Fracking is enhancing the risk of “The Big One” in California

From ToxicLeaks

Over the past years, Oklahoma has surpassed California to become the state with the most earthquakes in the United States. The “Sooner State” has proven the dangers of fracking, and irresponsible oil companies like New Dominion, Chesapeake Operating and Devon Energy1 are being sued as we write these lines. However, a study has shown that California’s seismic activity is also affected by fracking and that some of its numerous earthquakes are man-made, just like in Oklahoma. Worse, given the already high seismic risk in California, fracking means an overall higher risk, meaning oil companies could contribute to setting of “The Big One” that Californian’s dread.

A scientific report accuses fracking companies of causing earthquakes in California[edit | edit source]

A study released in the beginning of February in the Geophysical Research Letters confirmed what many environment defenders have been saying all along : fracking companies have taken crazy risks by fracking into Californian soil. The study analyses a series of earthquakes that hit Kern County, in the southern part of the Central Valley, in 2005. According to the researchers from the University of California at Santa Cruz and two French universities, there is only a 3% chance that the earthquakes happened by chance, which means that they have almost beyond doubt been triggered by injection of fracking byproducts. Even though the fiercest earthquake was “only” 4.6 on the Richter Scale, that's already strong enough to be felt by most people, and the striking fact is that there was a very great number of these man-made quakes that year. The study also disclosed the concerning notion that the earthquakes could be set off several miles away from the well where the injections were done. This is quite frightening given the proximity of the area to the San Andreas fault. This means that oil companies could very well cause seismic activity in the area of the fault even though they are fracking miles away. This study is an important stage in understanding the risks posed by the oil and gas industry and confirms previous reports that had sounded the alarm : in 2014, the Center of Biological Diversity in California had come out with a report, titled, “On Shaky Ground: Fracking, Acidizing, and Increased Earthquake Risk in California”, to raise the public's awareness to the dangers of fracking. Furthermore, the Department of Conservation asked a Californian Lab to run a “comprehensive study on the potential for induced seismicity related to injection for disposal of produced water in California oilfields”. This is why this study is so important. It's the first peer-reviewed study to officially expose the dangers of fracking and the irresponsible behaviour of oil and gas companies in California.

Fearfully increasing amounts of fracking wastewater are being reinjected into the earth[edit | edit source]

How exactly are oil companies making the earth shake ? Well basically by dumping their garbage into underground wells. What happens is that when companies use fracking to access shale oil or gas, they inject vast amounts of water with heavy chemicals and salt at a very high-pressure, which breaks open the rock where the oil or gas was stored. The thing is, once they're done, they have to deal with the byproduct of fracking, wastewater. While conventional drilling also generates wastewater, fracking is by far the drilling method that generates the most. Oil and gas companies usually dispose of the wastewater by reinjecting it into underground wells. Only, that water is still very salty and full of the chemicals used for fracking, which is why it has a disruptive effect on the earth and causes seismic activity. And since California is the 3rd biggest oil producing state in the country, these injections have been growing steadily. While the total amount of reinjected wastewater was about 20 billion gallons a year in 1995, today it has doubled, reaching 40 billion gallons a year. The link between the injections and earthquakes is even more striking as we look at the area analysed by the study, the Tejon Oil Field. Researchers noticed that between 2001 and 2010, wastewater injection was multiplied by 5 in three wastewater wells and 95 % of the wastewater was directed to these wells. This is clearly a dangerous management of the wastewater and it comes as no surprise that these poor decisions had a part to play in causing the earthquakes.

Fracker companies have hid behind the context of high seismicity[edit | edit source]

The danger of man-made earthquakes in California has been hidden by the fact that California is an earthquake prone state to begin with, and that it's hard to distinguish natural earthquakes from man-made ones. "In California, of course, we have a lot of natural seismicity here”, explains Art McGarr, US Geological Survey seismologist. "Nonetheless, I think they made at least a fairly convincing case that these earthquakes were related to fluid injection." It seems clear that the high number of natural earthquakes has masked the danger that some human activities can enhance the earthquakes. Oil and gas companies have unsurprisingly exploited this to their advantage, generating billions of dollars of fracking profit while endangering the lives of everyday Californians.

Fracking has enhanced the risk of earthquakes in California[edit | edit source]

The researchers highlight the risks that fracking creates for every Californian. Indeed, if the wastewater injections increased or even just continued at their current rate, they could not only increase the number of earthquakes in California, but also enhance their intensity. This quote of the report is a clear warning to the oil and gas companies that are playing sorcerer's apprentice : "considering the numerous active faults in California, the seismogenic consequences of even a few induced cases can be devastating." And it's all the more urgent to stop these wastewater injections considering that researchers still don't fully understand how the link between the injections and the earthquakes works, even though they know for a fact that there is a link. In December of 2015, a study conducted by the Stanford University in Arkansas claimed that the total volume of wastewater injected into an underground well was the main factor in setting off earthquakes. But other studies have questioned this causality and have asserted that the rate of wastewater injection is more important than the injected volume. This uncertainty is an even bigger reason to be cautious and not risk enhancing the seismic activity. Which is really quite the opposite of what the frackers have been doing.

This study is good news, it proves what many environment defenders have been saying for years, fracking is dangerous and fracking companies are behaving irresponsibly. These companies put their profits first and are creating risks for every Californian. This is why the state of California must be stronger and force fracking companies to stop wastewater injections before they set of “The Big One”.