Menus Subscribe Search

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

August 21 • 4:00 PM

Julie Chen Explains Why She Underwent Westernizing Surgery

The CBS news anchor and television personality’s story proves that cosmetic surgeries aren’t always vanity projects, even if they’re usually portrayed that way.


August 21 • 2:37 PM

How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There’s heightened functional connectivity between the brain’s emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.


August 21 • 2:00 PM

Cracking Down on the Use of Restraints in Schools

Federal investigators found that children at two Virginia schools were being regularly pinned down or isolated and that their education was suffering as a result.


August 21 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, School Principal?

Noah Davis talks to Evan Glazer about why kids aren’t getting smarter and what his school’s doing in order to change that.



August 21 • 10:00 AM

Why My Neighbors Still Use Dial-Up Internet

It’s not because they want to. It’s because they have no other choice.


August 21 • 8:15 AM

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.


August 21 • 8:00 AM

To Fight the Obesity Epidemic Americans Will Have to First Recognize That They’re Obese

There is a void in the medical community’s understanding of how families see themselves and understand their weight.


August 21 • 6:33 AM

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.


August 21 • 6:00 AM

The Fox News Effect

Whatever you think of its approach, Fox News has created a more conservative Congress and a more polarized electorate, according to a series of recent studies.


August 21 • 4:00 AM

Do Children Help Care for the Family Pet?

Or does mom do it all?


August 20 • 4:00 PM

Why Can’t Conservatives See the Benefits of Affordable Child Care?

Private programs might do a better job of watching our kids than state-run programs, but they’re not accessible to everyone.


August 20 • 2:00 PM

Oil and Gas Companies Are Illegally Using Diesel Fuel in Hundreds of Fracking Operations

An analysis by an environmental group finds hundreds of cases in which drillers used diesel fuel without obtaining permits and sometimes altered records disclosing they had done so.


August 20 • 12:00 PM

The Mystery of Britain’s Alien Big Cats

In a nation where the biggest carnivorous predator is a badger, why are there so many reported sightings of large cats?


August 20 • 10:00 AM

Death Row in Arizona: Where Human Experimentation Is the Rule, Not the Exception

Recent reports show that chemical roulette is the state’s M.O.


August 20 • 9:51 AM

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.


August 20 • 8:40 AM

Psychopathic or Just Antisocial? A Key Brain Difference Tells the Tale

Though psychopaths and antisocial people may seem similar, what occurs in their brains isn’t.


August 20 • 8:00 AM

What the Cost of Raising a Child in America Tells Us About Income Inequality

You’ll spend nearly a quarter of a million dollars to raise a kid in the United States, or about five times the annual median income.


August 20 • 6:00 AM

In Praise of ‘American Greed’

While it remains semi-hidden on CNBC and can’t claim the car chases of Cops, American Greed—now with eight seasons in the books—has proven itself a worthy endeavor.


August 20 • 4:00 AM

Of Course I Behaved Like a Jerk, I Was Just Watching ‘Jersey Shore’

Researchers find watching certain types of reality TV can make viewers more aggressive.


August 20 • 2:00 AM

Concluding Remarks About Housing Affordability and Supply Restricitions

Demand, not supply, plays the dominant role in explaining the housing affordability crisis. The wages are just too damn low.


August 19 • 4:00 PM

Can Lawmakers Only Make Laws That Corporations Allow?

There’s a telling detail in a recent story about efforts to close loopholes in corporate tax laws.




August 19 • 12:00 PM

How ‘Contagion’ Became Contagious

Do ideas and emotions really spread like a virus?


Follow us


How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There's heightened functional connectivity between the brain's emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.

Psychopathic or Just Antisocial? A Key Brain Difference Tells the Tale

Though psychopaths and antisocial people may seem similar, what occurs in their brains isn’t.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one
Subscribe Now

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