The seven earthquakes that rattled Oklahoma on November 30 barely made air-time on local and national news stations.

While no major damage was recorded, perhaps justifying the lack of media attention, one Idaho activist was acutely aware of the event: Alma Hasse of Fruitland, Idaho. A local environmental activist and board member of Citizens Allied for Integrity and Accountability (CAIA), Hasse has been eyeing the pattern of recent quakes in what was formerly a relatively neutral seismic zone, and carefully monitoring related legislation nationwide in her efforts to put an end to the increase in well drilling here in Idaho.

What Hasse and many others have observed is a shocking trend of man-made disasters that are escalating in severity. “The big one is on the horizon my friends — mother nature is about to have her laugh(s),” Hasse recently stated on Facebook in regards to a 4.4 magnitude earthquake three weeks ago.

Over the past five years, parts of Oklahoma have experienced record numbers of small to moderate-sized earthquakes occurring on a near-daily basis. In fact, this year alone, Oklahoma has been jolted by approximately 720 earthquakes greater than magnitude 3.0 — this, in a state that experienced fewer than two such quakes per year before 2009.

Over the past four decades, more than 60 percent of all seismicity (M3.0+) across the central and eastern United States is associated with injection. Read the full USGS study here.

According to a plethora of recent studies by the U.S. Geological Survey and university scientists nationwide, the oil and gas industry’s increased well activity and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) across the Oklahoma is likely to blame. But Oklahoma isn’t the only state facing the consequences of Big Oil’s unproven and rapidly expanding drilling tactics.

CONTROVERSY AND SECRECY

In its most basic form, fracking is the process of drilling either horizontally or vertically into the earth and using a high-pressure water and chemical mixture to release pockets of natural gas through a well opening.

Research has shown that fracking contributes to earthquake occurrences in two ways. First, an increase in earthquake activity has been documented during fracking in proximity to pre-existing faults. Secondarily, the phenomenon is observed along with the disposal of fracking wastewater via underground injection. A third source, often referred to in conjunction with injection wells, is called “water flooding” — a technique which forces millions of gallons of water underground to re-pressurize oilfields that have been depleted into low productivity.

Recent articles and news clippings shared by hacktivist group Anonymous suggest that fracking has been used to dispose of nuclear waste since the 60s.

Fracking Idaho

Jennifer Brooks
Drilling operation, I-84/New Plymouth, ID

For Oklahoma residents — for whom the earthquake trend is palpable — cause for concern stems not just from the seismic events themselves, but also from the lack of support from lawmakers and a noticeable absence of media coverage.

Read the full Stanford study here.

Up until recently, a reliable connection between earthquake activity and fracking had not been clear. However, a new study published by scientists at Stanford University, corroborates recent USGS work and concludes that earthquakes near oil drilling operations are not caused by the fracking process itself, but rather by those operations’ disposal of wastewater in deep rock formations — a process which not only mixes saltwater with deep well oil, but injects hundreds of chemicals into the groundwater, often in close proximity to pre-existing fault lines.

But with the escalating and dangerous situation in Oklahoma’s watery oilfields, the process of hydraulic fracturing is creating undeniable, irreversible changes to earth’s substructure as well. For a better understanding of the oil and gas industry and the threats posed by hydraulic fracturing, check out Josh Fox’s critically-acclaimed personal documentary, GASLAND, or PSR’s recent Compendium on Unconventional Gas and Oil Extraction.According to the study:

Although most of the recent earthquakes have posed little danger to the public, the possibility of triggering damaging earthquakes on potentially active basement faults cannot be discounted.

MORE THAN AN OK PROBLEM

“The global warming impact from methane is 25 times and 72 times that of CO2, for equal amounts by weight, over a 100 year and 20 year timespan, respectively.” — Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Leak report, November 20, 2015

The past few years have seen a dramatic increase in oil and gas operations throughout the country, particularly in New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas and California. There are currently over 500,000 natural gas wells in operation nationwide, led by a combination of small, private operations and mega-corporations like Range Resources and Texas-based Alta Mesa. Yet despite the  industry’s growth and clear environmental impact, these companies often face little to no liability during accidents and have legal grounds to negotiate for complete litigation immunity.

