Fracking may be inducing earthquakes [Commentary]

The perennial jokes about California being sloughed off into the Pacific when the next big earthquake strikes may soon give way to laugh lines about Oklahoma shaking, quaking and sinking into the earth.

A place once known for rodeos, tornados and dust storms where earthquakes used to be rare, Oklahoma now tops all 50 states in the number of tremors per year. This sudden, startling rise in the incidence of earthquakes would seem mystifying if not for the explanation scientists have come up with. The difference between today and the days when the ground only shook on game day at Sooners stadium? Fracking.


Hydraulic fracturing, to use the more formal term for the drilling process, is being used in many states to extract hard-to-get oil and gas. A watery brew is forced into shale deposits and other deep places where the fossil fuels are hiding and the oil or gas is pushed to the surface. The fuel goes one way and the water goes another -- a huge amount of wastewater that, as production increases, is closing in on a trillion gallons annually.

All that dirty H2O has to be disposed of somewhere and much of it is being spilled into injection wells that flood down into ancient faults in the earth. In Oklahoma, some of the fracking wastewater has been going into the 320 million-year-old Wilzetta Fault. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, there was not a chance in a million that the old fault line would ever start shaking things up again, yet it has, in a big and violent way.


The theory is that the wastewater is creating friction in dormant rifts, thereby inducing earthquakes that never would have happened, otherwise. Before 2008, Oklahoma experienced only a handful of quakes. By 2010, the state was experiencing "earthquake swarms" totaling more than 1,000. Other states, including Ohio, Arkansas, Kansas, Colorado and Texas, have also suddenly become earthquake zones. The common denominator is wastewater disposal from fracking.

Arkansas has placed a moratorium on wastewater dumping in certain areas, and Ohio now requires seismic studies before issuing permits for injection wells. In March, regulators from Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma met to discuss tougher standards on an industry that is barely touched by government rules. Meanwhile, oil and gas industry bosses are in denial or in hiding. In the process of doing a story on wastewater disposal and earthquakes, a reporter for Mother Jones was unable to get a comment from anyone in the industry, save for one executive who said those claiming to know the cause of the Oklahoma quakes are "either lying to your face or they're idiots."

Those idiots include a number of respected scientists, but the industry is busy hiring their own pliant scientists to concoct arguments about why earthquakes cannot be blamed on wastewater disposal. The industry scientists will augment veteran teams of lobbyists in Washington, D.C., and state capitals standing ready to block any restrictions on fracking.

An industry with imposing political power and the ability to induce earthquakes where there should never be earthquakes; now that is a force to be reckoned with -- almost a force of nature.

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Horsey is a political commentator for the Los Angeles Times. Go to see more of his work.