Earthquakes in Ohio

I love you, Rachel Maddow. But I need to take exception to a thing you said, as much as it pains me.

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It’s a long clip, and the point in question is sort of interspersed through it. Basically Rachel says that the earthquakes in Ohio were caused by fracking. And that this is somehow a surprise.

Now, this may be a nitpicky complaint, but I’m a nerd and it’s my purview to get nitpicky about things.

The earthquakes in Ohio were not directly caused by fracking. they were caused by waste water injection. While Rachel does say this at one point in the clip, for the most part this gets shortened down to the earthquakes being caused by fracking.

In this case, the best you could come up with is an indirect cause, since without the hydraulic fracturing, there wouldn’t be a lot of fluid that needed to be put down the disposal well. But frankly, if you want to be accurate, you have to say that the earthquakes were caused by improper waste water disposal.

And you know what? This is not a new thing. Deep waste water disposal wells in Colorado in the late 60s and early 70s caused earthquakes as well. If there are faults in the area, waste water can get in to them and lubricate them. Or if the well is over pressured, that can change the local stress field and get things to shift around.

As I said, I know that this may seem like hair splitting, but it bugs me to no end to hear the waste water disposal issue being conflated with the actual process of hydraulic fracturing. It’s sloppy. If nothing else, waste water disposal wells are not a new concept, and even without hydraulic fracturing they still get drilled and used because normal oil production often entails a large water cut (ancient salt water coming out with the oil) and that water gets re-injected in disposal wells.

It’s another question to ask if hydraulic fracturing itself causes earthquakes. Likely yes in summary, and here’s a nice recent example from Oklahoma. Though the point in both of these places is really that any induced seismicity is less than a magnitude of 3.0, too small for us to actually feel.

Whether or not this is cause for worry is a whole issue on itself. We can also cause seismic activity by pulling a lot of water out of aquifers and thus cause compaction issues. (Or pulling a lot of oil out of reservoirs and causing compaction there.) While the effect is the same (man-made earthquakes), the causes deserve to be addressed with accuracy.

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