Known as the Halliburton loophole, a provision of the federal Energy Policy Act of 2005, the fracking industry is given exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), as well from portions of the Clean Air and Clean Water acts of 2009. Before taking office, former Vice President Dick Cheney was CEO of Halliburton — the company which patented hydraulic fracturing in the late 1940s. In an unprecedented example of large-scale industry immunity, the clause effectively allows for a drastic reduction in the amount of federal oversight over drilling operations across the nation.

The U.S. Senate voted in January to uphold the Halliburton loophole, leaving regulation of the industry up to the states, and limiting the amount of Underground Injection Control (UIC), particularly with regard to the chemicals used in the fracking process. In Oklahoma, the oil and gas lobby is particularly strong, however, creating a battleground between O&G operations, politicians and concerned citizens.

Just this year, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) signed into law SB-089 — a bill that strips municipalities of their right to regulate oil and gas operations. The bill instead allows for general authority over “oil and gas-related nuisances.”Now, with a total count of 2,171 recorded earthquakes in Oklahoma this year alone (as of November), evidence is mounting that the increase in drilling activity has spawned a surge of fracking-induced seismic events (aka “frackquakes”), which are being documented across a number of websites including the USGS, NewsOK and EarthquakeTrack. What’s more, the seismic activity is taking place across other fracking hotspots, including California, Texas and Kansas, which have seen similar rises in earthquake activity.

The geologic consensus is that earthquakes in Oklahoma, as well as nationwide, will likely increase in magnitude over time as faults become more stressed, especially in areas pumping heavy amounts of wastewater into the ground — often at a rate of 300,000 barrels per minute according to the Stanford study. Video report from StateImpact Oklahoma on the disposal well-earthquake connection.

IS IDAHO THE NEXT OKLAHOMA?

Two wells are flared in McKenzie County, North Dakota to burn off natural gas.

via Tim Evanson
Two wells are flared in McKenzie County, N. Dakota to burn off natural gas.

According to data compiled from the U.S. Geological Survey and a recent EnergyWire analysis, in the past five to seven years, Oklahoma has jumped from being ranked 19th in the nation for seismic activity to second, closely tied with fault hotspot California and second only to Alaska. Idaho, a relatively high seismic state, has been sitting comfortably at the sixth spot in the nation for some time.

But as oil and gas talks intensify and with well drilling already in progress en force throughout Payette and Gem counties, the threat of fracking is clearly on the horizon. Along with it comes the risk of increased earthquake activity, decreased property values and a multitude of other documented side effects, including fatal levels of air and water pollution, excessive resource use and large-scale gas fires, flares and leaks.

U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, a key player in Idaho’s pending nuclear waste debate, has also voiced support of the self-regulated O&G industry.

Mark Waterman of Eagle, Idaho, a seismic enthusiast heavily involved with the earthquake prediction group Stanford Research Institute (SRI), spoke at CAIA’s oil and gas forum in Emmett back in June. He stated that due to Idaho’s unique geologic infrastructure, ” The ground around here is not sub-structured — is not sound enough — to withstand medium-to-large quakes in the Treasure Valley.”

Alta Mesa is currently producing at six different well sites in Payette, and recently requested permission from the Idaho Department of Lands to drill at a seventh – with the additional consideration that the request be kept private due to “security sensitive information.” With operations already running 24/7, and pipelines stretched openly across the Payette River and adjacent to I-84, it seems as though there is little Idaho citizens can do to stem the tide.

Payette River Pipeline

Jennifer Brooks
A natural gas pipeline suspended across the Payette River just outside New Plymouth, Idaho. The open pipeline runs the entire length of the bridge, connecting to a main well on the other side of the river.

