The Environmental Protection Agency just echoed a disturbing fact that scientists have been studying for some time now: oil and gas operations in North Texas and Oklahoma are linked to a sharp increase in seismic activity. Reuters reports:
EPA officials made the comment in a letter to the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil industry in the top crude-producing state…The Railroad Commission, which was not immediately available for comment, has in the past questioned the causal link found in university studies. But Texas has moved to install more earthquake monitoring stations.
“EPA believes there is a significant possibility that North Texas earthquake activity is associated with disposal wells,” said the Aug. 15 letter reported by the Texas Tribune on Tuesday.
As in all of our coverage of the link between increased seismic activity and the oil industry, we need to get a few caveats out of the way. First, the earthquakes we’re talking about are register between 3 and 4 on the Richter scale, and most of them can only be felt by sophisticated monitoring equipment. In other words, fracking isn’t rending the earth open underneath the drillers’ feet. But mentioning fracking brings us to the second disclaimer: the strongest correlative link scientists (and now the EPA) have drawn between these earthquakes and oil operations has to do with the disposal of wastewater in abandoned wells, not with the actual hydraulic fracturing process.
Of course, clarifying the problem doesn’t diminish its seriousness. Shale drilling may be powering America’s energy renaissance, but it’s a water-intensive process and companies have taken to disposing much of their wastewater in wells that are apparently causing an uptick in seismicity. There is a clear need for some smart regulatory intervention.
And that’s exactly what’s been happening in Oklahoma, where these dangers have been best documented. The rate of earthquakes in the state rose dramatically in recent years, but so far has dropped nearly 20 percent in 2016 after regulators cracked down on wastewater disposal in wells. The key is to manage this oversight so that the industry can continue to improve, without causing undue environmental damages.
Because if there’s one thing that shale companies have proven themselves to be masters of, it’s innovating. That’s how they came into existence out of virtually nothing over the past decade, it’s how they’ve stayed afloat despite crude prices trading at more than $60 below what they were two years ago, and it’s how they’re tackling this wastewater problem: already firms are experimenting with wastewater recycling programs, figuring out how to use less water in the fracking process, and some are even moving away from water as an emulsifying agent altogether.