EcoBeat Staff – Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, has been praised by many economists and energy experts in the United States as the key to an energy-secure future. While many scientists have been concerned with the implications of injecting large amounts of brackish water, (saltwater that is mixed with the byproducts of oil and gas extraction) deep into the Earth, President Obama’s former Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, spent time campaigning on the idea that “this is something you can do in a safe way” in 2013. A new study out of Stanford University by Mark Zoback, Senior Fellow at the Precourt Institute for Energy and Director of the Stanford Natural Gas Initiative, indicates quite the contrary.
California is likely the first to come to mind when one thinks of an earthquake-prone state; however, the focus of this study was the mid-Western state of Oklahoma where 585 earthquakes of 3.0 magnitude or higher occurred last year alone. The boom in fracking across the region has seemed to correspond with a noticeable increase in small to moderate sized earthquakes since 2009.
Zoback’s study focused on the past 5 years and found that “three study areas that encompass the vast majority of the recent seismicity (earthquakes)…show that the increases in seismicity follow 5- to 10- fold increases in the rates of saltwater disposal.” Adjacent plots that were not depositories for this brackish flow-back water showed comparatively few earthquakes in that same time frame.
Where does “flow back” water come from?
The whole concept of hydraulic fracking is rather complex; however, it can be boiled down to a few key points. Oil and gas deposits are trapped deep beneath the earth in certain type of rock deposits, known as shale. By injecting large amounts of water, sand, and other chemicals, engineers are able to crack open shale deposits and use high pressure to force the resources out and back up to the surface. Water that flows back up to the surface is saline and typically contains other contaminents from the fracking process. This water is known as flow back, produced, or brackish water. In an effort to prevent fresh water contamination, this flow back water is pumped underground in to containment wells.
Zoback’s work represents one of the first objective studies on the increased seismic activity around these containment wells. Once this is paired with the observations of contaminated (and sometimes flammable) ground and drinking water in states like Texas and Pennsylvania, the economic argument in favor of fracking seems to benefit only the corporations exploiting these resources. As the United States economy becomes increasingly dependent on natural gas production, studies such as this must be brought to the attention of those making decisions on investments in the country’s future energy security. Even highly corporate states like New York are taking matters in to their own hands and outright banning fracking statewide in order to preserve water quality and seismic stability.
To read the entire study out of Stanford, click HERE
For another take on this, check out onEarth