Does fracking cause earthquakes?

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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Environmentalists have been stoking fears that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is causing earthquakes in California, but the evidence suggests otherwise.

The Los Angeles Times ran a piece on Tuesday titled “Did ‘fracking’ play role in L.A. earthquake? Councilmen want to know.” Los Angeles city council members want answers in the wake of an earthquake that rattled the city on Monday morning.

The liberal news site Mother Jones ran with the headline “Was the Los Angeles Earthquake Caused by Fracking Techniques?” The article notes that seismologists doubt fracking had anything to do with the LA quake, but environmentalists argue that fracking could be a culprit.

A report called “Shaky Ground” from Clean Water Action, Earthworks and the Center for Biological Diversity argues that the oil industry is increasing California’s earthquake risk by drilling close to active faults. The report finds that “more than half of the state’s permitted oil wastewater injection wells are located less than 10 miles from an active fault, and 87 of them, or about 6 percent, are located within a mile of an active fault,” writes Mother Jones.

Monday’s earthquake came from the northern edge of the Santa Monica Mountains, an area that doesn’t see much seismic activity, lending fuel to the flames for environmentalists who argue fracking will cause more earthquakes.

But the evidence shows that fracking has little to no influence on seismic activity in California. Fracking involves injecting sand, water and chemicals into underground shale formations to extract oil and gas. Fracking operations generally pressurize a small amount of rock for about two hours which causes extremely small microseismic events, but nothing close to earthquakes.

“The energy released by one of these tiny microseismic events is equivalent to the energy of a gallon of milk hitting the floor after falling off a kitchen counter,” said Stanford university Geophysicist Mark Zoback, who was an Obama administration Energy Department advisor.

“Needless to say, these events pose no danger to the public,” Zoback added.

A peer-reviewed 2012 study on fracking in the Inglewood Oil Field in Los Angeles County found that “the high-volume hydraulic fracturing and high-rate gravel packs had no detectable effects on vibration, and did not induce seismicity (earthquakes).”

The National Research Council, which is part of the National Academy of Sciences, also found last year that fracking poses a low risk for “inducing felt seismic events.”

“Shales have very low permeability that prevent these fluids from easily flowing into a well bore, and so wells may be drilled horizontally and hydraulically fractured to allow hydrocarbons to flow up the well bore,” the National Research Council wrote. “Hydraulic fracturing to date has been confirmed as the cause for small, felt seismic events at one location in the world. The process of hydraulic fracturing a well as presently implemented for shale gas recovery does not pose a high risk for inducing felt seismic events.”

“We also find that there is no evidence to suggest that hydraulic fracturing itself is the cause of the increased rate of earthquakes,” wrote David Hayes, deputy secretary of the Interior Department, in a 2012 report.

Even the LA Times and Mother Jones note that fracking is likely not the culprit behind California’s earthquake this week. U.S. Geological Survey seismologist Lucy Jones told the LA Times that, “[i]nduced earthquakes are almost always shallower than [Monday’s quake].”

Mother Jones also spoke to a spokesman for the agency overseeing the California Geological Survey, who said “that state seismologists don’t think that the injection well was close enough to make a difference.”

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