Shaking out the lies surrounding earthquakes and hydraulic fracturing

Injection wells, not fracking, behind Oklahoma's earthquakes

shakeoutThe Great ShakeOut, the annual “PrepareAthon” that advocates earthquake readiness, took place across the globe on October 15 at 10:15 AM—10/15 @10:15. Unless you have a child in a participating school, the “Ready Campaign” may have passed without your awareness. I grew up in Southern California, where earthquakes were so routine that we paid them no mind; we didn’t have earthquake drills.
But that was then. Now, the Great ShakeOut is a global campaign. Now, Oklahoma has more earthquakes than California—and students in Oklahoma participated on 10/15 at 10:15. As if choreographed, Oklahomans had a reminder 4.5 earthquake just days before the drill.
The anti-fossil crowd has declared the cause. Headlines claim: “Confirmed: Oklahoma Earthquakes Caused By Fracking” and “New study links Oklahoma earthquakes to fracking.” 
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow gleefully teased the earthquakes in Oklahoma as “the story that might keep you up at night.” On her MADdownessOctober 16 show, she stated that Oklahoma’s earthquakes are — “The terrible and unintended consequence of the way we get oil and gas out of the ground. …from fracking operations.” Yet, when her guest, Jeremy Boak, Oklahoma Geological Survey Director, corrected her, “it’s not actually frackwater,” she didn’t change her tune.
Despite the fact that the science doesn’t support the thesis, opponents of oil-and-gas extraction, like Maddow, have long claimed that the process of hydraulic fracturing is the cause of the earthquakes. Earthworks calls them “frackquakes” because the quakes, the organization says, are “fracking triggered earthquakes.” 
The anti-crowd doesn’t want to hear otherwise. If you were to fully read the two previously mentioned news reports (linked above) that declare “fracking” as the culprit, you’d see that the actual text, and the study they reference, do not say what the headlines insinuate. The 2014 study they cite blames the earthquakes “on the injection of wastewater from oil and gas operations”—which, as Boak told Maddow, is not “actually frackwater.” Even the Washington Post announced: “Fracking is not the cause of quakes. The real problem is wastewater.”
But the ruse goes on. CNN meteorologist Chad Myers announced: “The fracturing fluid seems to be lubricating existing faults that have not moved in recent years. The fracturing process is not creating new faults, but are exposing faults that already exist.”
injectionwellEarthworks believes that states like Oklahoma are not doing enough to solve the problem. Its website says: “Despite the increasingly apparent threat posed by fracking-related earthquakes, many states are ignoring the issue.” 
In fact, many scientific studies have been, and are being, done—as once the cause is determined, a remedy can be found. These studies, as the Washington Post reported, have concluded that “wastewater” is the problem. 
If you don’t know what it is or how it is being disposed of, “wastewater” sounds scary. It is often called “toxic”—although it is naturally occurring. This wastewater, according to a study from Stanford researchers, is “brackish water that naturally coexists with oil and gas within the Earth.” As a part of the drilling and extraction process, the “produced water” is extracted from the oil and/or gas and is typically reinjected into deeper disposal wells. In Oklahoma, these wells are in the Arbuckle Formation, a 7,000-foot-deep sedimentary formation under Oklahoma. 
“Industry has been disposing wastewater into the Arbuckle for 60 years without seismicity,” Kim Hatfield told me. He is the chairman of the Induced Seismicity Working Group—which includes members from a variety of entities including the Oklahoma Geological Survey, Oklahoma Corporation Commission, Oklahoma Department of Energy and Environment, and Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association. Hatfield continued: “So, we know some level of disposal is safe. We need to figure out the exact mechanism by which this wastewater injection is triggering these seismic events and modify our procedures to prevent them.”
Addressing water quality, Hatfield explained that in the area of the seismicity, ten barrels of produced water—which contains five times more salt than ocean water—is generated for each barrel of oil. 
The Stanford study, done by Stanford Professor Mark Zoback (photo) and doctoral student Rall Walshfound that “the primary source of zobthe quake-triggering wastewater is not so-called ‘flowback water’ generated after hydraulic fracturing operations.” Zoback, the Benjamin M. Page Professor in the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, states: “What we’ve learned in this study is that the fluid injection responsible for most of the recent quakes in Oklahoma is due to production and subsequent injection of massive amounts of wastewater, and is unrelated to hydraulic fracturing”—which is contradictory to the premise on which the study was launched.
Explaining the study, Walsh said: “It began with an examination of microseismicity—intentionally caused small quakes like those resulting from hydraulic fracturing,” which he referred to as their “jumping off point.” When I asked Walsh if he was surprised to find that fracking wasn’t the cause of the earthquakes, he told me: “We were familiar with the few cases where hydraulic fracturing was known, or suspected to be associated with moderate sized earthquakes. In the areas of Oklahoma where the earthquakes first started (just outside of Oklahoma City) we knew that the extraction process was predominantly dewatering, not hydraulic fracturing, which led us to suspect that produced water would be the source of the issue, even before we did the volume calculations to show it.”
Science writer Ker Than reports: “Because the pair were also able to review data about the total amount of wastewater injected at wells, as well as the total amount of hydraulic fracturing happening in each study area, they were able to conclude that the bulk of the injected water was produced water generated using conventional oil extraction techniques, not during hydraulic fracturing.” Additionally, Boak told me: “Less than 5% is actually frackwater.”
antifrackers“So what?,” you might ask. The distinction is important as there is an aggressive effort from the anti-fossil-fuel movement to regulate and restrict—even ban—hydraulic fracturing. The more scare tactics they can use, the more successful their efforts. They are unimpeded by truth. Remember the disproven claims about fracking causing tap water to catch on fire and those about fracking contaminating drinking water?
Now, you can add “Oklahoma earthquakes caused by fracking” to the list of untruths propagated by the anti-fossil-fuel crowd. The true headline should read: “Oklahoma earthquakes not caused by fracking.” But, that conflicts with their goal of ending all fossil-fuel use. More than ninety percent of the new oil-and-gas wells drilled in America use hydraulic fracturing. Therefore, if they can ban fracking, they end America’s new era of energy abundance and the jobs and economic stimulus it provides. Groups like Earthworks seem to hate the modern world. 
Here some advice from singer Taylor Swift might be warranted. Instead of “getting down and out about the liars and the dirty, dirty cheats of the world,” after all, she says: “And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate,” her solution is: “I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake. Shake it off.”
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About the Author: Marita Noon

