When you think of earthquake country, you probably picture California with its all-too-frequent seismic rumblings. These days the state you should be imagining is Oklahoma. Between 1978 and 2008, the state experienced only two 3.0-magnitude or greater earthquakes, but in just the first four months of this year, it has already had 145 earthquakes. The likely cause? According to one new study, the problem is fracking.
Researchers at University of Cornell released a study in Science magazine this month called, Sharp increase in central Oklahoma seismicity since 2008 induced by massive wastewater injection. The title alone is enough to make anyone a bit skeptical about the practice of hydraulic fracturing, but the fact that Oklahoma, which is fifth in the nation for gas and oil production, is the site of nearly half of all 3.0-magnitude or greater earthquakes in the central and eastern US is downright scary. And not only are earthquakes becoming far more frequent, they are stronger to boot.
As they say, correlation is not causation, and scientists are careful to point out that that the data just isn’t settled, yet. But it appears that the practice of flushing wastewater underground is saturating the ground to the point that it is now unstable, which causes fault lines to slip. According to Katie Keranen, the lead researcher in the study, “[i]f the fault is ready to fail, it doesn’t take a lot of change in [water] pressure to trigger an earthquake.”
The recent study isn’t the first to link fracking and earthquakes, but industry officials, unsurprisingly, deny any link between seismic activity and fracking. However, state and federal geologists issued a statement a few months ago stating that the increase in earthquakes definitely does not seem to be related to natural fluctuations in seismic activity. One thing that is clear is that, between concerns about earthquakes and contaminated groundwater, it seems worth a look into an alternative to the way we pull resources out of the planet, because the current method seems to be fatally flawed.