When one thinks of earthquakes, what comes to mind is usually the vast fault line straddled lands of southern California or the great subduction zones off the coasts of Chile and Japan. Surely, it isn’t the cattle fields of Texas or the rolling plains of Ohio and Oklahoma. Natural disasters in the central and southern U.S. typically blow in with the winds in the form of deadly tornadoes and storms. Yet, thanks to the insatiable rush to tap every last drop of oil and gas from the depths of the Earth’s crust, earthquakes are fast becoming the new norm in “fly-over country.”

In Ohio citizens opposed to hydraulic fracturing protest against waste injection wells. Photo credit: Progress Ohio
In Ohio citizens opposed to hydraulic fracturing protest against waste injection wells. Photo credit: Progress Ohio

Fracking involves shooting a mix of sand, water and chemicals deep underground to force natural gas and oil to the surface. The practice is employed in geological areas where typical extraction methods can’t be utilized. Depending on the size of the operations, fracking produces millions of gallons of water waste, which ends up being stored undergound in so-called injection wells. In 2012 fracking in the U.S. produced nearly 280 billion gallons of this chemically-laden fluid and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports there are more than 155,000 oil and gas wastewater wells active nationwide. Geologists have long associated these deep wells with earthquakes.

Back in the 1960s the U.S. military injected chemical waste northeast of Denver, CO, at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal station. From March of 1962 to Sept. 1963 an average of 21 million liters were injected 3,600 meters below the earth’s surface monthly. While injections ceased for nearly a year, the military again resumed the practice in April 1965 through Feb. 1966, only to be halted once earthquakes were reported at local seismic stations. After observing this earthquake activity before, during and after the injection of chemical water waste, researchers were convinced the pressurized injection had caused numerous tremors that would have otherwise not occurred.

Since this recorded instance, dozens of other cases have been studied with reports being published in peer reviewed journals, where geologists have concluded there is indeed causality between deep-well injections and earthquakes. Yet, this stark research hasn’t stopped state governments from issuing thousands of permits to allow wastewater and other drilling to proceed, often in close proximity to homes and schools. In many such instances state resource departments blatantly ignore science that doesn’t favor the oil and gas industry.

Take the case of lonesome Youngstown, OH. Prior to 2011, Youngstown, population 65,405, had never experienced an earthquake, at least not since records were first kept by Europeans who settled the region in 1776. Nonetheless, this lack of seismic activity changed dramatically when the area recorded 100+ tremors over the course of 2011, including a 3.9 quake that shook the town on New Year’s Eve. Those earthquakes, according to a study by Won-Young Kim of Columbia University, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, were the result of a pesky injection well known as Northstar 1.

“Earthquakes were triggered by fluid injection shortly after the injection initiated—less than two weeks,” Dr. Won-Young Kim told LiveScience.

After eight quakes occurred near Northstar 1, Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ (ODNR) spokesperson Heidi Hetzel-Evans stated, “ODNR has not seen any evidence that shows a correlation between localized seismic activity and deep injection well disposal.”

It’s important to note that it’s not the process of fracking itself that is causing quakes, but the practice of pumping wastewater back into the earth after it’s been used to help extract oil or natural gas. These wells, if located in and around fault lines, have a high likelihood to causing tremors.

Dr. Ray Beiersdorfer, a geology professor at Youngstown University, was mystified by ODNR’s response to the Youngstown quakes. “Based on what I witnessed in the 2011 incident, I believe ODNR is a captured agency,” argues Beiersdorfer. “The language used by industry and the regulatory agency was indistinguishable.”

Professor Beiersdorfer’s suspicion that ODNR is in bed with industry isn’t far-fetched. In a leaked internal document obtained by the Sierra Club, a 2012 draft communication plan outlined how agency staff ought to respond to criticism of the fracking operations ODNR was greenlighting.

“[Fracking] will be met with zealous resistance by environmental activist opponents, who are skilled propagandists,” the Communication Plan stated. “Neutral parties in particular—such as ordinary citizens concerned about families’ health—will be vulnerable to messaging by opponents that the initiative represents dangerous and radical state policy by Gov. Kasich.”

While the Northstar 1 injection well was shut down after the significant 3.9 magnitude earthquake on Dec. 31, 2011, ODNR wasn’t about to admit it had ignored the science and allowed the operation to continue for far too long. It also didn’t stop ODNR from issuing other permits to allow injection well drilling in Ohio.

Consequentially, in March 2014 twelve new earthquakes hit south of Lowellville, OH, where Hilcorp Energy was drilling a disposal well. On March 10, ODNR stated it would force Hilcorp to “suspend all activity,” yet the agency allowed the company to continue gas production and flaring at the site.

Unsurprisingly, Beiersdorfer and others aren’t pleased with the state’s half-hearted response and have called on ODNR to deploy portable seismic stations closer to the Hilcorp operation to get better measurements of quakes, which will in turn provide scientists clearer information about size and location of the tremors.

“The request has been ignored,” Beiersdorfer frustratingly asserts in a piece in Columbus Free Press. “According to a telephone conversation I had with [ODNR Spokesperson] Mark Bruce they are not even discussing deploying portable seismic stations to the site. He said that the five seismometers located within eight miles (the closest is four miles away) are sufficient. My reply that these stations are not close enough to precisely determine the depth of these small earthquakes was not addressed.”

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