Fracking May Be Causing Earthquakes In Oklahoma

Five earthquakes in Oklahoma in the last 24 hours have suggested that fracking for oil in the state is likely the cause.

Fracking Well

Oil and Gas wells that use fracking, much like the one shown here, may be responsible for continuous earthquakes in Oklahoma.

Today, Oklahoma is feeling a little off balance from a series of earthquakes.  In the past 24 hours alone, Oklahoma has suffered from 5 earthquakes.  Most of these quakes are minor, barely exceeding 3.0 in magnitude.  But it is still significant that they are having these earthquakes to begin with such speed and rapidity: In the past week, according to the Oklahoma Geological Survey, 30 earthquakes have shaken the state.  That is about as many as California gets.  But unlike California, which has seismic activity on a very regular basis, Oklahoma lacks any sort of natural activity that would make it suddenly earthquake prone.  So what is causing these earthquakes?  Evidence suggests that fracking for oil, a big business in Oklahoma, is causing the earthquakes.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a form of drilling out earth from the ground.  It is essentially a high-pressure jet of water and other chemicals causing fractures deep in the earth's crust.  These fractures allow oil and gas found in small, hard-to-reach pockets to be more easily removed from the ground.  Following the massive increase in oil and gas prices around the time of the Great Recession, fracking, originally a very expensive project, has become more profitable to oil and gas companies, leading to a second oil boom in states such as the Dakotas, Oklahoma, and Kansas.

But the problem with fracking is the very process of which it does things:  The fractures in the ground created by fracking causes the ground itself to become unstable, and the cracks are filled with wastewater and other chemicals, which only serve to make the ground even more unstable.  Consequently, seismic activity begins to develop in the ground in areas where there is no activity whatsoever.  It has attributed to large sinkholes in Louisiana, for example.

Earthquake damage in Oklahoma

Crews are inspecting the damage to a church in Shawnee, Oklahoma shaken by the 5.6-magnitude earthquake in 2011.

Such is the case with Oklahoma, which up until the late 2000's had no more than a couple earthquakes per year, but now has at least 3 earthquakes per day.  The state is home to a minor fault, the Wilzetta Fault, that has not been active in millions of years up until recently.  However, it was that same fault that shook Oklahoma with a 5.6-magnitude earthquake, the strongest earthquake felt in Oklahoma history, in 2011.  State scientist were able to confirm afterward that wastewater from fracking had likely caused the earthquake.

Oil and gas companies have avoided discussion on the fracking-earthquake connection, even going so far as to deny that the fracking is causing the seismic activity, which some have called "earthquake swarms."  For their part, they will likely have the ability to keep that period of denial over their head:  Oklahoma boasts one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, no doubt due to the oil and gas boom that has brought jobs to the state.

(Image Sources:  Washington Post, Flickr: wcn247)

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