A few months ago, I was in a drive-thru line waiting for my chance to partake in the chicken goodness at Raising Cane’s. Normally, drive-thru lines remind me of a big advantage of EVs: electric motors don’t idle. With a gas-powered car, you’d sit in that line burning gas and getting zero MPG or turn the engine off and roast in the heat. But, just as that thought started to go through my mind, something distracted me.
I noticed that the “don’t drive here in a tall vehicle” reminder pole was shaking violently. Nothing was touching that spring-loaded pipe or the pipe that held it up there. It looked like some ghost or invisible creature was up there shaking the thing. After a few seconds of bewilderment, I remembered that not all earthquakes can be felt. Sometimes, the only way you’d notice a quake is that it moves some suspended object, like a hanging light or the water in a glass.
I turned the air conditioner off so I could hear better, and sat really still, and started to feel the very light swaying. It was barely perceptible, but it was there just the same.
This might sound like a boring story for someone living in California, but I don’t live in California. I live in southern New Mexico, and perceptible earthquakes are pretty rare here. There are frequent micro-quakes that register on seismometers but are otherwise not noticeable, but it had been almost ten years since the last barely-perceptible quake, and more than a decade had passed between that one and the one before.
But, despite the historical rarity, we had a second perceptible quake this year, and this time it made local news in nearby El Paso.
Unlike the last one, which could barely be felt, this one definitely got people’s attention. People were awakened in their beds when the bed seemed to be moving. Security cameras on people’s homes shook and recorded things being shaken. In a place like California, this probably wouldn’t even be mentioned by the local news, because little quakes happen all the time. But here, it’s front-page material that practically bleeds, even if there was basically zero damage.
Fortunately, local journalists did the responsible thing and consulted with a local scientist at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP).
What they found out wasn’t great, but it’s good to know that I’m not the only one noticing an uptick in seismic activity, both in terms of frequency and intensity. But, it turns out that the usual suspect isn’t to blame. As UTEP’s seismologist explains (and this USGS page confirms), it’s actually a byproduct of changes to normal oil production.
What Causes This, & Why It’s An Almost Impossible Problem To Fix
While hydraulic fracturing (aka “fracking”) does sometimes cause earthquakes, it’s usually not the culprit. Wastewater disposal from all types of oil production (sometimes including fracking) is almost always to blame. Unlike fracturing, wastewater disposal wells pump much larger volumes of undrinkable saltwater into the ground in deeper layers. This higher volume of water, in turn, puts a lot more stress on the geology of a local area.
Not all wastewater injection wells cause earthquakes. For the weight of all that water to cause a quake, several things have to go wrong. First, there has to be enough water to create enough underground pressure to cause an earthquake, so small injections aren’t to blame. Second, there has to be faults nearby that can respond to the pressure. Finally, there has to be underground pathways for the water to travel along to go from the injection site to the faults.
What’s even worse is that you can’t always figure out which injection site causes quakes. The water can travel significant distances and go far deeper into the ground than the place where oil companies initially put the stuff, and traveling from the injection site to the fault can take time. Then, the buildup of pressure can take time. This makes it hard for geologists to tell oil companies that it’s time to shut a well down for public safety.
Plus, it’s not always high-pressure wells that cause quakes. Even wells that oil companies didn’t have to pump water into (letting the water fall into the hole by gravity along, basically) have been found to cause quakes.
So, at the end of the day, there’s no way to reliably stop these wastewater injection wells from causing quakes. Whether they’ll cause this problem can’t be predicted very well, and when it happens, it’s difficult to figure out which well or wells are to blame. It’s something that people living within hundreds of miles of oil production are just stuck with.
The Obvious Answer
The oil industry and people who can’t imagine cutting back on it see this and are like the old man mentioned in the Bruce Hornsby and the Range song. “That’s just the way it is,” they’d tell us. “Some things will never change.” After all, what are you going to do if you can’t fill up your car, or the gas costs $10 a gallon?
But, it’s 2023. We obviously can’t eliminate the domestic oil industry, certainly not overnight and probably never completely. We still need plastics and many other non-transportation products that originate in oil production. But, we certainly can cut back on it and start moving away from it for things that we can do without it now.
Instead, the desperate race for more oil leads to more and more questionable ways of getting it out of the ground. More of the stuff isn’t being made, at least not nearly as quickly as our appetite for the stuff. So, once the easy pickins are gone, the industry has had to do crazier and crazier things to get at it. And, if we keep demand rising with population growth instead of reducing our use of the stuff, problems like earthquakes are only going to get worse.
We owe ourselves better than this, but auto manufacturers are focused on premium EVs instead of providing the affordable EVs people need.
Featured image by USGS (public domain).
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