To be clear, no fracking has occurred in Idaho yet, and the number of wells that have been drilled so far are only a fraction of those that are in operation in other states. But with tens of thousands of acres already leased throughout Idaho for future drilling operations, the Gem State is quickly catching up to its neighbors. The stage appears to be set for Idaho to move into the age of deep well drilling, despite mounting evidence seen across the nation which cautions against doing so.

Moving forward, as the industry prepares for its next steps and as the back-and-forth tension between well operators, lawmakers, anti-fracking advocates and property-owners intensifies, it is important to consider Idaho’s opportune position as a heretofore bystander in the nation’s politically-charged fracking environment. With our current legislative structure, a shutdown of the oil and gas industry is unlikely. HB 464, which was signed into law in 2012, currently forbids Idaho’s local governments from taking action to prohibit oil and gas drilling.Fortunately, Idaho is uniquely situated to not only be proactive with policy and regulation in the event that current drilling practices expand, but to take a serious look at the volatility of the issue, the potential repercussions and the alternatives based on the examples of other states.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.

  • jeremyboak

    Ms. Brooks might have benefitted by talking to someone in Oklahoma while preparing this story. The state has experienced ~860 earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or greater, but only 28 of magnitude 4.0 or greater. The earthquakes have little to do with hydraulic fracturing. They are related to disposal of produced water from oil and gas bearing formations into other deeper horizons that readily accept the water without elevated pressure injection. Less than 5% of the water is flowback water from hydraulic fracturing operations, as documented in the Stanford paper that Ms Brooks appears to have misunderstood. Water flooding to drive oil to producing wells is not associated with increased seismicity, again, as documented in the Walsh and Zoback paper. These are not frackquakes. They are a result of a disposal of saline water from a particular formation that produces large amounts of water along with the oil and gas. Such high water cuts are by no means unique to hydraulically fractured plays, and many such plays produce far less water.
    Hydraulic fracturing has not been documented to produce fatal air or water pollution, as more than a million wells have been fractured, with only a small number of environmental releases, most readily remediated. The earthquake issue in Oklahoma has received persistent coverage in the news; I have been contacted repeatedly by numerous reporters from across the nation and around the world. The state, through its Corporation Commission has taken significant action resulting in tens of millions of dollars of expenditures by producing companies, and probably equal losses in revenue. The scientific community is actively engaged, both here in Oklahoma and elsewhere.
    Jeremy Boak, Director
    Oklahoma Geological Survey (OGS)
    Viewpoints are my own, not formal positions of the OGS or the University of Oklahoma

    • Missy Abby

      I think you must have read this article with a clear bias going in because it very clearly states that fracking does not directly cause earthquakes — although it seems like the proximity to existing fault lines certainly makes an area more susceptible. But as you noted, it’s primarily the disposal of wastewater that causes “frackquakes,” which is explained in-depth in this piece. You’re suggesting that the two are unrelated and merely coincidental. I’d like to take a moment to rant about how that water injection is highly unethical given our global water crisis… but that’s another issue entirely.

      Stanford’s study, based on my own reading, postulates that the largest earthquake in an area correlates with the total injected volume in the area, as well as preexisting geologic conditions. It also suggests that pore pressure from water injections can travel up to10km, triggering any number of critically stressed faults across a rather large radius (their
      words, not mine). Being that much of the research presented here was also obtained from the USGS, it seems odd that the an OGS rep would be inclined to disagree.

      This article is very well-researched and there are a multitude of additional sources the author cites which conflict with your opinion, but support the information as presented. I,
      for one, am not highly familiar with the oil and gas industry (I’m horrified and yet not surprised that few others have reported on this — Butch Otter has never struck me as an environmental advocate), but it appears that the consensus on seismic activity as it relates to hydraulic fracturing is well-documented.

      Ms.Brooks, excellent job with a challenging topic; it was well-researched from every angle. I only hope more people will see this and take action. Do you have any updates?

