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Stanford U. scientists and USGS seismologists have revealed new evidence confirming cases fracking water contamination and fracking earthquakes.

Fossil Fuels

Fracking Water Contamination And Earthquakes R 4 Realz, Sez Science-Denying Scientists

Stanford U. scientists and USGS seismologists have revealed new evidence confirming cases fracking water contamination and fracking earthquakes.

In a headline torn from the pages of the Bobby Jindal School of Science Denial, scientists from Stanford University have nailed  yet another case of water contamination linked to fracking, and seismologists have identified yet another instance of evidence that fracking earthquakes are actually a thing.

We’re bringing Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal into this because he made a remark earlier this week to the effect that if you accept settled science, you are a science denier. It’s kind of like saying that identifying racism makes you a racist and calling out sexism makes you a sexist, so let’s unpack that statement after we get to the latest fracking news.

fracking earthquakes water contamination

The Good News About Fracking Water Contamination

For those of you new to the topic, fracking is short for hydrofracturing, an “unconventional” oil and gas drilling method that has come into widespread use with the recent discovery of enormous shale formations, some of which are located in the densely populated northeastern states. Fracking involves pumping massive volumes of chemcial brine underground at high pressure. Consequently, it involves massive volumes of chemical-laden wastewater.

That sounds sketchy, right? However, due to a loophole in federal clean water regulations, fracking operations (including wastewater disposal) have only been covered by a patchwork of state regulations.

Despite being hampered by the aforementioned loophole, along with the practice of settling local lawsuits with gag clauses, evidence has been slowly mounting about the connection between fracking and contamination of local water supplies.

Our friends over at The LA Times reported on a recent confirmed case of fracking water contamination earlier this week, involving methane leakage from a drilling operation.

According to the Times, the Stanford University study blows a hole in the idea that spikes in methane levels identified in local wells are naturally occurring.

The Stanford study was able to take before-and-after snapshots of well water showing that the more recent samples not only had higher levels of methane than before, they also had a different “chemical fingerprint” than the earlier samples. The new fingerprint matched gas deposits located below the source of the water.

The “good news,” about the study, as cited by the Times, is that for the most part the methane leakage was traced to faulty well casings.

If that’s the only problem, then at least there is a solution, which is to fully fund and improve oversight of fracking operations.

The Fracking Earthquake Problem

Aside from the issue of whether or not more and better regulations could cut risks down to an acceptable level, water contamination from the drilling operation is only part of the fracking problem. Fracking earthquakes are another thing to emerge now that the operation has transitioned from unconventional to common.

There are two ways that fracking earthquakes can come about. One is from the drilling operation itself. So far, seismologists have identified very few cases in which fracking and earthquakes are directly linked.

On the other hand, seismologists are amassing quite an impressive pile of evidence that links earthquakes to fracking wastewater disposal.

We’ve previously taken note of earthquake swarms in Oklahoma linked to fracking wastewater disposal. A significant quake near Youngstown, Ohio has also been linked to the practice. Arkansas earthquakes strong enough to cause surface damage have also been linked to wastewater disposal.

In the latest news (h/t ThinkProgress), seismologists have identified a series of fracking earthquakes in Colorado and New Mexico linked to wastewater injection.

The results of the study have just been published online at the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America (BSSA) under the title “The 2001-Present Induced Earthquake Sequence in the Raton Basin of Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado.”

The study involved the the Raton Basin in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. According to the study, seismic activity in the area was practically nil until some time after 1999, when a significant amount of wastewater injection began ocurring there:

Since 2001, there have been 16 magnitude > 3.8 earthquakes (including M 5.0 and 5.3), compared to only one (M 4.0) the previous 30 years. The increase in earthquakes is limited to the area of industrial activity and within 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) of wastewater injection wells.

Somewhat complicating the picture, fracking operations to recover methane from coal beds in the region also began in the area in the mid to late 1990’s, but the evidence is pretty clear that wastewater disposal has been the primary culprit.


Here’s the money quote:

The authors, all scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey, detail several lines of evidence directly linking the injection wells to the seismicity. The timing and location of seismicity correspond to the documented pattern of injected wastewater. Detailed investigations of two seismic sequences (2001 and 2011) places them in proximity to high-volume, high-injection-rate wells, and both sequences occurred after a nearby increase in the rate of injection. A comparison between seismicity and wastewater injection in Colorado and New Mexico reveals similar patterns, suggesting seismicity is initiated shortly after an increase in injection rates.

Oh, those pesky government scientists! That brings us back around to that thing about regulating fracking. If your scientists can confirm a link between fracking and serious environmental and public health hazards, then it’s pretty clear that the current regulatory framework is not protecting the public, and things have to change.

On the other hand, you could take the Bobby Jindal argument, which he articulated at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast meeting earlier this week.

As reported by The Daily Beast, Governor Jindal opened his remarks by calling the Obama Administration “science deniers,” and then proceeded to recommend that the best way to deal with climate change is to “…let the scientists debate and figure that out.”

In other words, talk amongst yourselves, you scientists.

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Image (cropped): by rawdonfox via flickr, creative commons license.

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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