The American Southwest is undergoing a spike in seismic activity. A new U.S. Geological Survey shows that a small basin on the New Mexico-Colorado border experienced 20 times more serious earthquakes between 2001 and 2011 than it had over the previous thirty years. There have been similar tremor spikes throughout the country.
Some media accounts have been quick to blame this on hydraulic fracturing. Also known as “fracking,” this technique involves injecting a high-pressure mixture of water, sand, and other fluids to break up underground rock structures and free up embedded oil and gas.
One prominent columnist claimed “fracking may be inducing earthquakes.” The online journal Salon simply declared that the “earthquake epidemic is linked to fracking.” And NBC News published a story with the bold title of “Confirmed: Fracking practices to blame for Ohio earthquakes.”
This thinking is completely off-base. There’s ample evidence indicating that fracking doesn’t cause earthquakes. And spreading the lie that it does could lead to policies that undermine job creation and economic growth in the energy industry.
Some fracking operations do create very small seismic events. But, as Stanford geophysicist and former Obama administration energy advisor Mark Zoback has noted, these events “pose no danger to the public.” In fact, research has shown that these very slight tremors release about the same amount of energy as a gallon of milk falling off a kitchen counter.
What’s more, scientists have specifically looked into the idea of these micro-seismic events somehow leading to the earthquakes. They found zero connection. As a 2012 U.S. Geographical Survey explicitly stated, “studies do not suggest that hydraulic fracturing … causes the increased rate of earthquakes.”
The more likely culprit? A process called high-volume wastewater injection. For about 20 years, companies have been using this technique to dispose of water polluted during the production of coal-based methane, drilling of energy extraction wells, and other water-intense activities. A separate Geographical Survey has determined that injected wastewater has been lubricating fault lines and triggering serious tremors.
But even this finding is no reason for panic. Only a very small slice of wastewater injection programs are causing any serious tremors. In Oklahoma, Cornell researchers linked just four out of the state’s 4,500 injection wells —נless than 0.1 percent —נto seismic activity. And these were exceptionally high-volume operations where at least 4 million barrels of water were being disposed of each month.
Nonetheless, energy companies should work with regulators to reduce the risks of seismic activity related to wastewater injection.
Firms should be prohibited from disposing wastewater in wells near fault lines. They should be required to take a substantial amount of their wastewater to treatment plants instead of injecting it. And regulators should be given the authority to regularly monitor injection sites to check for unusual tremor activity.
These are the commonsense steps activists should be urging government to take.
What won’t do any good, however, is mindlessly demonizing fracking. Indeed, if activist hysteria fuels the creation of anti-fracking public policies, the economic effects would be devastating. This technique already supports over 2 million American jobs. And the continued expansion of the oil and gas industry could create millions of new employment opportunities and billions in new growth over the next decade. Bad laws would kill off this bounty.
Fracking is an economic godsend. Let’s not let baseless hysteria crush it.
Opinion by: Chris Faulkner, CEO of Breitling Energy Corporation and author of the recent book, “The Fracking Truth.” He is also the producer of the documentary, “Breaking Free: The Shale Rock Revolution.”