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Photo by Martin Luff.

Magazine | Okiecentric

Holy Frack

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Posted 01.05.12

It started with just a few tremors. Then a few more. Then it seemed like a swarm, each one following thick and fast on the last. The faultlines were clear. Public panic ensued. Seismologists and geophysicists raced to the scene. I’m not talking about the earthquake swarm that hit Oklahoma, but the media swarm that followed. Before the dishes could even be restacked in the cabinets, stories were rippling outward from the Lincoln County epicenter. “Did Fracking Help Cause the Oklahoma Earthquakes?” asked Time. “Experts: Okla. Quakes too Powerful to be Man-Made,” replied the Associated Press. “Fracking May be to Blame for Oklahoma Earthquakes,” countered the Washington Independent. Newspapers as far away as Taiwan were weighing in. And at Oklahoma media outlets, you couldn’t throw a rattled-up rock without hitting a seismologist, there to comment on the fact that Oklahoma, which previously played host to around 50 earthquakes annually, was suddenly a hotbed of seismic action, racking up more than a thousand temblors in 2010.

Was fracking to blame? There are really two questions in that one: first, can fracking cause earthquakes? And second, was it the cause of Oklahoma’s swarm of temblors? A quick survey of the scientific literature, and question one seems a bit silly. Journals like Geophysical Prospecting and Journal of Geophysical Research B: Solid Earth offer dozens of minutely detailed papers on the topic of what geologists call “induced seismicity.” Not one of them ever questions the fact that hydraulic fracturing is one of the things that can induce seismicity.

“The rock in the earth is quite close to a stress situation everywhere, and everything you do can affects it,” Serge Shapiro told me by phone from his office at the Free University in Berlin. “It is compressed, and if we change something in this compression, the stress will be released and it will leap to a kind of small earthquake.”

Professor Shapiro, a seismologist and geologist, co-authored many of the papers I found on seismicity and fracking. But even “drill baby drill” types who mistrust scientists don’t have to take Shapiro’s word for it: they can hear it from Schlumberger, the world’s largest oilfield services company. In the summer 2000 issue of Oilfield Review—its magazine for energy clients—Schlumberger ran a piece titled “Seismicity in the Oil Field,” detailing how to forecast and monitor for seismicity resulting from hydrocarbon extraction and waste injection. And in England, a drilling company, Cuadrilla Resources, commissioned a report that last month concluded their drilling operations had caused two earthquakes, one magnitude 2.3, near Blackpool.

So fracking can cause earthquakes. But that’s not the whole story. Professor Shapiro explained that the seismic events that drilling produces are tiny—most of them undetectable without highly sophisticated equipment. Even where they can be detected, they almost never cause an earthquake above magnitude two.

After Oklahoma’s quake swarm, the more rational media outlets—Scientific American, Miller-McCune, Nature—quickly pointed this fact out. They quoted seismologists, who reported that the quakes happened along a natural fault deeper than the deepest wells. But that didn’t stop newspapers, bloggers, and activists from connecting the dots, citing the number of drilling platforms in the state and posting maps of Lincoln County’s gas wells. Few of these outlets went to the trouble of pointing out the difference between a quake of magnitude two (barely detectable) and magnitude five (can topple your chimney). An unscientific poll on the Daily Kos even asked readers whether fracking was responsible for the increase in large earthquakes—a conclusion every seismologist who spoke publicly had already rejected. Nevertheless, by far the most common answer was yes; a month after the quakes, only 12 percent of those polled had said no.

From inside the circled wagons of the energy evangelists, this looked like yet another fantasy cooked up by Earth-First anarchists intent on killing jobs. But the oil and gas industry folks brought this level of public paranoia on themselves. Their M.O. throughout the hydraulic fracturing debate has been deny, deny, deny. Fracking can never contaminate drinking water. Fracking can never pollute the air. When residents near drilling operations complain of health woes and ruined wells, the gas companies deliver them water in cisterns—as long as they sign non-disclosure agreements. So it’s no surprise to hear from the frackers that fracking does not induce seismicity. On its website, the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council cites a study from SMU to declare that “the drilling process does not cause earthquakes.”

