Environmental groups and media outlets misrepresented a recently-published government study on man-made tremors. Activists say the study shows hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is putting seven million lives at risk from induced earthquakes, but that’s not what the government study actually says.
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) released a study Monday, which analyzed the risks of man-made earthquakes in America. The study included the caveat that man-made earthquakes likely don’t cause damage and stated that humans are “only rarely the cause of felt earthquakes.” The USGS report never referenced fracking, and stated several times that “[w]astewater disposal is the primary cause of the recent increase in [man-made] earthquakes in the central United States.”
The study’s conclusions closely mirror those of top geologists.
Media including The Washington Post and Bloomberg misrepresented the USGS report and promptly resorted to fear-mongering, claiming that scientists “do not know if there is an upper limit on the magnitude of induced earthquakes” and linking the quakes to fracking. Media outlets glossed over the study’s limited risks and specification that fracking wasn’t causing the quakes and ran headlines claiming millions of people were at risk.
The media’s inaccurate claims were quickly amplified by environmentalists and progressive groups online. The national online organizer of The Sierra Club took to Twitter to claim that a map from the study showed the hazards of fracking and was promptly approvingly retweeted by the organization’s official account. The progressive media blog ThinkProgress actually claimed that fracking was directly linked to dangerous earthquakes, according to studies it declined to cite.
“While some are using the USGS report to link earthquakes to hydraulic fracturing, that’s simply not the case,” Chris Warren, a spokesman for the Institute for Energy Research, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “The seismic activity from the practice of hydraulic fracturing is so minuscule that it’s been compared a car driving by. Those claiming hydraulic fracturing is causing significant seismic activity are either uninformed or pushing a political agenda.”
The USGS states that “[h]ydraulic fracturing, commonly known as ‘fracking’, does not appear to be linked to the increased rate of magnitude 3 and larger earthquakes.”
Earthquakes are measured on a logarithmic scale, and the difference between whole numbers on the scale is huge. A 9.0 quake can devastate a country, while a 3.0 quake generally cannot be felt except under extremely unusual circumstances, such as standing on the highest floors of a skyscraper. The force of a 3.0 quake is far less than the amount of energy necessary to make a plastic chair fall over.
Fracking earthquake myths from environmentalists are so widespread that the USGS, which created the map, actually maintains a “Myths and Misconceptions” section of its website to debunk them. The very first myth the USGS corrects says, “[f]racking is NOT causing most of the induced earthquakes. Wastewater disposal is the primary cause of the recent increase in earthquakes in the central United States.”
Wastewater disposal can cause small earthquakes, but are several orders of magnitude smaller than the kind of earthquakes that can actually do serious damage. Additionally, under one percent of wastewater injection wells are linked to earthquakes of any kind.
Injecting wastewater underground is on its way out regardless. As previously reported by The DCNF in late January, a West Virginia company has developed a method to purify wastewater so it can be reused, or discharged into a nearby river under environmental permit. The company separates out various salts and other products of fracking processes, then re-sells them for use in the chemical manufacturing industry.
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