The revolutionary method of natural-gas extraction known as hydraulic fracturing – or “fracking” – has left in its wake a trail of contaminated water supplies, polluted air, health problems, and environmental degradation. But what is potentially the most damaging aspect of the process is just coming to light in the form of a tremendous spate of earthquakes in the heart of the United States. In the past week, northern Oklahoma and southern Kansas have suffered forty two earthquakes of magnitude 2.5 on the Richter scale – 17% of all earthquakes in the world. This brings the year-to-date count up to 680 such tremors – and this in area that until recently was almost completely seismically dormant. Up until 2009, the area experienced an average of 1.5 of these quakes each year. What has changed since then is the massive influx of fracking operations seeking to take advantage of the Woodford Shale that straddles the two states’ border.
What makes fracking so revolutionary is that it allows oil companies to access natural gas deposits that, due to their position embedded in bedrock as much as a mile below the surface, were previously inaccessible. In a hydraulic fracturing well, a noxious combination of water, sand, and toxic chemicals is shot down into the bedrock at extremely high pressures and then explodes horizontally into tiny fissures in the rock. This frees up the embedded natural gas to flow back to the surface with the water and sand that is pumped back out. What it also does, however, is seriously destabilize the bedrock and reactivate long-dormant fault lines. In Oklahoma and Kansas, the area that contains the Woodford Shale also happens to sit above the mid-continent rift, a billion-year old fault line buried more than a mile below the surface. The enormous amount of highly pressurized fluid that has been shot into the Earth has now sufficiently destabilized the bedrock to reactivate the fault to an incredible degree.
Moreover, there are increasing indications that the earthquakes are getting worse in almost every way. The number of quakes continues to rise every year, and the area over which they occur is growing gradually largely; recently, scientists have noticed a significant uptick in such quakes as far away as Oklahoma City, which is nowhere near the main fracking wells. Moreover, the earthquakes appear to be getting more powerful. While the state’s most powerful quake on record was recorded in 2011 at M5.6 – about the same as the Virginia earthquake that shook the East Coast the same year – the USGS has warned of an increasing risk of M5.0 or greater earthquakes, which are large enough to cause significant local damage. Every year, a higher percentage of Oklahoma’s frack-quakes are M4.0 or greater.
What is perhaps most frightening about the frack-quake epidemic is that we don’t really know what’s going to happen next. There is little indication how big the quakes could get given how little is known about such deep-level faults and there is even less that we can do about it. Because of how long it takes for the pressurized fluid to build up at sufficient levels, even a total end to fracking in the area right now – which Republicans will ensure won’t happen anyway – wouldn’t end the escalating crisis for years – if it even can be ended. All we can do is sit back and watch the continued environmental destruction brought on by a senseless rush into a dangerous technology.
Oklahoma’s Republican lawmakers – who are of course in the pocket of the oil industry – are doing everything they can to prevent reasonable heads from addressing the crisis. Although universally acknowledged as the result of fracking, some Republicans have continued to question the source of the quakes happening daily under their feet. Moreover, the state has enacted legislation preventing localities from banning fracking and has even put penalties in place on the use of solar energy. All of this despite the fact that even many drillers are realizing that the earthquake epidemic could be “a game changer” for an industry whose full terrible costs are still being exposed.
Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.