Note the phrasing: “the drilling process.” It’s this kind of rhetorical move that has caused the industry to lose so much credibility. Because as Professor Shapiro explained, while drilling causes only tiny temblors, more significant seismicity results from a by-product of the fracking process: fluid re-injection. Fracking involves blasting subterranean shales with huge amounts of water laced with sand and chemicals. The water creates cracks in the shale; the sand holds the cracks open so natural gas can be drawn out. The water used in the process is recovered—the industry calls it “produced water”—and must be disposed of safely, since in addition to the chemicals in it, it can collect salt, methane, and other toxins underground. This usually means injecting it into very deep wells. If the injection wells are near fault lines, the introduction of huge volumes of water can produce significant seismic activity.

In the most famous incident of induced seismicity, the government stopped disposing of chemical weapons in deep injection wells at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal near Denver, Colorado, after determining that they were producing dangerous earthquakes. And that SMU study that the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council cited to assert that fracking does not cause earthquakes? It did indeed say that drilling did not seem to be connected to a swarm of earthquakes near the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport—but it also reported that fluid re-injection near the site was correlated with the quakes.

Separating the wastewater injection process from fracking itself in order to disavow its effects is a slippery rhetorical move. It’s not honesty; it’s spin. When I contacted the American Petroleum Institute, the largest oil and gas industry trade association, to ask about earthquakes and fracking, I was quickly emailed some boilerplate: “The extent to which there is any correlation between hydraulic fracturing and reported seismic activity is not known. There are various potential causal factors that could play a role in this small scale seismic activity and we are not aware of scientific research that ties hydraulic fracturing to seismic activity, or that suggests there is any risk to human health or homes or structures.” When I wrote back, however, to ask if by “hydraulic fracturing” they mean re-injection wells, too, I got no reply. When you can’t spin, stonewall.

Stonewalling—as in the refusal to list the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing— has not bought the industry public confidence. Perhaps habitually, it seems incapable of being straightforward in its communications, which tend to have a “you can’t handle the truth” tone. Now shale-gas boosters have backed themselves into an “it’s all lies” corner from which they cannot even acknowledge what objective scientists—and their own literature—readily admit: that fracking induces seismicity.

Nor does it help that many of the scientists trotted out to discuss the issue have financial connections to the natural gas industry. In Tulsa, for instance, local news stations brought in Dr. Bryan Tapp to declare Oklahoma’s quakes unrelated to fracking. Tapp is a professor at the University of Tulsa, but he has also worked as a consultant to several oil companies; fracking is his academic subspecialty. That’s not to say he’s been bought off—most seismologists end up working for the industry at some point—but his commitments don’t build confidence in his objectivity, particularly when all he did on the news was deny that the latest batch of earthquakes could be caused by fracking without ever acknowledging that induced seismicity is real.

But if you’ve been following me with righteous indignation—those frackers are not to be trusted!—here’s where it gets uncomfortable: The greens are not being entirely straightforward either. In their eagerness to discredit fracking, they have leapt from induced seismicity to the conclusion that fracking causes huge, destructive earthquakes—a causal connection that science simply has not established. And the activists ignore the fact that—as Herr Professor Shapiro pointed out to me—all kinds of human action, including building reservoirs and developing geothermal energy, induce seismicity. Some environmentalists can even play as fast and loose with the facts as the American Petroleum Institute. Citing an August report by the Oklahoma Geological Society, the eco-blog RedGreenandBlue.org asserted that the report “concludes that recent quakes could have been caused by fracking.” This was downright misleading: The “recent quakes” the OGS report studied were much smaller earthquakes in Garvin County, not the recent rash-including one 5.6 magnitude earthquake the blog was reporting on.

The only irrefutable conclusion about fracking and earthquakes is that the data are not definitive. But that means completely opposite things to those on different sides of the fracking smackdown: To greens it looks like a big red stoplight, and to the energy industry it looks like a flashing neon sign: frack, baby, frack. With localities from Michigan to Arkansas to New York already at war over fracking, the Oklahoma temblors were bound to be seized upon by folks looking for signs of a frack-up. And the shale-gas industry honchos—recently caught on tape calling anti-frack activists an “insurgency” and describing the military psyops methods needed to fight them—were bound to scream “eco-terrorism.”

