What’s shaking in Oklahoma?
There’s no denying it anymore: fracking does cause earthquakes. So what does that mean for the oil and gas industry going forward? Should the information being laid out by federal and state geological surveys act as a catalyst for stricter oversight? Or should oil and gas companies take it upon themselves to limit the risks that their activities pose to local residents and property?
The answer, as usual, is a mix of both.
To be clear, the problem is not fracking per se. The problem is how oil and gas companies deal with salty wastewater that is produced as a result of fracking operations. When oil and gas companies pump fracking fluid into shale rock to release oil and gas, it naturally produces thousands of gallons of wastewater, which the industry then pumps back into the ground underneath freshwater deposits injection wells. This, as it turns out, can cause earthquakes. A lot of them. The Oklahoma Geological Survey (OGS) said when they released their report last week that it now “considers it very likely” that most of the hundreds of earthquakes the state has experience in recent years were “triggered by the injection of produced water in disposal wells.”
The U.S. Geological Survey has been no less blunt, saying that it is “very clear” that wastewater injection can cause faults to move. The research also comes a few days after the journal Nature Communications
The findings have prompted media outlets to reveal the sometimes awkward relationship between the academic community and the oil and gas industry, a reliable source of donations to some of the country’s biggest research universities. Austin Holland, a seismologist at the OGS, has suggested that he was pressured by Continental Resources CEO Harold Hamm when researching the link between oil and gas operations and earthquakes, who told Holland to “be careful” when publicly discussing the possible connection between oil and gas operations and an increase in earthquakes, with Holland calling the conversation “a little bit intimidating.”
Industry advocates maintain that such discussions are informational and harmless, however they do underscore the fact that oil and gas companies currently see a vested interest, from both a corporate and public PR perspective, in seeing such information reflect them in the best possible light. The American Petroluem Institute, for example, hasn’t officially acknowledged the link between fracking and earthquakes, instead diplomatically suggesting that it is working with scientists and regulators in order to “better understand” the issue and come up with collaborative solutions.
Regulators have a role to play in all of this, and some already have taken action. The problem with addressing the issue through regulations, though, is that regulations are fickle. They can be undone as easily as they are enacted, whether its through a new administration, a popular vote, or a court decision. Townships in Ohio, for example, recently enacted a series of zoning regulations on fracking over its link to a recent uptick in earthquakes, however those decisions were overturned by the state Supreme Court.
The quickest, and arguably most effective, way to deal with the problem will be for oil and companies to take the bull by the horns and address the risks head on. One such way can be to finally acknowledge, both to regulators and the public, that the risks posed by these operations are real, and then to adopt best practices that help mitigate these risks as much as humanely possible. That means the industry should ensure that they are utilizing the most up-to-date geological information available, not trying to shush it. That means creating new engineering standards for injection wells, as well as creating new industry rules for where such wells are drilled, how deep they go, how big they are, and what type of equipment is used to drill them. In addition, the industry needs to work with state regulatory agencies, not against them, in defining what these new standards should be, including accepting that seismic activity should be taken into account when allowing new disposal wells, as Arkansas recently did after it saw a surge in earthquakes north of Little Rock in 2010, and is now virtually earthquake-free.
So while its not quite time for everyone to heed suggestions by the environmental lobby that fracking be stopped entirely, now that the link between fracking and earthquakes has been established, its about time that the industry get its head out of the sand and do something about it, before a risk of increased earthquakes becomes more than a risk.