Is Fracking Causing Big Sinkholes in the South?

Recent sinkhole developments are pointing to fracking as the main cause.

In recent days, the South has been seeing an increase in a thing that people would rather see happen very rarely:  Giant sinkholes that take out homes, trees, even lakes if that makes any sense.  More recently, a sinkhole in Bayou Corne in Assumption Parish, Louisiana has been swallowing up wetlands and trees.  While the South's soil has been known to be weak enough that sinkholes are not that uncommon, the increase of sinkhole activity, especially in places like Louisiana and Florida, may have something to do with one new development in oil and gas that has caused much controversy:  Fracking.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing,  is the process of extracting petroleum, particularly natural gas, by fracturing rocks deep in the ground to open up holes.  The process uses a mix of water, sand, and chemicals, shot through a very-high pressure stream that cuts through the rock, usually shale or some other hardened rock.  The resulting fractures allow for oil and gas to seep out, allowing for extraction.  While the process has been around for seven decades, fracking has been incredibly expensive to perform.  It was only due to the recent surge in oil and gas prices that fracking was considered profitable enough to use as a means of extraction.

However, fracking does not occur without side effects.  Unlike straight drilling for oil and gas, which is vertical and covers a very limited space, fracking is done horizontally along the ground, and requires a lot more earth to be removed.  Consequently, there is the risk that fracturing these rocks will inadvertently cause a geological disturbance through either high pressure gas being released or rocks being shifted.  Sometimes, this causes earthquakes, major and minor.  Other times, it causes the water to move out of a certain part of the ground, causing a sinkhole.

In the case of Bayou Corne, fracking is likely the cause of the sinkhole developing.  A nearby fracking operation in Assumption Parish run by Texas Brine LLC lost control recently when the salt dome cavern they were using collapsed, leading to the ground shifting elsewhere, such as the Bayou Corne sinkhole.  Now, officials in the state of Louisiana are suing Texas Brine for the environmental damage and the sinkhole.

Furthermore, in Kansas, a recent sinkhole developed near the western town of Sharon Springs.  While it is unlikely that fracking caused the sinkhole, Sharon Springs and the surrounding area sit atop of shale basin used for fracking, which makes the case a distinct possiblity.

What this means remains uncertain.  Fracking has not started in Florida, which remains the most common place for sinkholes.  Further, this is the first conclusive case of a sinkhole cause by fracking.  Still, caution must be taken into consideration in developing fracking, as the evidence demonstrates that environmental damage can happen, as well as property damage.

Banner and thumbnail credit: Reuters

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