States where hydraulic fracturing is taking place has seen a surge in earthquake activity leading many to believe that the method could be to blame in particular the wells where wastewater is disposed of. According to Emily Schmall and Justin Juozapavicius, States With Fracking See Surge In Earthquake Activity, fracking creates far more wastewater than traditional drilling methods. The water is pumped thousands of feet underground into injections wells and no one knows what happens to the liquid after that. Scientists wonder whether this action triggers quakes by increasing underground pressure and lubricating faults. Since January, Oklahoma has recorded nearly 250 small to medium earthquakes according to stats kept by the U.S. Geological Survey. That’s almost half of the magnitude 3 or higher earthquakes recorded this year in the continental U.S. A study published in the journal of Science earlier this month suggest that four wells injecting massive amounts of drilling wastewater into the ground are shaking up the state accounting for one out of five quakes from the eastern border of Colorado to the Atlantic coast. Another concern expressed was whether injection well operators could be pumping too much water into the ground or pumping it at high pressures. Most of the quakes where injection wells are clustered are too weak to cause serious damage or endanger lives, however, some states including Ohio, Oklahoma, and California have introduced new rules compelling drillers to measure the volumes and pressures of their injections wells and monitor seismic activity during fracking operations. No injuries or deaths have been reports, but varying degrees of property damage have been reported e.g Azle, Texas had hundreds of small quakes since activity began and residents reported sinkholes and cracks in the walls of homes and air and water quality concerns. In addition, two structures collapsed during Oklahoma’s 5.7 magnitude quake in 2011. Studies more than 50 years old have linked injection wells to tremors in Colorado, while similar studies in central Oklahoma, Ohio and North Texas have found probable links between injection wells and quakes. According to Dana Bohan with Energy In Depth, a research and education arm of the Independent Petroleum Association of American, a Washington based group representing thousands of oil and gas producers, said wastewater injection disposal does risk inducing quakes.
According to the 24th annual report released by Natural Resources Defense Council, one in 10 U.S. beaches are dangerously polluted making them unsafe for swimmers. The environmental advocacy nonprofit collected 3,500 water samples from American beaches and evaluated the specimens using the Environmental Protection Agency’s new water safety standard known as Beach Action Value. The BAV sets the threshold for water quality at American beaches to protect swimmers from pollution mostly from sewage overflow and contaminated storm water runoff, the HuffPost’s Sara Gates reports in her article 1 In 10 U.S. Beaches Are So Polluted They’re Not Safe For Swimming. NRDC senior attorney Jon Devine explained to USA Today that: “Results in this year show uptick in failure rate at 10 percent nationwide, but this reflects a newer, more health-protected (standard of safety test). If we were to compare to the old defunct standard, it would have been about 7 percent of samples; which tells us we’re stagnating in terms of progress of water protection.” Gates reports, according to the finding, the NRDC found 17 repeat offenders or beaches that failed the public heath standard in more than 25 percent of its water quality samples in the past 5 years e.g. several polluted beaches in Indiana, New York and Ohio. Ranking the highest in polluted beaches was the Great Lakes followed by the Gulf Coast and New England. As for the least polluted, the NRDC labeled 35 U.S. beaches as all stars as they all met the national benchmark for water quality 98 percent of the time over the last five years including waterfronts in 14 states such as California and Virginia.
While water pollution is a major concern all over the world especially the United States, fracking has become increasingly worrisome as the frequency of earthquake increases in areas where earthquakes rarely happened, if at all, e.g vast stretches of prairie across Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma. In recent years, Oklahoma has recorded nearly 150 earthquakes between January and the start of May with most being too weak to cause serious damage or endanger lives. However, these temblors have rattled nerves and raised suspicions enough to start to question their connection with the oil and gas drilling method known as hydraulic fracturing especially the wells in which the industry disposes of its wastewater, according to Emily Schmalland Kristi Eaton’s article States Confront Worries About Fracking And Earthquakes. Due to the increasing complaints from residents over the years, governments in three states are confronting the issue by reviewing scientific data, holding public discussion and possibly implementing new regulations. The states with few earthquakes historically are trying to reconcile scientific data with the interests of their citizens and the oil and gas companies. Regulators from each state met in March in Oklahoma City to exchange earthquake information and discuss toughening standards for the lightly regulated business of fracking water disposal. In Azle, Texas where hundreds of small quakes have happened, the residents went to the state Capitol earlier in the year to demand action by the Railroad Commission who are the chief oil and gas regulators. In response, the commission hired the first ever state seismologist and lawmakers formed the House Subcommittee on Seismic Activity, reports Schmalland and Eaton. After Kansas had 56 earthquakes between last October and April, the governor appointed a three member task force to address the issue.
While the frequency of earthquakes is troubling, fracking also generates large quantities of wastewater even more than traditional drilling methods. The water is pumped into injection wells sending it thousands of feet underground. Scientists wonder whether this process could trigger quakes due to increasing underground pressure or act as lubricant for faults. In addition, injection well operators could be pumping either too much water into the ground or pumping it at exceedingly high pressures e.g data published by the Railroad Commission earlier this month found ExxonMobil subsidiary XTO Energy has pumped 281,000 gallons or 94 tanker truckloads of wastwater into Azle wells every day for two years. In recent weeks, Oklahoma has experienced 145 quakes of 3.0 magnitude or greater from January to May 2,2014, the Oklahoma Geological Survey reports. Fortunately, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin has approved new testing and monitoring regulation for injections wells that take effect in September requiring well operators to collect daily information on well volume and pressure. Nationwide, the United States has more than 150,000 injections wells and only a handful have been proven to induce quakes according to the Society of Petroleum Engineers.
Moving from active drilling and pumping to derelict oil wells and gas wells, a study of the latter in Pennsylvania found that hundreds of thousands in the states may leak methane suggesting that wells across the country may be a bigger source of climate changing greenhouse gases than previously thought. According to Mary Kang’s study, a Princeton University scientist, 19 abandoned wells were found leaking various amounts of methane with hundreds of thousands of such oil and gas wells, abandoned and plugged, in Pennsylvania and many more across the country. The problem Bobby Magill reports, Derelict Oil Wells May Be Major Methane Emitters, is that these wells go unmonitored and are rarely checked for leaks. Over the past three years, numerous studies suggest that crude oil and natural gas development especially in shale formations are significant sources of methane leaks. Scientists believe that there is inadequate data available for them to know where all the leaks are and how much methane is leaking due to the fact the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency greenhouse gas inventory does not fully include these derelict sites as they are not monitored. Over a 100 year span, methane is 34 times more potent as a climate change greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Even more troublesome is its potency over 20 years which is 86 times. Of all the greenhouse gases emitted by humans worldwide, methane is more than 40 percent of all radiative forcing, a measure of trapped heat in the atmosphere and a measuring stick of changing climate. Kang found that the wells leak so much methane that if the leaks from all the abandoned wells in Pennsylvania are added up that the percentage would be between 4 and 13 percent of human caused methane emissions in the state, according to Magill. However, more studies need to be done to fully understand how common the leaking wells are in the state and how much methane they emit. According to the historical record and the study conducted, there are between 280,000 and 970,000 abandoned oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania. Kang found that state regulations are inadequate at controlling methane emissions from abandoned wells due to the rules focusing on containing fluids, not gases and the plugged wells are not required to be monitored closely over time.