Only a generation or so ago, the thought of a man-made earthquake seemed like something out of science fiction as opposed to reality; however, events in recent years are showing that man’s ability to effect the planet may have entered into previously unimaginable territory.
While scientists continue to debate whether man-made global warming is a reality or not, one truth that is inescapable is that man-made earthquakes are not only possible but are occurring on a near daily basis and nowhere is this more apparent than in the State of Oklahoma.
For years, the Sooner State has been home to a countless number of oil and gas wells. Thanks to new drilling technologies, the efficiency and production of the state’s many energy operations has expanded dramatically over the past handful of years.
Unfortunately, these advances have come at a heavy price. The increase in production has led to a massive amount of wastewater (obtained while extracting oil and gas) of which the producers are required to dispose.
The number of disposal wells climbed from 430 in 2009 to 830 wells in 2014. Wastewater volumes in the region rose 140 percent over the same period, from at least 18.2 billion gallons to at least 43.8 billion gallons, according to the International Business Times.
The industry standard approach has long been to inject this polluted water back underground; however, the improvements in efficiency has created a situation where water is now being pumped beneath the earth’s surface faster and in a higher quantity than ever before – and this, according to many earthquake experts is creating a dangerous situation in the nation’s heartland.
Though little is being reported on the situation in a national context, residents of many Oklahoma communities are in a crisis-mode, as the state’s Department of Energy and Environment is openly acknowledging, “We know that Oklahoma experienced 109 magnitude 3+ earthquakes in 2013 and five times that amount in 2014. The pace of earthquake activity has accelerated in 2015. The current average rate of earthquakes is approximately 600 times historical averages.”
To put things into perspective, last year, the State of Oklahoma surpassed California as the earthquake capital of the lower 48 states.
Though state officials recognized that Oklahoma has historically experienced some level of seismic activity, they were quick to add, “We know that the recent rise in earthquakes cannot be entirely attributed to natural causes. Seismologists have documented the relationship between wastewater disposal and triggered seismic activity. The Oklahoma Geological Survey has determined that the majority of recent earthquakes in central and north-central Oklahoma are very likely triggered by the injection of produced water in disposal wells.”
What is most troubling, however, for those of us residing in Appalachia is that the past couple of months have brought with them an increase in “earthquakes in divers places” for us as well.
Since early-December 2015, only four earthquakes have been recorded east of the Mississippi and all of them occurred in the Appalachian Mountains.
The first three were registered in Eastern Kentucky and East Tennessee – coincidentally all three of these seismic events occurred within roughly thirty miles of fracking operations… similar to those in Oklahoma.
Sunday, Appalachia’s fourth earthquake in just a month rattled the ground in West Virginia’s eastern panhandle.
Though the nearest known fracking operation was more than 70-miles away, one still can’t help but question whether the nation is on the brink of more widespread and common earthquakes thanks to new technologies pumping wastewater into deep underground holes at a rate never before seen.
In Oklahoma, state officials are struggling to put together a plan that will minimize the number of man-made earthquakes without devastating their economy – the energy sector serves as the state’s number one source for jobs. In the meantime, hundreds of angry residents are forced to sit through heated town hall meetings while politicians grasp for answers.
“I’m afraid my house is going to fall down while you’re considering what to do,” stated one Oklahoma resident.
In Appalachia, the coal industry has all but died a sad death, putting tens of thousands of families out of work and devastating the local economies of countless communities.
As our region finds itself in a desperate search for a replacement to our staple industry, may we be careful not to jump from the pot and into the fire.
Thanks to a century of coal mining, we have seen first hand of man’s power to create unspeakable tragedy (see Buffalo Creek), may we reminded of this as we seek to transition our economy. God forbid we replace an industry that polluted water, left empty holes and flooded our towns with one that rattles entire regions of the nation — destroying the very bedrock of our nation.
Harvesting natural gas is necessary and can be done with a minimum impact upon the planet… unfortunately, as the world is seeing in Oklahoma, it can also be done in a manner that is earth shaking. May we be constantly mindful of our power in the days ahead.
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