What many lawmakers see as a key component of America’s future energy supply is leaving residents of many states quite literally quaking in their sleep, as fallout from aggressive natural gas exploration hit the country in frightening and unexpected ways.
Scientific experts have determined that a series of strong earthquakes in a region of Ohio not generally prone to seismic events have been caused by activities related to natural gas extraction through a process known as “fracking.”
The use of “fracking” has skyrocketed as the demand for natural gas has increased dramatically amid high oil prices and a wave of political support .
It’s long been controversial because of serious concerns over water contamination, but no one had imagined the aggressive use of the procedure could lead to artificial earthquakes. But that is the case in the area outside of Youngstown, Ohio where multiple quakes have rocked residents since last spring.
The highlight of the quake storm was a 4.0 temblor that hit on New Year’s Eve, leading to an investigation that caused scientists to assign blame for the tremors to numerous new fracking operations in the area.
Residents of Youngstown, Ohio, received an extra surprise on Christmas Eve and again on New Year’s Eve—earthquakes, measuring 2.7 and 4.0 on the Richter scale, respectively. No one was injured and only a few cases of minor damage were reported after the Dec. 31 event.
Scientists have quickly determined that the likely cause was fracking—although not from drilling into deep shale or cracking it with pressured water and chemicals to retrieve natural gas. Rather, they suspect the disposal of wastewater from those operations, done by pumping it back down into equally deep sandstone.
Fracking is part of a nationwide boom in the production of natural gas, which is a ready replacement for home heating oil and could lessen dependence on foreign fossil fuels if vast underground shales could be hydraulically fractured. Opposition to fracking has arisen mostly out of fear that the technique could potentially contaminate drinking water supplies.
Nine small earthquakes had already occurred between March and November 2011 within an eight-kilometer radius of a wastewater injection well run by Northstar Disposal Services.
With the citizens of the region obviously concerned over the string of big shakes, state officials stepped in to review the gas extraction process operated by the Northstar corporation. Mysterious temblors have managed to achieve what conventional fears over environmental risks have not; bring a government-mandated halt to fracking.
More and more ties between the string of Youngstown quakes and local natural gas extraction have built a high level of concern over the long-term effects of fracking among the citizenry, state officials and national seismic experts. As natural gas operations are “ramping up” in the state, experts say more needs to be done to investigate the science between the fracking process and consequences both above and below ground.
Earthquake data show a link between the earthquake and a nearby disposal well where “fracking” fluids used in oil and gas drilling sites are injected deep underground. The fracking process injects millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals to shatter shale and release the trapped oil and gas. The fluid that comes back up with the oil and gas — it’s called brine — is being disposed of in these injection wells.
While opponents of fracking have complained about environmental threats that the chemicals pose, earthquakes add a new wrinkle.
“The whole industry of fracking is a big business that’s ramping up,” said John Armbruster, a Columbia University seismologist whose research linked the well to the quakes.
“Things need to be monitored as this whole business starts pulling a whole lot out of the earth in one place and puts a whole lot back in another.”
Before the earth started moving, Ohio was indeed “ramping up” corporate exploration and extraction of natural gas in the state. “Pro-business” lawmakers and a newly elected Republican governor pushed ahead with state support for fracking despite a long list of environmental concerns. Natural gas was pegged as a major growth industry in the Buckeye State, with massive drilling operations taking over the bucolic farmland of rural areas of the state.
The story has been similar across the country. The mania over natural gas has been pervasive as gas prices keep rising and the unemployment rate remains too high for most Americans. Oil and gas companies, along with their political allies, have been selling expansion of natural gas exploration — and fracking — in seemingly every corner of the country, touting it as a cheaper and more stable alternative to foreign oil.
Political support has been rampant for natural gas. With the “pro-business” tagline something every candidate and lawmakers seeks these days, the rush to greenlight an unprecedented expansion of natural gas drilling in the United States has been virtually unopposed.
Last year, the Obama administration bucked concerns from the environmentalist and scientific community by issuing a report endorsing shale gas exploration and the “fracking” process in the US, a move that will likely generate a huge boom in gas exploration.
A key Energy Department advisory panel will issue a qualified endorsement of shale gas exploration Thursday, saying that hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” can continue safely as long as companies disclose more about their practices and monitor their environmental impact.
The committee’s report could ease the way for greater domestic gas exploration, even as it calls for new standards to limit harmful air emissions that bring to the surface gas buried deep in shale formations. But the report is largely silent on the most contentious issue surrounding shale gas exploration: who should regulate it, and whether regulators should apply to it laws such as the Safe Drinking Water Act.
