It looks like more trouble is looming ahead for communities that host fracking operations. Two new studies have linked fracking-related operations to earthquakes in Texas and Ohio, and a recently settled lawsuit in Arkansas indicates that swarms of tiny earthquakes can damage surface structures. Add earthquakes to a list that already includes water contamination and air pollution risks, and it becomes clear that a more effective regulatory platform is needed to protect existing communities from the impacts of fracking.
The Fracking Explosion
Fracking is short for hydrofracturing, a drilling method that releases oil or gas from shale formations by pumping a chemical brine underground. Somewhat ironically, the method was originally developed by federal researchers to aid the geothermal industry.
As an “unconventional” oil and gas drilling method, fracking was not in widespread use in the US until recent years, and regulatory agencies have been scrambling to play catchup as evidence of water and air impacts piles up.
Fracking And Earthquakes
Though the drilling operation itself would seem to be the most likely cause of earthquakes, so far the main culprit appears to be the disposal of wastewater from fracking operations, which is commonly injected into existing wells.
The largest earthquake ever recorded in Oklahoma, for example, has been linked to fracking wastewater disposal in an injection well, and last year Columbia University seismologists linked a series of about a dozen strong earthquakes in Youngstown, Ohio to a similar operation.
In one of the two new studies, Columbia seismologists have identified at least 98 more earthquakes in the Youngstown episode, though these were too small to be noticed by people on the surface. Interestingly, as reported by the Columbus Dispatch the epicenters of the quakes drifted up to a mile away from the injection well, indicating that communities some distance away from injection wells could still be at risk.
The other new study reveals a different area of impact, related to the copious amount of water required for the fracking operation. The study covers a swarm of small quakes at the Eagle Ford formation in Texas, linking them to the extraction of oil as well water used for fracking.
As reported in Bloomberg News, study co-author Cliff Frohlich of the University of Texas explains:
You’re pulling out large volumes. You remove stuff, and stuff adjusts or slumps around and either above or below the area where you remove it.
As in the Ohio followup study, the Eagle Ford study did not involve earthquakes that could be felt on the surface. Nevertheless, the cumulative impact can result in property damage on the surface.
One example comes via The Atlantic Cities, which recently reported on the outcome of a lawsuit in Arkansas related to hundreds of small earthquakes linked by the US Geological Survey to fracking wastewater disposal.
In one of the affected communities, Greenbrier, five local property owners have already settled for “an undisclosed sum” with Chesapeake Energy and BHP Billiton, with twenty more residents expected to follow in their footsteps.
The fracking boom is certainly continuing apace, but for a growing number of communities it’s becoming a bust.