There is currently no more contested U.S. energy initiative than to pen up the country’s vast potential reserves of natural gas by utilizing the “hydraulic fracturing” technique, more familiarly known as “fracking.”
To its proponents, fracking offers a way out of U.S. dependence on foreign energy imports, and is relatively environmentally benign.
To opponents of the technique, it not only has the potential to pollute underground water reserves, but leads to an increased possibility of earthquakes, as the injection of massive amounts of water underground along with chemical mixtures which the industry is fighting to not disclose increase the possibility of seismic activity.
Now, the federal U.S. Geological Survey has reluctantly waded into the debate, with a USGS research team saying in a just released abstract of an upcoming study that a remarkable increase in earthquake occurrence in the U.S. in the Midwestern region of the country, from Alabama to the Northern Rockies in the past decade is “almost certainly man-made.”
The full study will be presented at the upcoming annual meeting of the Seismological Society of America later this month. The el Cerrito, California-based Seismological Society of America, which describes itself as “an international scientific society devoted to the advancement of seismology and its applications in understanding and mitigating earthquake hazards and in imaging the structure of the earth.”
The USGS study acknowledges "a remarkable increase in the rate of (magnitude 3.0) and greater earthquakes" in the United States, noting, "While the seismicity rate changes described here are almost certainly manmade, it remains to be determined how they are related to either changes in extraction methodologies or the rate of oil and gas production," avoiding drawing an explicit link to oil and gas production activities as the sole causal event in the increased appearance of earthquakes in areas subjected to fracking. The study scrutinized an increase in annual recorded earthquakes from 1.2 per year in the past 50 years to more than 25 per year since 2009, noting, "A naturally-occurring rate change of this magnitude is unprecedented outside of volcanic settings or in the absence of a main shock, of which there were neither in this region."
That said, the abstract notes, "The acceleration in activity that began in 2009 appears to involve a combination of source regions of oil and gas production, including the Guy, Arkansas region, and in central and southern Oklahoma. Horton, et al. (2012) provided strong evidence linking the Guy, AK, activity to deep waste water injection wells." The research team led by USGS geophysicist William Ellsworth noted however the frequency of earthquakes in areas subjected to fracking natural gas extraction techniques began rising in 2001 across a broad swath of the country between Alabama and Montana and culminated “in a six-fold increase over 20th century levels in 2011.”
In the absence of federal guidelines on fracking, a number of states have moved their own legislation to cope with the issues raised by the technique. A recent series of earthquakes in north-eastern Ohio, most recently on New Year's Eve, prompted the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to suspend development by natural gas drillers of five deep wastewater disposal wells, while Arkansas imposed a permanent moratorium on disposal wells due to enhanced seismic activity near the Fayetteville Shale deposit.
So, what are fracking opponents up against? Rising production of natural gas produced from fracking, much of it in economically depressed areas. According to the federal Energy Information Administration, from 2006 to 2010, U.S. shale gas production growth averaged nearly 50 percent annually. The nationwide surge in shale drilling requires disposal of millions of gallons of wastewater for each well and the fracking industry has resisted all call to disclose the nature of the chemicals involved in the injection process, but which a number of independent studies have determined include a number of known carginogens.
While predicting the future is a murky business at best, expect a full blown counterattack by the shale gas industry prior to the presentation of the full USGS study.
For the past few months natural gas advocates, notably America's Natural Gas Alliance have launched a massive advertising television campaign to convince Americans that shale natural gas production is not only environmentally benign, but an asset to U.S. national energy security, stung by such negative publicity as the 2010 “Gasland” documentary, decrying opponents as radical environmentalists while establishing new “facts on the ground” by ramping up production in economically depressed areas as quickly as possible to insinuate the industry into local tax bases that politicians would be loath to take on..
It will prove far harder to tar the USGS, a branch of the federal government with such charges, and if a more than incidental link between fracking an increased seismic activity is established by the federal government, then the shale gas industry might better prepare itself for increased federal scrutiny than continue to churn out disingenuous advertising blurring the real issues involved in shale gas production.
Worse may be to follow for ANGA and its supporters. Now Hollywood is apparently poised to wade into the fracking debate, as Matt Damon is scheduled to star in an anti-fracking film, "The Promised Land," an "anti-fracking movie." Despite being regarded as a bastion of liberal thinking, Hollywood productions have influenced energy debates in the past – remember the 1983 film “Silkwood” about skullduggery in the U.S. nuclear power industry, or 1979’s “The China Syndrome?”
Perhaps ANGA should have spread a few more dollars around Tinseltown than prime time networks.
By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com