Fracking wastewater is causing more and more earthquakes in Oklahoma

From ToxicLeaks

If you listen to big corporations, the one thing that you can't pin on them has to be earthquakes. These tectonic shifts are the essential natural disaster and there isn't anything man can do to prevent them or to induce them. This is proving more and more untrue, as the frequency of manmade quakes is multiplying, a symbol that the irresponsible actions of big corporations are becoming increasingly destructive for the environment and people all around the world.

Oklahoma is becoming the earthquake capital of the world[edit | edit source]

Oklahoma used to have a very small seismic activity. Previously, only a few earthquakes had reached higher than 3 on the Richter scale every year. However, since 2008 the rhythm of the quakes has increased dramatically. Up until 2008 there were around 2 earthquakes of magnitude 3 or above a year, now there are at least two a day. In 2015, 907 shakes higher than 3 on the Richter scale rocked the “Sooner State” - that's 9 times more than in 2013, making Oklahoma home to the highest number of earthquakes in the world ! And these earthquakes are showing no signs of slowing down. Instead, they seem to be getting stronger and stronger. The year 2016 started with magnitude 4.1 earthquake and on February 13, an Oklahoma earthquake hit 5.1 on the Richter scale. It was the third strongest quake the state had ever known. As public concern grows, the ones responsible for this increase are clearly the oil and gas industry which has been tearing up Oklahoma’s soil with the toxic water used for fracking.

A direct link between fracking and earthquakes[edit | edit source]

It's sickening to witness that big corporations haven't listened at all to the numerous warnings about the dangers of fracking. This level of carelessness is clearly criminal. The main problem is that when oil or gas companies use hydraulic fracturing to get to gas or oil, they are left with huge amount of salty and toxic wastewater that they have to dispose of. What they do is reinject the water into underground wells, but when these wells are close to fault lines, they contribute to increasing the seismic activity. This correlation was established in 2015 by the US Geological Survey :“Earthquake activity has sharply increased since 2009 in the central and eastern United States. The increase has been linked to industrial operations that dispose of wastewater by injecting it into deep wells.” According to this study, the amount of wastewater injected along fault lines has gone through the roof, jumping from 849 million barrels in 2009 to 1.538 billion in 2014. That's about 160 million barrels pumped into Oklahoma’s soil every month ! This is directly correlated with the tremendous increase in seismic activity in the state. Indeed, the three areas that have known the biggest rise in earthquake frequency are all around the Arbuckle formation. And that is where the corporations have increased the injected wastewater amounts the most. In 2007 they injected 1.6 million barrels a month into the ground, but today this figure has reached a whopping 33 million barrels ! There is no questions that oil and gas companies are directly responsible for these earthquakes that are becoming more frequent and more dangerous for the people of Oklahoma. The real question is why hasn't the state government reacted to this direct threat and made the corporations stop these actions.

An incredibly slow state government reaction[edit | edit source]

Even though the increase of seismic activity has been going on for years, Oklahoma's authorities have been extraordinarily reluctant to take a stand against oil and gas companies. This can be explained by the pressure exerted by major Oklahoma-based companies to silence those that dared to make a link between fracking and the earthquakes. Ecowatch has documented how billionaire Harold Hamm tried to intimidate geologists into downplaying the importance of wastewater injections in the increase of earthquakes frequency and intensity. This pressure was doubtless put on state officials as well in order to stall preventive measures that would have impeded fracking activity. Finally, once the 2015 US Geological Survey established the link and earthquakes kept rattling the state, Oklahoman authorities had to admit the truth. But they have still been amazingly sluggish in laying down the law and taking the steps necessary to stop the wastewater injections that are enhancing seismicity. It's only at the beginning of February, one year after the 2015 report, that the first decisions have been taken. The Oklahoma Corporation Commission has finally devised a plan to reduce the amount of wastewater disposed of in the underground wells. This plan covers about 5,000 square miles and nearly 250 injection wells. The operators of these wells will have to reduce the amount of produced water that goes in. The overall reduction should represent 40 % of current levels. However, this is clearly insufficient because even a reduced amount of injected wastewater will continue to be a major hazard for the people of Oklahoma, but it's at least a step in the right direction. At last.

A disaster that has driven citizens to lawsuits[edit | edit source]

In January, a group of 14 homeowners of Edmont, Oklahoma, filed a suit against 12 different energy companies involved in fracking in Oklahoma. These citizens are suing for damages as the earthquakes induced by the fracking damaged their homes and put their lives at risk. One of the families' houses was shaken so bad the chimney toppled and crashed through the roof, which had the potential to severely injure or kill the people inside the home. The accusers rightly claim that the companies have been “negligent, careless, and reckless” in dealing with the earthquake risk. The result of their actions is “severe and permanent damage to their persons and property”, namely “cracked and broken interior and exterior walls” , “movement of the foundations beneath their dwellings” and also “mental and emotional anguish, fear, and worry.” However, this lawsuit can only bring the companies to compensate the damage, and not order them to stop their hazardous fracking.

Sierra Club's lawsuit to resolve the crisis[edit | edit source]

That's why the Sierra Club has started another lawsuit, not to ask for damages, but to make the oil and gas companies stop their actions. The Sierra Club's attorney, Richard Webster, contends that the fracking and injection of wastewater violates the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. This federal law regulates the management and disposal of waste in the United States. Even though this law is usually applied to contamination cases and has never yet been used in the way Richard Webster intends to. “This is clearly a waste disposal activity, and it’s very clear these are waste disposal laws, so it’s at the heart of what RCRA covers as a statute,” he said. “We realize although that hasn’t been done before, there’s no reason why we can’t do it.” The aim of the lawsuit is to drive three companies, New Dominion, Chesapeake Operating and Devon Energy, to reduce the amount of water reinjected. This is a great goal because as we have seen, the Oklahoma state's target is not ambitious enough and pressure should be maintained to achieve a bigger reduction of injected wastewater. This is the only way to significantly reduce the seismic hazard in the state. The other aim is to make the companies strengthen structures that are vulnerable to seismic activity, in order to anticipate and prevent further environmental damage. Indeed, it's time for these companies to stop playing the sorcerer's apprentice and to start taking measures to take charge of the disasters they cause on a daily basis. Finally, the Sierra Club demands the creation of a state body to monitor the disposal wells and safely establish the maximum amount of wastewater that can be reinjected without endangering the lives of the people. As Johnson Bridgwater, the head of Oklahoma's Sierra Club chapter, put it : “The dangers associated with fracking and its related processes has never been more clear than it is here in Oklahoma”, “Oklahomans, just as all Americans do, deserve the right to live in peace and comfort—not to live in fear of man-made earthquakes. It is our hope that these three companies will recognize the immediate danger they are putting communities in, and put our health and our environment ahead of its profits.”

Because of fracking, Oklahoma has become the world capital of earthquakes and the situation can only get worse if oil and gas companies are not checked. Citizens and environmental groups have taken up the fight against corporations and have driven the state to establish safer regulations for the Oklahomans. But this is only the first part of that fight, fracking is just not a safe way to produce energy and the sooner Americans turn their backs on it and fossil fuel in general, the sooner they will finally be able to live in health and safety.