Marita Noon

CFACT policy analyst Marita Noon is the author of Energy Freedom.,

  • Frederick Colbourne

    Doesn’t matter even if fracking causes earthquakes. Depends on the amount of energy released during an earthquake. Fracking can release only a little energy.

    The earth continually adjusts to plate movements. Lots of little movements allow the adjustments to take place without damaging buildings or infrastructure.

    So instead of having the energy released all at once (which is damaging to buildings and infrastructure) energy is usually released gradually. Most people are not even aware of most earth tremors and learn about them when they read or hear the news.

    Moving plates sometimes get stuck for thousands, even millions of years. But eventually the forces overcome friction and the plates move. The great Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami of 2004 was caused by plate movement at the Mentawai fault. The fault may not have released since the Pliocene, 5 million years ago. If so this would account for the massive amount of energy released.

    But fracking as a cause of earthquakes? Well maybe if you call explosions at a rock quarry the cause of earthquakes. Sure the earth shakes a bit. But the earth will shake when a train or a big truck passes. Will you call those earthquakes?

    If fracking did cause built-up stresses in the earth to be released before their time, then so what? Those stresses would be released sooner or later. And we already know that sooner is better and the more often the energy is released the better.

    That’s the science. The rest is myth.

    • visibleunderwater

      You must not live in Oklahoma. What you call a “myth” is REALITY to those of us who now get to watch stuff fall off walls, the entire house shake, etc. I guess we’re all; just imagining this? What oil production company are you involved with? This is not a myth, that we have companies here pumping millions of barrels of waste water into ancient seabeds…far more than these areas underground have ever contained. It’s a small handful of wells to be sure, but it’s real.

      • Frederick Colbourne

        I am especially sensitive to earth tremors and find that I have sensed tremors 500 km away and tens of km deep that others do not learn about unless reported in the news..

        The fact that you get little tremors from liquids pumped into these strata means that there are stresses within the strata that are being released gradually.

        Would you rather wait until the energy builds up and releases all at once and brings the house down?

        And yes, I live in southeast Asia not all that far from a subduction zone. For my M.S. in Earth science (Emporia Kansas) I did a study of the 2004 tsunami, its causes and effects. (The tsunami was caused by a major earthquake.)

        I have lived in real earthquake zones in several parts of the world. In fact, I have lived and worked on all continents except Antarctica.

        Once ,while working in Central America, my desk started sliding across the room. But I knew that the last earthquake had demolished the former building and the new one was well reinforced. So I was able to walked calmly down three flights of stairs and out of the building.

        Once, in Indonesia during one of the frequent tremors, was able to see the houses down the road moving up and down with reference to a horizontal bar on my office window,

        Hundreds of millions of people live in places that have had serious earthquake disasters at some time in their recorded history. They adapt their houses to the hazards and they learn to live with the fact that the earth shakes periodically.

        As for your ad hominem remark about my being employed by and oil company, I have never worked for an energy company.

        Furthermore, I refuse to work on anything related to climate. The reason is precisely because of hostility such as this towards anyone who does not follow the alarmist program.

        I suggest that you learn about plate tectonics as a means to reduce your anxiety about the tremors.

  • visibleunderwater

    It’s still the same “industry people” causing the quakes via their policy. Whatever is the actual cause (high pressure waste water injections) needs to be banned before a quake hits Cushing and damages the nation’s second largest oil reserve. Even the DoD is getting nervous about this now, especially since that facility is THE major hub for most pipelines crossing the US and has zero earthquake tolerance engineered into it,

    • Frederick Colbourne

      The Midcontinent Rift is one of the most studied tectonic zones in the world. There is really no excuse for not ensuring that infrastructure is secured against the earth movements experienced in the zone.

      The quakes were there long before the industries, long before humans crossed over the Bering Strait from Siberia.