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Earthquakes Caused by Wells Used to Inject Waste Water from Oil Wells


Oklahoma has seen a dramatic increase in small to medium earthquakes over the last fifteen years.  This corresponds to the period in which the injection of waste water from fracking oil wells has also dramatically increased.  Unfortunately for the residents of Oklahoma, oil and gas operations have been highly profitable and are tilting the actions of government away from any response to this increase in earthquakes.

The facts are obvious: the New York Times (NYT) has shown documents that indicate that, as 1.1 billion barrels of waste water were injected into deep wells in 2013, the number of earthquakes has increased by many fold.  In 2000, there were twenty-nine quakes with a magnitude of 3 or above.   In 2014, there were 5,417 such quakes, concentrated in north central Oklahoma, where most of the injection wells are functioning.

Oil and gas businesses claim that the quakes are a natural phenomenon and not due to the waste water wells.  But research done in England (where there are virtually no faults to confuse the picture) has conclusively demonstrated that these wells cause earthquakes.  As one commenter to the NYT story(Maani of New York, NY) wrote,


“Just as with anthropogenic climate change, the science on fracking vis-à-vis earthquakes is actually quite settled. It was first discovered – and settled – by seismologists in England, where the relation of earthquakes to fracking is more easily determined because there are few if any faults in the areas in which the fracking is occurring.

Here in the U.S., seismologists, including from the USGS, have also recognized a causal relationship between fracking and earthquakes (or at least tremors). Oklahoma sits along the Meers fault line, so tremors and quakes are a natural occurrence. However, seismologists, who have been monitoring quakes along the Meers fault for decades, have determined that, since fracking began, there has been at least a threefold increase in tremors over 3.3, and a fivefold increase in tremors over 5.0.

As with climate change, the “deniers” do not need to fully support their position. All they need to do is “sow doubt” by underwriting “scientific” studies that support the conclusion they are looking for. Sadly, all too many in the U.S. cannot tell the difference between real science and junk science.”


There have been, in the last several centuries, a few very serious earthquakes in the Midwest: in 1811-1812, a series of quakes caused widespread destruction in the New Madrid area of Missouri, which is not far from Oklahoma.  They are believed to be the largest earthquakes in the eastern United States in recorded history.  The magnitude of the largest of these quakes was estimated at up to 8.0.  Quakes in this fault complex are felt over a huge area of Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Arkansas, reaching all the way to Oklahoma in the west.  This fault complex is, among others, called the Reelfoot Rift, after a lake that was created by the obstruction of rivers during the earthquakes.  Over 4,000 quakes have occurred in this area since then, most less than 3.0 magnitude.

In 2003, the USGS released an estimate of the risk of future quakes in that area:

” New forecasts estimate a 7 to 10 percent chance, in the next 50 years, of a repeat of a major earthquake like those that occurred in 1811–1812, which likely had magnitudes of between 7.5 and 8.0. There is a 25 to 40 percent chance, in a 50-year time span, of a magnitude 6.0 or greater earthquake.”

(Quotes are from Wikipedia)

The Reelfoot Rift is a good distance from Oklahoma, but there are smaller rifts within the state that can be activated either spontaneously or in response to the pressure created by injecting materials (waste water) into the fault zones.  It is very clear that the dramatic increase in quakes there is not a natural phenomenon, but it is less clear whether injections could cause a major earthquake like the New Madrid disaster.

The problem is that even small, 5.0 magnitude quakes can cause destruction and even a few deaths.  Homeowners whose houses have been damaged have been forced to sue the drilling companies to get compensation for the damage to their houses; none of these suits have been settled or gone to judgement yet.

(Addendum, April 16, 2015: very few of the homeowners in Oklahoma had earthquake insurance, and the insurance wouldn’t have helped anyway.  There is usually a clause in these policies that excludes induced earthquakes, and the insurance companies would be sure to insist that the earthquakes are induced– despite industry claims that they are natural.)

The bottom line is that fracking and waste water injection cause earthquakes (not to mention the risk of groundwater contamination) and this side effect is going to have to be dealt with in some way.  In a just society, those responsible for the damages would be forced to compensate those who are injured or lost property as a result of their behavior.  This has not happened, and will not happen because of the tremendous political power that large amounts of money bestow upon any company that makes the money.  Even litigation will not produce a just result, since only a few people will be compensated in this way.   Class action lawsuits are a poor substitute for government action to restore the balance of justice.

The only just answer to this problem is to remove money from politics.  Somehow, those with large amounts of money are going to have to relinquish some of their outlandish degree of political power.  Recent Supreme Court judgments, however, have trended in the opposite direction.  Our Supreme Court is corrupt, and this problem must be dealt with as well.

(Revision, April 16, 2015: the water injected in these wells is not from fracking, but a much larger volume of waste water that is removed from the material that comes up in the normal operation of oil wells in the area.  When these oil wells produce, much of what comes up is not oil or even natural gas, but briny water full of heavy metals and complex toxic compounds related to oil.)

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