Academic journal article Defense Counsel Journal

"Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On": Recent Studies Link Fracking and Earthquakes

Academic journal article Defense Counsel Journal

"Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On": Recent Studies Link Fracking and Earthquakes

Article excerpt

HYDRAULIC fracturing, commonly known as "fracking," is a wellstimulation technique involving high pressure drilling which has garnered notoriety in the recent press. This method of drilling involves blasting water, sand, and chemicals into rock formations to free up oil and gas.1 Fracking generates vast amounts of wastewater, which is then pumped into injection wells which lead thousands of feet underground. According to some, "[sjcientists wonder whether [this wastewater] could trigger quakes by increasing underground pressure and lubricating faults."2

In Oklahoma in particular, there has been a documented and undisputed rise in the number of earthquakes in close proximity to oil and gas wells and fracking operations. The inquiry into the link between fracking and earthquakes has been fueled by the release of two articles published in July, 2014, by the journal SCIENCE.

The first article, published July 3, 2014, and hereinafter referenced as the "Keranen" study, is entitled Sharp Increase in Central Oklahoma Seismicity Since 2008 Induced by Massive Wastewater Injection. Although the title of the Keranen study suggests the researchers found that Oklahoma quakes are indeed "induced" by wastewater injection, the study itself does not reach such a conclusive result. Instead, the study specifies the data and techniques used by the researchers involved, and concludes based on that information, that the researchers "view [the quakes] as a response" to injection of wastewater.3

The second article, published the next day and entided Injection Wells Blamed in Oklahoma Earthquakes, provides a summary of the Keranen study in terms the public can more easily understand.4 This article, hereinafter referenced as the "Hand" article, summarized the results of the Keranen study, noted the public reaction, and discussed the response of regulators to the issue. However, it was premised on the opinion that the Keranen study had decisively found that the injection wells were direcdy responsible for the rise in earthquakes - a premise which is not supported by a review of the Keranen study itself.

Buoyed by the publication of the Keranen and Hand articles, many media reports have assumed a direct causal link between fracking and earthquakes had been found, concluding that "wells forcing massive amounts of drilling wastewater into the ground are probably causing quakes in Oklahoma."5 The Keranen and Hand articles have garnered a lot of public interest in the fracking process, its consequences, and how to regulate it. According to an article published by CBS on July 14 of this year, "[hjundreds of central Oklahoma residents met with regulators and research geologists last month in Edmond, and many urged regulators to ban or severely restrict the disposal wells."6

The following article discusses the rise in earthquake activities in Oklahoma, the findings in the Hand and Keranen articles, the regulatory efforts underway to deal with this issue, the industry response, and recent litigation involving fracking and earthquakes.

I. The Rise In Earthquake Activity In Oklahoma

When discussing the truth or falsity of claimed links between quakes and fracking operations, it is important to be aware of the actual exponential rise in quake activity. According to one article, "Oklahoma has recorded nearly 250 small-to-medium earthquakes since January, ... That's close to half of all the magnitude 3 or higher earthquakes recorded this year in the continental United States."7 Another article put the number in better perspective, noting:

From 1978 to 2008, Oklahoma was hit with an average of just two quakes of 3.0 magnitude of [sic] greater. As of June 19, 2014, there were 207 such quakes recorded in the state . . . .8

These facts and statistics are apparently undisputed. Thus, scientists and the general public are all looking for the cause.

II. The Keranen And Hand Articles

Prior to the publication of the Keranen and Hand articles discussing the effects of wastewater injection wells, the act of fracking itself had already been found to cause earthquakes. …

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