underground fault lines and causing earthquakes. The New York Times reports:

The mechanics of wastewater-induced earthquakes are straightforward: Soaked with enough fluid, a layer of rock expands and gets heavier. Earthquakes can occur when the pressure from the fluid reaches a fault, either through direct contact with the soaked rock or indirectly, from the expanding rock. Seismologists have documented such quakes in Colorado, New Mexico, Arkansas, Kansas and elsewhere since the 1960s.

But nowhere have they approached the number and scope of Oklahoma’s quakes, which have rocked a fifth of the state. One reason, scientists suspect, is that Oklahoma’s main waste disposal site, a bed of porous limestone thousands of feet underground, lies close to the hard, highly stressed rock containing the faults that cause quakes.

This won’t take any of regular readers by surprise (you can read parts one, two, three, four, and five of our coverage of this issue) as the link between fracking and earthquakes in Oklahoma has drawn our attention a number of times in recent years. But this NYT report details the regulatory fight that has sprung up in the wake of the causal link demonstrated by researchers, and that’s an important story for the shale boom writ large.

As with so many issues facing America today, we desperately need to find a sensible middle way here. Too much regulation and the fracking industry could choke and sputter out under the weight of onerous rules. But regulate too little and companies could start cutting corners, not only degrading the local environment and affecting communities (both negative outcomes in their own right), but also stoking virulent anti-shale feelings among the public that could lead to calls for banning the practice completely. It’s this kind of popular sentiment that has been behind the strong moves against fracking in Germany last week.

Firms are already working on changing their operations in ways that would decrease these earthquakes, as they look at ways to recycle the water used to frack, and even pioneer waterless fracking techniques. In both cases, water would be kept out of wells, literally helping ease the tension underground.

But while scientists continue to study the effects of these new drilling techniques and the companies themselves work to refine their processes, policymakers need to do their part in crafting the kinds of smart regulations needed to frack responsibly.

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