      *Idaho native & educator*

      • jeremyboak

        When the earthquakes are referred to as “frackquakes” it already expresses a bias, whether it buries an acknowledgement of the lack of connection of virtually all of Oklahoma’s earthquakes to hydraulic fracturing operations later in the article or not.

        The statement “the oil and gas industry’s increased well activity and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) across the Oklahoma is likely to blame” is half right and half wrong. Hydraulic fracturing across Oklahoma is not to blame. Increased activity in two plays in Oklahoma has generate the produced water that is likely to be causing these earthquakes. If drilling and hydraulic fracturing wastes were the only water being injected in Oklahoma, the seismicity problem would probably be either nonexistent or much smaller than it is. Texas, with lower produced water volumes and much more dispersed injection wells, does have some induced seismicity, but generally only near wells that dispose of more than 100,000 barrels per month (as noted by Cliff Frohlich of UT Austin in numerous reports over the past decade). Frohlich is clearly not an advocate for the industry.

        Deep injection of produced water is probably the safest alternative with respect to protection of ground water, but is now well-recognized as problematic because of the strong potential for induced seismicity.

        I am not sure what opinion I expressed this respondent says is contradicted by the science.

    • Missy Abby

      After doing a little more research today, some of my findings for anyone who is interested:

      1. It appears that while groundwater isn’t contaminated by fracking chemicals (supposedly the water is safely protected by layers of rock), the water that is injected is most certainly laden with toxic substances when it comes back out. This was an interesting, first-hand read: http://www.mintpressnews.com/fracking-pollutes-california-water-as-drought-crisis-worsens/204329/

      2. While fracking air pollution isn’t fatal, it seems its health impacts are well documented as
      too, seen here:
      http://www.nrdc.org/health/fracking-air-pollution.asp
      http://cen.acs.org/articles/93/web/2015/04/Fracking-Activities-Pollute-Nearby-Air.html

      I will be following this situation much more closely after reading these additional sources.

      • jeremyboak

        Note that nearly all oil and gas wells, not just those which have been hydraulically fractured, produce water that is toxic simply because of very high salinity, but also because of naturally occurring concentrations of inorganic elements and compounds, as well as organic compounds from the co-produced oil and gas. For many years these have been disposed of in deep geologic formations. Putting it back into zones which have been out of communication with groundwater for millions of years is one of the best available options. Also, it is important to note that the second paper recorded elevated PAH concentrations around oil and gas operations, which is not different for hydraulically fractured wells than for unfractured wells. PAHs are a common product of combustion of petroleum.

  • Alma Hasse

    Jeremy, you need to study up. There HAVE been earthquakes directly tied to fracking: In Canada, France, Spain and here in the U.S.– California. The link between injection wells and frackquakes is now well-documented and, in case you are not aware, just yesterday a 5.1 frackquake hit Oklahoma– the third largest earthquake in Oklahoma history.

    Here’s the real issue though. Oil and gas companies have made arguments in court cases currently being litigated in Oklahoma that THEY shouldn’t be responsible for any damages their frackquakes cause. I can tell you that this flies in the face of the way business is performed in this country. If I cause damages to someone’s property because of my businesses practices– MY insurance company must pay– or I as the business owner.

    What the O&G industry is doing is trying to force homeowners and municipalities to pay for the damages caused by O&G activities and that is just plain wrong. Period. Earthquake insurance doesn’t work like regular insurance. You have to pay a percentage of the damage– UP FRONT– before you insurance company pays in an earthquake claim. So, if my house sustains $50K in damages and I have a 20% deductible, I have to pay $10K UP FRONT before my insurance company will pay the other $40K. WHY SHOULD I HAVE TO PAY ANYTHING? Shouldn’t the O&G companies be responsible for the damages THEY cause– just like every other business owner on the face of the planet would have to?

    Since when did they get a free pass that no other business in the world enjoys?

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