An earthquake measuring 4.0 on the Richter scale hit Youngstown, Ohio, Dec. 31. This was the most recent of 11 earthquakes to have hit the former steel production area since March 2011. Many now believe that processes associated with fracking have been causing the quakes. The quake “was centered near a well that has been used for the disposal of millions of gallons of brine and other waste liquids produced at natural-gas wells.”
State Sen. Bob Hagan, a labor supported Democrat of Youngstown, called for a statewide moratorium on the wells used in fracking directly after the quake.
An indefinite moratorium was declared for the wells in the Youngstown area.
Rob Nichols, a spokesman for Gov. Kasich, dismissed Sen. Hagan’s idea, saying, “That would be the equivalent of shutting down the auto industry because a scrap tire dump caught fire somewhere.”
Sen. Hagan also called for Republican Gov. John Kasich to and William Batchelder, a Republican and Speaker of the House, to hold joint hearings.
Mark Hanson of the Ohio Department of Natural resources says fracking is not to blame. Instead, he suggested that the quakes were caused by waste from the process being injected into the earth.
“Ohio needs – and does not have – reasonable but effective rules to govern fracking,” according to an editorial by the conservative Youngstown Vindicator. “A new report ominously suggests that the natural-gas industry is making big political contributions, in Ohio and in Congress, as part of a successful decade-long lobbying campaign to escape proper oversight of fracking.”
The idea that fracking and associated activities result in earthquakes isn’t entirely new. In fact, a company in England even took responsibility for causing several small earthquakes.
An online video chat sponsored by the U.S. Department of the Interior addressed the question Aug. 26, 2011, in a discussion about the Aug. 23 East Coast earthquake.
“We know that the fracking process, that’s where we’re inducing fractures into rock within a well in order to increase the ability to extract things from the rock,” said Dr. Mike Blanpied, associate coordinator of the U.S. Geologic Survey’s Earthquake Hazards Program in the video. “That process can cause very small earthquakes but the fracking process doesn’t really, we don’t think, induce large earthquakes.”
However, Blanpied continued, “The thing that can induce large earthquakes is the high pressure fluid injection, waste fluid injection, that’s done in some places.” Blanpied went on to note that this was not the cause of the Aug. 23 earthquake, and that “the connection between fracking and fluid injection and earthquakes is an area of active research and really we’re only starting to learn about how those things are connected.”
Fracking is done to bring natural gas from far below the earth’s surface. To do so, extractors must drill far into the earth, and then extend a pipe out horizontally for up to a mile. At the tip of the drill bore, explosives are detonated while millions of gallons of water and chemicals are forced in. The explosion fractures the rock, and the water forces the gas back towards the well.
These underground explosions also likely trigger the small earthquakes that have been associated with fracking. The 4.0 magnitude earthquake in Ohio is likely to have been caused by waste fluid injection.
According to an article in the Christian Science Monitor, quoted on the website of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a way of getting rid of polluted waste fluids created by fracking is to force them back underground, into the very rock formations from which gas was extracted. However, the fluids can possibly end up into natural faults and “act like a hydraulic jack, separating locked sections enough to allow them to slip.”
More studies are being conducted on the relationship of fracking to earthquakes as well as other environmental problems. In early December, the Environmental Protection Agency reported the initial findings of a study into the effects of hydraulic fracturing on a Montana aquifer. According to the report, findings indicated that “ground water in the aquifer contains compounds likely associated with gas production practices, including hydraulic fracturing.”
The EPA is also conducting a longer-term study on the impact on drinking water.