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Magnitude 5.6 earthquakes struck Oklahoma Saturday, September 3rd, resulting in the Oklahoma Corporation Commission shutting down 35 disposal wells used for fracking. Fracking involves extracting oil from the ground by drilling into the earth while also using a high-pressure water mixture to release the gas inside of the ground. Sand, chemicals, and water are injected into the ground at a high pressure, allowing the gas to rise to the top of the well.

Fracking has become one of the more controversial energy issues, drawing criticism from environmental groups who claim that fracking is linked to more frequent and greater magnitude earthquakes. Fracking supporters such as the American Petroleum Institute claim the opposite of environmental groups, reporting a “very low risk” that fracking leads to earthquakes. Combine this with a booming energy industry in the United States and the issue of fracking becomes not only an environmental concern, but an economic one.

Pictured here is a fracking well. Source: Susan Brantley/Science
Pictured here is a fracking well. Source: Susan Brantley/Science

Fracking was invented in 1947, but it wasn’t until 2006 that practices began to increase at a rapid rate. Since then, regions which have participated in fracking have experienced earthquakes more frequently than in the past. According to data from the United States Geological Survey, Oklahoma experienced three times as many earthquakes as California during 2014. When comparing the fault lines in Oklahoma compared to the ones in California, many of the earthquakes occurring in Oklahoma are occurring in areas which have few fault lines. The recent earthquake felt in Oklahoma was felt in six surrounding states and has been recorded as the strongest quake in the state’s history.

The United States Geological Survey even released a hazard forecast for seismic activity for 2016, highlighting regions in the eastern and central United States which may be prone to induced and natural earthquakes. The report also delved into the strengths of future earthquakes, predicting a 5% to 17% chance of damage to structures and homes in the Kansas and Oklahoma regions. These are also the same regions that have a high chance of induced earthquakes according to the USGS’s report.

It’s important to note that fracking itself it not a leading contributor to these induced earthquakes, but the disposal of wastewater that is used in fracking. “Wastewater and produced water disposal is the primary case of the recent increase in earthquakes in the central United States associated with fracking,” Dr. James Conca, a geochemist and energy expert, explained in his article for Forbes.

This figure presents the chance and damage of an earthquake occurring in the United States for 2016. Source: United Stated Geological Survey
This figure presents the chance and damage of an earthquake occurring in the United States for 2016. Source: United Stated Geological Survey

The issue of fracking still has to be dealt with on the economic and political level. The Obama Administration has created federal regulations for fracking, focusing mainly on drilling safety. Fracking has led to a boom in the energy industry, and has put the United States in line to become one of the largest oil and gas producers. Fracking is also beneficial when considering the  emissions in the United States. The lowered prices of gas in the United States has allowed natural gas to replace coal, resulting in emissions from the United States dropping to a 27-year low.

Environmentalists are still worried about the way that fracking, especially the waste water associated with fracking, affects the environment around the fracking sites. The Obama Administration’s regulations stirred discontent among oil and gas companies, who have resisted past fracking regulations set forth by the government. “From California to Pennsylvania, the oil and natural gas industry has played a critical role in reviving America’s economy, and hydraulic fracturing has been the key to this revival,” said Barry Russel, a chief executive for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, after filing a lawsuit against the regulations.

Fracking is an issue that will be important especially for this coming election. Both Trump and Clinton have discussed the issue of fracking, with both candidates supporting it, to an extent. Clinton stated that although she supports fracking, with the amount of conditions that she wants to put in place, there will not be much land left for fracking. She also stated that she is against fracking when states and localities oppose it, as well when contamination of water is possible. She also added that the chemicals used in fracking must be disclosed in order to gain her support for fracking.

Trump is also for fracking, but unlike other congressional Republicans, stated that towns and states should be allowed to ban fracking if they please. Many industry insiders and politicians have criticized Trump for not completely understanding the issue of fracking, especially on the federal level. Banning fracking on the local level is the only way that environmentalist groups have been able to make any real change when it comes to fracking, but according to the Supreme Court, local governments cannot ban fracking. However, despite Trump’s views on fracking, he has still shown strong support for fossil fuels, along with a strong disbelief in climate change.

Protesters against fracking in New York, where the practice is now banned state wide. Source: AFP Photo/ Spencer Platt
Protesters against fracking in New York, where the practice is now banned state wide. Source: AFP Photo/ Spencer Platt

The issue of fracking and its effects are something that needs to be taken seriously, especially for this coming election. The rise in earthquakes occurring in the central regions of the United States are surprising, especially at the rate in which they are occurring. Although there have been positive economic outcomes of fracking, the environmental issue cannot be placed second to economic concerns. The federal government, along with state and local governments, must work together with oil and gas industries in order to reach a compromise that benefits both the environment and the energy industry.

-Talia Chavez

Sources:

BBC News:

http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-14432401

CNN:

http://www.cnn.com/2016/09/03/us/oklahoma-earthquake/index.html?iid=EL

http://money.cnn.com/2016/09/03/news/economy/oklahoma-earthquake-fracking-oil/

Forbes:

http://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2016/09/07/the-connection-between-earthquakes-and-fracking/#5768a9247f65

International Business Times:

http://www.ibtimes.com/political-capital/hillary-clinton-climate-change-pro-fracking-businessman-hosts-clinton-fundraiser

NPR:

https://stateimpact.npr.org/oklahoma/tag/earthquakes/

New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/21/us/politics/obama-administration-unveils-federal-fracking-regulations.html?_r=0

The Hill:

http://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/290186-trump-rattles-industry-with-fracking-position

United States Geological Survey:

https://cdn.underground.net/wp-content/uploads/ofr20161035ver1_1.pdf

Weather Channel:

https://weather.com/safety/earthquake/news/oklahoma-fault-map

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