Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Oklahoma Earthquakes and the Wages of Fracking

• November 09, 2011 • 9:15 AM

European experiences offer hints as to whether high seismicity in the U.S. oil patch is related to new gas extraction methods.

When towns to the east of Oklahoma City jiggled over the weekend with two of the state’s strongest-ever earthquakes, some people asked an obvious question: Does the recent expansion of “fracking” for natural gas in Oklahoma — shooting water and chemicals and sand into shale deposits to free trapped methane — account for the trembling ground?

Maybe. Oil and gas exploration has caused minor earthquakes in the U.S. since the ’30s, and a new report from Britain suggests that fracking itself can cause small quakes. It was “highly probable,” according to the report, that a drilling firm called Cuadrilla Resources caused two earthquakes near Blackpool, in northwest England, by fracking for shale gas in May.

But the British quakes were extremely mild — 2.3 and 1.4 magnitude — and experts argue that fracking, on its own, wouldn’t cause quakes much out of that range. (The weekend quakes in Oklahoma measured 4.7 and 5.6.) “It is extremely rare for fracking itself to cause detectable earthquakes,” writes Nicola Jones at Nature, “so rare that geologist Scott Ausbrooks of the Arkansas Geological Survey in Little Rock told this reporter in May that it never happens.”

Ausbrooks points out that a related activity does cause the earth to shake. Companies involved in mining, fracking, and oil exploration sometimes dispose of wastewater by pumping it into “injection wells,” and in the 1960s, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, a U.S. Army site in Colorado, used injection wells to bury wastewater from chemical weapons. The Army shot a tainted solution of salty water more than 12,000 feet underground, which led to a flurry of quakes around Denver in the late ’60s. The largest were in the 4- and 5-magnitude range.

[class name=”dont_print_this”]

European Dispatch

EUROPEAN DISPATCH
Michael Scott Moore complements his standing feature in Miller-McCune magazine with frequent posts on the policy challenges and solutions popping up on the other side of the pond.

[/class]

Fracking probably did cause a number of “micro quakes” in Oklahoma in January, according to seismic expert Austin Holland. The largest quake in that flurry measured 2.8. Holland says he doesn’t think fracking led to last weekend’s quakes. “It continues to be a possibility,” he told an Oklahoma news station, “but the connections are weak, and it would take much more research and a greater understanding of what’s going on in the sub-surface to begin to attribute this to oil and gas activities.”

Fracking, of course, is unpopular in some parts of the U.S. because poorly sealed wells have leached chemicals and methane into the surrounding groundwater. A flurry of Arkansas quakes raised a question about fracking there last year, but Ausbrooks said the shaking was probably related to injection wells, rather than fracking per se. The difference is important, because the nation’s shale-gas reserves could cut carbon emissions and free the country from its dependence on oil — if, and only if, the gas can be safely extracted.

Europe has been watching this U.S. debate. While France has outlawed fracking entirely, Germany is particularly anxious for new forms of energy, and it hopes to use natural gas as a “bridge” for its ambitious move away from nuclear power and toward renewable energy. It allows some limited fracking, but it plans to buy most of its gas from Russia. Authorities in the United Kingdom are cautious—they forced Cuadrilla to suspend its shale drilling after those two small earthquakes in May.

Poland, though, recently threw open its doors to fracking exploration by American firms. Poland burns more coal than almost any EU member, so natural gas would be a welcome alternative. Plus, Poland may have the largest shale-gas reserves in central Europe. “We’ll never be an oil state,” Andrzej Kozlowski, an executive at the Polish oil company PKN Orlen, told The Economist, “but we could become a Norway.”

Poland only has a few fracking wells so far, but it has suffered its own curious flurry of earthquakes over the last few years. They’ve been concentrated around Silesia, a southwestern coal- and metals-mining region. In late 2010 one of the largest quakes, measuring 4.5, killed three men in a copper mine.

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Michael Scott Moore
Michael Scott Moore was a 2006-2007 Fulbright fellow for journalism in Germany, and The Economist named his surf travelogue, "Sweetness and Blood," a book of the year in 2010. His first novel, "Too Much of Nothing," was published by Carroll & Graf in 2003, and he’s written about politics and travel for The Atlantic Monthly, Slate, the Los Angeles Times, and Spiegel Online in Berlin, where he serves as editor-at-large.

More From Michael Scott Moore

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.