It’s an election year, and any industry seen as “creating jobs” is almost guaranteed to be featured by one or more of the candidates. resident Obama’s likely Republican opponent in November is no exception.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has made an increase in production of and reliance on American natural gas a centerpiece of his campaign’s energy platform. Romney has slammed the EPA for seeking to regulate fracking and investigate the potential consequences to health and clean water caused by gas production, calling the agency “out of control.”
Romney’s beef with the EPA stems from a new report issued by the agency that is seen by some activists and scientists as a turning point in the national fight over fracking. The EPA determined that shale gas operations and fracking pollutes drinking water in regions surrounding gas production.
The ruling has yet to have a major impact on fracking since regulation is currently in the hands of individual states leading to virtually no oversight in many instances. But the opinion gives considerable ammunition to its opponents and has been met with alarm and condemnation by the oil and gas giants — many foreign-owned — that dominate US shale gas production.
Fluids used to drill for natural gas likely polluted an aquifer in Wyoming, U.S. regulators said on Thursday, offering the first evidence since 1987 that chemicals used in fracking have contaminated drinking water supplies.
The draft report of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s investigation into the polluted aquifer could have wide implications on a booming industry that has promoted hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, as way to boost U.S. gas and oil production and slash imports. It contradicts industry claims that fracking fluids have never contaminated drinking water.
The agency said “the best explanation” for the pollution was that fluids from underground hydraulic fracturing migrated up from fracking operations and contaminated the aquifer. “The presence of these compounds is consistent with migration from areas of gas production,” it said.
EnCana Corp of Canada, which owns the natural gas field in Pavillion, Wyoming, slammed the report. “The synthetic chemicals could just as easily have come from contamination when the EPA did their sampling, or from how they constructed their monitoring wells,” said Doug Hock, a company spokesman.
A more recent EPA report echoes longstanding concerns over the potential for water pollution in areas with heavy fracking operations. New York State’s new natural gas regulations, set to coincide with a boom in drilling, were criticized by the federal government this week for being too lenient and missing key components meant to protect water supplies. Though without regulatory authority, the agency’s findings could lead New York to consider changes to its policy.
Left to be seen is how the new worries cropping up over earthquakes and fracking impact the future of the industry. Gas exploration is surging throughout the US, but the links between fracking and quakes are seen as highly likely and go well beyond the Ohio incidents.
Besides the Youngstown tremors, recent episodes of repetitive earthquakes in Oklahoma are under suspicion for being caused by shale gas production in that state. Problems with fracking and quakes are “only going to grow” as exploration increases, say scientists.
Recent earthquakes in Ohio and Oklahoma have been directly linked to deep wells used to dispose of liquid wastes for hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” of natural gas, according to geological experts.
And they expect more earthquakes to come as the industry continues to expand across the eastern United States.
A boom in gas production using hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” of natural gas has played a role in decreasing US dependence on foreign oil and coal and helped cut energy prices, but evidence is mounting that the process may come at a price.
“To the extent that our nation wants to become independent of meeting its energy needs in the coming years, the increased earthquakes are going to go along with that,” said Art McGarr, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif. “The problems are only going to grow in the future.”
State officials closed disposal wells around a brine-injection well after a magnitude 4.0 quake rumbled through the Youngstown, Ohio, on New Year’s Eve day. That was the 11th earthquake in 2011 in the region, which is not considered seismically active. Experts are also investigating a 5.6 magnitude earthquake east of Oklahoma City that has been linked to gas drilling there, McGarr said.
Even more concerning is the possibility, though remote, that last summer’s nearly 6.0 earthquake the shook the East Coast and caused minimal damage from its Virginia epicenter all the way to the Washington Monument was brought about by fracking.
A very low probability for seismic events of the magnitude of the August temblor combined with a rise in regional shale gas production have led some to theorize that such a disaster may have been caused by the fracking associated with gas exploration.
Experts are looking for a reason behind Tuesday afternoon’s unlikely 5.8 magnitude earthquake that shook people up and down the East Coast, and some are saying that a recent rise in fracking could be the culprit.
Multi-stage fracking, which can drill several miles deep in the Earth, has only become prevalent in recent years. Once introduced, however, Arkansas, West Virginia and Texas all saw an unexpected increase in quakes across the region. The correlation has caused concern in other parts of the country, including West Virginia, where residents are asking lawmakers to reconsider the legality of fracking, which can not only cause earthquakes but is overall detrimental to the local ecosystem. One incident in central Virginia occurred in 2008 when fracking caused an explosion of a natural gas pipeline that created a fireball that stretched up to half a mile long and tall and injured five people.
Mineral, VA, the site of Tuesday’s quake’s epicenter, is only 90 miles from the West Virginia border, where activists are rallying to change the lax state legislation which has caused companies to conduct fracking operations more and more and recent years.