Shake Rattle and Oil
USGS Says Millions at Risk From Oil and Gas-Related Quakes

The United States Geological Survey estimates that seven million Americans live in areas of increased risk for seismic activity as a result of oil and gas drilling. The WSJ reports:

Government scientists used historical data to create the maps, which indicate where the agency expects to see quake activity this year. The research shows seven million people live in the regions most at risk for damaging man-made quakes, which the agency said primarily are caused by wastewater disposal wells drilled as part of oil and natural gas extraction. […]

States at high risk of such quakes—Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arkansas—are in regions where the energy industry disposes of millions of gallons of wastewater every day. […]

Justin Rubinstein, a USGS research geophysicist, said the agency’s projections are based on earthquake activity near disposal wells, even though man-made and naturally-occurring earthquakes are currently indistinguishable from one another. More on-ground monitoring and industry-reported data are needed to further study the issue, he said.

It’s important to note that the problem being identified here—the storage of wastewater used in drilling operations in unused wells—isn’t an essential component of oil and gas operations, nor is it a new phenomenon brought on by fracking shale. That being said, hydraulic fracturing does produce a lot of wastewater, and the recent shale boom has dramatically increased the amounts of wastewater being stored in wells.

This problem is particularly noticeable in Oklahoma, which has seen an enormous increase in small-magnitude seismic activities over the past three to four years. These earthquakes aren’t ripping land apart in Hollywood fashion, and in fact most of them are of such a small magnitude that they can’t be detected without sophisticated instrumentation. Still, their sharp spike in frequency has caused property damage and is understandably unsettling (excuse the pun) for local residents. In response, earlier this month the state ordered companies to reduce the amount of wastewater they’re storing in wells by 40 percent.

If companies are causing damage because of one aspect of their drilling operations, they ought to be held accountable by regulators, and it seems Oklahoma is moving in the right direction in that respect. It’s important, too, to make sure those regulators don’t impose too many onerous restrictions on an industry that’s already working on ways to solve this problem. We’ve seen other countries fail to capitalize on their own prodigious shale resources because of regulatory overreach, while here in the U.S. fracking has flourished in a relatively safe manner. These earthquakes are a serious problem, but they’re not an existential threat to the American energy revolution unless state and federal governments overreact to them.

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