Feeling the earth move under one's feet can be unsettling, even in places like California, where it's a natural and fairly common occurrence. But far more disconcerting is when major tremors in places unaccustomed to earthquakes can be traced to human causes.
On New Year's Eve, a 4.0 magnitude quake shook northeastern Ohio. There was no major damage, but the temblor was enough to scare residents as household items shook and fell. The event inspired Youngstown Mayor Charles Sammarone to purchase earthquake insurance for his home -- as well as to demand information about the incident's possible causes.
Now, seismologists have attributed a recent series of 11 minor earthquakes in Ohio to injection wells that disposed of wastewater byproducts from fracking operations.
What the Frack?
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a method companies use to extract more oil and gas from otherwise hard-to-access deposits. The process involves blasting liquids laden with sand, glass beads, or chemicals at high pressure deep into the ground, causing rock layers to crack, and allowing the oil and gas trapped within them to flow more freely.
The practice has garnered its share of controversy for other reasons. Critics claim households near fracking operations sometimes experience extremely disturbing side effects, like contaminated and even flammable tap water. But that's not preventing its use from growing rapidly.
And the earth is moving in places beyond Ohio. Injection wells have also been blamed for recent seismic activity in Arkansas, Colorado and Oklahoma, adding one more reason to the list of why many Americans don't want anything to do with fracking, and certainly don't want it in their own proverbial backyards.
This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took on fracking, pushing for U.S. studies as to whether the process is hazardous to humans and food sources. After all, tainted water isn't good for drinking or for agricultural integrity in America; contaminated crops would endanger all of our backyards.
More Fracking Flak
The extraction of natural gas here in the U.S. does have some serious upside, since it reduces our reliance on foreign oil; natural gas is also much cleaner-burning than options such as coal. But increased seismic activity and contaminated drinking water are awfully nasty byproducts to greater energy independence.
Oil and gas companies defend fracking with the contention that many of the problems associated with the practice are actually the result of other drilling activities. But at some point, such hair-splitting isn't going to fly with average Americans, and the oil and gas industry is going to have to find innovative, safer methods to replace their current practices.