According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), the Midwest has been experience a sharp increase in small earthquakes since the last 20th Century up to present and this may very well be tied to the fracking and injection wells in the region. (1) In particular, earlier this year, the Ohio State government has closed down brine injection wells in the Youngstown region after the 11th earthquake struck the region in 2011. (2) The geologists and seismologists were able trace back the epicenters of the earthquakes to “within two miles of the injection wells” (2).
A study of the recent earthquakes that occurred in Ohio from 1990 to 2011 shows that the number has been increasing since the turn of the century and continues to do so. The data can be found on the Ohio Department of Natural Resource website: http://www.dnr.state.oh.us/tabid/23710/Default.aspx
As Dr. Webber had lectured in class a few months ago, fracking is the process of injecting millions of gallons of water and chemical underground to ‘fracture’ the shale and extract oil. As a byproduct, a salty waste water, “brine” is also produced and is generally injected back into the Earth or filtered and dumped into rivers or lakes. The brine picks up contaminants in the ground including sodium and calcium salts, barium, oil, srontium, iron, numerous heavy metals, soap, radiation and other components. (4)
The brine that the injection wells in Youngstown, Ohio put back underground comes from the Marcellus shale wells in Pennsylvania. The brine injection increases the pressure in the shale layer underground and strains the faults to slip. The slips are what causes earthquakes.
However, the study by USGS only ‘suggests’ possible cause between fracking and earthquakes, and “it’s not clear how the earthquake rates might be related to oil and gas production”. (1) There are also others who claim that the increased seismic activity could simply be a natural process as the pattens of earthquakes are not yet fully understood.
While it is unclear how the two are related, it is almost certain that there is a link between injecting fluids and the increase in earthquakes and this processneeds to be regulated. One option is to store up the brine to be cooled and cleaned before dumping it back in the nature. However it is expensive to treat desalinate the brine and the remaining fracking fluid in the processed water can pose as serious health threats to those who use it as drinking water. Effective of 2001, the EPA has published regulations on the guidelines and standards on the treatment of brine and the discharge into nature. (5) The next step, it seems, will be to regulate the injection process and decide whether to close down all injection wells and force oil and gas companies to deal with their saline spawns.