Oil and Earthquakes

By John Grula

The fossil fuel industry thinks that their good times will be returning.  But what would be the costs?  For some forms of fossil fuel, it will be an increase in earthquakes, destructive earthquakes.

The link between drilling for oil and the occurrence of earthquakes seems to be growing stronger over time. In central Oklahoma, of all places, a magnitude 5.6 earthquake struck on Sept. 3, tying a record set in 2011 for the strongest temblor in the state’s history.

The cause of the shaking? Probably the underground disposal of waste water from oil and gas production, including fracking (otherwise known as hydraulic fracturing, in which large amounts of water filled with various chemicals are drilled under high pressure into rock formations that contain oil and natural gas).    

Research has shown that high rates of waste fluid injection can increase the hydraulic pressure along earthquake-inducing faults according to the September 2016 issue of Science.  This has almost certainly been the cause of the recent upsurge in the number of earthquakes in the central and eastern United States.

Fracking, which generates large amounts of waste water, has probably been the culprit causing the spike of earthquakes in places like Oklahoma in recent years. The waste water generated by this process has to be disposed of in some way, and injecting it deep underground is a frequently used method. But one of the major problems is that this can cause destabilization of earthquake-producing faults.  

The waste water is pretty nasty stuff and is often filled with carcinogens and other toxic chemicals that we don’t want contaminating our surface water supplies or underground aquifers near the surface that are tapped for drinking and irrigation.    

Even in conservative and oil-loving Oklahoma, state regulators have recently ordered 37 waste water injection operations, all within an area of about 1,870 square kilometers from the September 3 quake’s epicenter, to be closed down, Science reported.

Earthquakes, as we in California well know, tend to shake people up, literally and psychologically, and can often be lethal.   Regulators, even in Oklahoma, can’t just ignore them. And the physical damage caused by some of the recent quakes in Oklahoma, according to reports in The New York Times and other publications, has not been trivial.

With respect to earthquakes and fracking itself, recent research in Canada has indicated that the process can induce earthquakes by increasing seismic pressure along fault lines as the fracking is occurring. And for a time after the fracking process is completed, high pressure changes caused by the lingering presence of fracking fluid, which can be likened to small underground explosions, has destabilized fault lines that can cause earthquakes, The NY Times has reported.

Fracking has been increasing in California in recent years, and it is the last thing we need in our state, which is already well known for its earthquake activity.    

Besides, what is the point of fracking? The world is awash in oil and natural gas and the price of oil has plunged about 50 percent in the last two years because of an overabundance of it. And when oil and natural gas are burned, it releases carbon dioxide and methane, which are the greenhouse gases largely responsible for global warming. This is the last thing we need in our struggle against climate change. Keep these fossil fuels in the ground.

Closer to home, the Pasadena Star-News recently published an Associated Press story on new research that indicates conventional oil drilling itself may have caused several earthquakes in the Los Angeles area, including the infamous Long Beach earthquake in 1933 that killed more than 100 people. This magnitude 6.4 quake occurred along the Newport-Inglewood Fault, which extends 47 miles from Culver City to Newport Beach and is thought to have the potential to cause a temblor of magnitude 6.0 to magnitude 7.4 in the future. Such a quake could be even more disastrous to the LA area than the “big one” that could occur at any time along the San Andreas Fault. 

Fracking and other forms of oil drilling have recently increased in the Long Beach area, and one has to ask: why are we allowing oil companies to engage in activities that may induce a catastrophic earthquake in our own neck of the woods?   According to Dr. Chris Frolich, a senior research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin (who was not part of the latest study), a connection between LA-area earthquakes and oil activity is “plausible” and, according to the Pasadena Star-News, merits further study.  

A version of this essay was originally published in the Pasadena Weekly on December 9, 2016