Several media outlets were quick to cover a minor correlation between hydraulic fracturing and tiny earthquakes too weak to be felt by humans detected by Pennsylvania environmental regulators.
The Associated Press reported the quakes are “likely” correlated with fracking, and Bloomberg reported a “flurry” of quakes occurred because of fracking. One local outlet claimed the small quakes “shook portions of Lawrence County.”
But Pennsylvania regulators were more cautious than media reports suggest. Regulators said the quakes were a series of five very minor tremors, measuring between 1.8 and 2.3 on the Richter scale — below the threshold at which earthquakes can be felt. The quakes were loosely correlated with fracking based on timing, regulators found.
“Induced seismicity is a relatively new and complex technical issue,” Patrick McDonnell, acting secretary of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), said in a press statement. “This report reflects our commitment to understand what occurred, through extensive review with scientific and industry partners, and to formulate procedures to reduce seismic risk going forward.”
DEP’s report clearly states the primary reason for linking the quakes to fracking is timing. The report notes that there “is no definitive geologic association of events” between the quakes and fracking.
Hilcorp, the drilling company that owns the fracking wells regulators associated with the quakes, was using an unusual technique called “zipper fracturing.” The company stopped fracking immediately after the quakes, and has no plans to resume operations.
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 or below generally cannot be felt. An earthquake that measures 3.0 on the Richter scale releases 31 times the energy of a 2.0 quake and has a shaking amplitude 10 times larger than that of a 2.0 quake.
This isn’t the first time media outlets have misled their readers about the science on this issue.
Forbes, Newsweek, the Dallas Morning News, Bloomberg and ABC News have all claimed a direct link between fracking and dangerous earthquakes. ABC News cited “experts” who claimed fracking caused a major earthquake in Oklahoma, despite contradictory evidence from federal regulators. When asked by The Daily Caller News Foundation to identify these so-called experts, ABC did not.
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) says in the very first sentence of its list of earthquakes myths and misconceptions that “fracking is NOT causing most of the induced earthquakes,” further clarifying that “wastewater disposal is the primary cause of the recent increase in earthquakes.”
The “controversial method of hydraulic fracturing or fracking, even though that may be used in the drilling, is not physically causing the shakes,” USGS researcher William Ellsworth told The Associated Press.
Dr. Matthew Hornback, a professor of geophysics at Southern Methodist University, told lawmakers in May, “[W]e’re not talking at all about fracking. In fact, it’s been driving us crazy, frankly, that people keep using it in the press,” when asked if fracking causes significant earthquakes.
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