The whole issue of fracking has become intractable, largely because it plays so perfectly into the master narratives that drive those on both sides of our energy economy’s ideological divide. For the energy industry, the idea of vast shale reserves sitting right there, under states like Arkansas and Pennsylvania and Oklahoma, is not just exciting; it’s downright redemptive. It provides a homegrown antidote to the unhappy vision of vast fossil fuel reserves sitting under nations full of ideologues who hate us. “We have the equivalent of two Saudi Arabias in natural gas,” Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon told 60 Minutes. What could top that for flipping OPEC the bird?

Even better, the image of a vast, untapped reserve resurrects the fantasy of national abundance our rampant energy consumption has drained dry. Pennsylvania is out of coal; Oklahoma’s gushing oil wells are a distant memory; even Texas is running low on gushers—but thanks to hydraulic fracturing, those once-boundless reserves may not be exhausted after all. Oh, Exxon! Oh, America! Just when we thought we might have to accept the notion of limits to our resources, the City on a Hill returneth; the infinite bounty of the New World born again in the high-velocity water of the fracking pipe.

Environmentalism’s master narrative is no less dramatic and is equally well-served by fracking. If man is the metaphoric rapist of Mother Earth, what more apt symbol than the long nozzle of the hydrofracturing well, shoving its fluid-filled head into the depths of the planet and fracking away until it gets the booty it wants? Hydrofracturing is practically the reductio ad absurdum of the notion of “extractive”: a process that literally fractures the bedrock on which we live to slurp up its filthy hydrocarbons. Any attempt to defend such a thing must be the work of industry shills bouncing from strings that lead right back the tuberous hands of Dick Cheney.

Given the deep roots of these extremes, is a pragmatic middle-ground even possible?

“We actually think if done right there are really good potential benefits to natural gas,” Jim Marston told me. Marston is vice president for the National Energy Program at the Environmental Defense Fund. To my surprise, he was not anti-fracking. He pointed out its main benefit: burning natural gas in a new combined cycle power plant reduces greenhouse gases by 60 percent over burning coal. Unfortunately, that benefit is frequently cancelled out by “fugitive emissions”: methane leaks from the wells, another problem the industry doesn’t like to discuss. Marston believes the problem can be solved efficiently and would be if regulations were in place to demand it. So too, he thinks the seismic activity needs monitoring and all deep-well drilling should be subject to real regulation.


Watch Jim Marston of the Environmental Defense Fund
discuss the issues surrounding fracking.


“Industry needs to stop saying there’s no problem at all because it’s clear there are a number of seismic events related to fracking,” he told me. “What does that tell you? Be careful, use geologists and understand you’re going to be held responsible if you cause something bad to happen.” He went on to suggest a number of reasonable regulatory ideas: Choose your sites carefully; don’t frack in sensitive watersheds; don’t frack on faultlines; reduce leakage; monitor re-injection wells; make companies take responsibility for their actions.

“What we need to do,” he said, “is get the progressive parts of the industry—and the part of the environmental community that understands the potential benefits of natural gas to reduce local air pollution as well as the problem of global warming—to come together to produce some regulations that the industry can live with and bring along the outliers that give them a bad name.”

Come together: Aye, there’s the rub. Marston was proposing an honest conversation about fracking between the industry and those concerned about its environmental effects. But such a conversation is made impossible by the stark, take-no-prisoners dogmatism of those on both sides of the debate. For environmentalists, the fracking platform has come to epitomize our hydrocarbon-fuelled rape of the planet. And for the frackers, any attempt to impose restrictions, regulations or even reporting requirements on their Wild West gas rush is so anti-jobs, anti-capitalist, and anti-American it’s tantamount to treason.

Sadly, the fracking stand-off reproduces in microcosm the breakdown of our national conversation—and the political stultification it has spawned. As the ideological divide grows wider, those on each side retreat into the closed feedback loops of their targeted mediascapes. Fox News with a cup of Tea; MSNBC as you Occupy the couch—it’s all so downright comforting. People like Jim Marston are asking the hard questions, and trying to formulate the best solutions, but they might as well be spitting in the wind. And while we all lull ourselves to torpor with the stories we already believe, one more national dialogue that we so desperately need—this one about energy sources, energy production, and energy use—will continue to fall on deaf ears.