Hundreds of thousands of faults, most poorly mapped, just waiting for a bit of lubrication-

We all know what causes earthquakes — preexisting long cracks in rock layers (faults) and enough pressure to make them slip.  Most don’t slip very often though. Some will never slip because the pressure is just not, or ever will be great enough to overcome the friction between the two sides of the fault.

Here’s an interesting question. What if the two sides of a fault could be made less rough — slippery? Maybe some grease, oil, or water could somehow get into the fault.  That was mostly an academic question until recently. Such things would not get into a fault by natural means. This made earthquakes merely a matter of building pressure from forces in the Earth. Some places, such as near the margins of Continental plates, are subjected to great pressure, year and century-after-century.  Other places, such as the middle of a continent where no mountain building is happening, usually have much smaller built-up pressure — places like Ohio,  Kansas, Oklahoma

Even some mountainous places, such as Colorado, naturally have few strong earthquakes. Of course, underground California, Nevada, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Oregon, Washington and Montana are another matter.

Along comes fracking-

“Induced hydraulic fracturing” (fracking) is the deliberate creation of fractures in a rock layer by introducing some kind of pressurized fluid. The purpose is to drive hydrocarbons (mostly petroleum-like substances or natural gas) out of the rock so it can be pumped to the surface. The discovery of large areas where such rock exists potentially greatly extends the amount of oil, and especially natural gas that might be recovered. More and more natural gas is being promoting as a “bridge fuel” to get us from today’s fairly dirty mix of energy sources to the Eden of renewable energy sources.

Cynics, or perhaps realists, doubt whether the government ever really intends to get off “the bridge.” Meanwhile a boom is underway, and the price of natural gas, which some inattentive folks seem to think is gasoline, is going down as its supply increases.

President Obama seems convinced it is a good fuel, superior to the toxic, thick, bitumen obtained from the huge open pit mines in the tar sands of Alberta. Republicans like it too, with the recent Idaho scandal not all that atypical of boom in fracking.

What about earthquakes?

Most concern about side effects of fracking has been about water pollution, but it is an easy thought process to suppose that injection of fluids to deliberately fracture rock might cause earthquakes. Of course, the amount of fluid injected is usually small, though there are exceptions.

What is not small is the amount of waste fluid injected down the deep wastewater wells near a fracking field. Already hundreds of small, and some moderate earthquakes have happened in otherwise seismically stable areas of Ohio, Oklahoma, and Arkansas.

Good analysis of the underlying rock of proposed fracking areas might minimize the potential of earthquakes. Some beds of rock have few faults while those just above or below a stable bed might have many. Knowing where to drill, not just to obtain natural gas, but to ascertain the effects of new fluid on the entire underground structure should be very useful. Some potential sources of gas might be too unstable to develop. In fact, the Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission has prohibited wastewater injection wells from an area of over 1000 square miles that sits atop productive shale deposits. This came after earthquakes started subsequent to the beginning of fracking.

Who will receive the benefits and who will bear the costs?

The development of natural resources is inherently political.  Much, maybe all of politics, is about who will pay and who will benefit from human activities, especially those that are side effects, not intended, and often negative. Mining, logging, diverting water, disposing of wastes by its nature creates conflict. If you are the beneficiary, and you make the laws, good for you. However, if you are the one who gets polluted out, what is your redress?  The ballot box is often offered as a solution.

Those folks who don’t perceive these basic facts are the same who are more likely to end up bearing the burdens. The deliberate withholding of information such as alleged in the case of Idaho state senator Monty Pearce is, if true, an abuse of office because unfair laws remain even if some punishment comes to the malefactor.

As the amount of money at stake increases, so will the political conflict. There will more places like Pavillion, Wyoming unless we have officials who believe those who get the benefits also must bear the full costs of their activities.

Many think so far we haven’t found many of the right kind of leaders. Worse, there is also an entire public relations industry working to confuse people, hide the costs, and obscure what is going on.

So far no one has sent a check for us to spin the facts.

 

 

 

 

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About The Author

Ralph Maughan

Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University with specialties in natural resource politics, public opinion, interest groups, political parties, voting and elections. Aside from academic publications, he is author or co-author of three hiking/backpacking guides, and he is President of the Western Watersheds Project.

4 Responses to Fracking causes earthquakes

  1. avatar Jenny says:

    I think the risks outweigh any benefits myself. Then, there’s the matter of what’s going on in Pennsylvania. This law is one more that should have never been made. How do people get away with this? Money talks..

    http://www.smirkingchimp.com/node/42038

  2. avatar Doryfun says:

    “The development of natural resources is inherently political. Much, maybe all of politics, is about who will pay and who will benefit from human activities, especially those that are side effects, not intended, and often negative. Mining, logging, diverting water, disposing of wastes by its nature creates conflict. If you are the beneficiary, and you make the laws, good for you. However, if you are the one who gets polluted out, what is your redress? The ballot box is often offered as a solution.”

    Boiled down very well Ralph. The ballot box might help, but even that has been impacted by Republicans trying to control who gets to vote or not, thus trying to slant things to their “drill everywhere for everything” favor. It is still tied back to all that high end corporate influence and politicians dancing to dollars, rather than people they purportedly represent.

    It is hard for me to visualize much improvement in the conservation department, until the tainted structure at the top, is itself toppled. This would be a trickle down effect I could buy into.

    “Many think so far we haven’t found many of the right kind of leaders. Worse, there is also an entire public relations industry working to confuse people, hide the costs, and obscure what is going on.”

    If the people who are doing all the spinning, had evidence which supported a good cause, they wouldn’t have the need to spin things in the first place.

    That alone should be a red flag to people. The problem is always trying to sort out truth from fiction. Usually, more information is better. But when it is camouflaged with so much more mis-information by the brown science crowd, it is proving more and more difficult to do.

  3. avatar Immer Treue says:

    I’ve watched a very small portion of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, and one of the more frequent commercials has been by Exxon (I believe) in regard to the tar sands making us more energy efficient…

    Any connection between rising pump prices and the ratcheting-up of these commercials? Jobs, lower prices at the pump, energy independence…. How much of that oil will be kept here, or just put into the world market?

    What I am trying to say with this comment is big oil is playing their advertising wild card with an awful large audience out there.

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‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

~ Edward Abbey

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