Cal Tech Professor: Fracking Causes Earthquakes

The following is an opinion piece by John MacMurray, a retired La Habra teacher and former Democratic candidate for State Assembly. He blogs at where this column was first posted. He is an occasional contributor to CityWatch.

I’ll be right up front about it: earthquakes scare me. Small ones are WHEW! moments, like when you realize the guy that just ran the red light missed you.

Bigger ones, though; they’re a whole different story. Sitting in your safe, secure home — it’s your castle, after all — and watching it get tossed around like a dog’s play toy, while the walls split and the cupboards perform a reverse peristalsis with your glassware and dishes—that’s terrifying. Partly because you know there’s not a thing you can do about it except ride it out and hope for the best.

In Southern California, you live with earthquakes. Goes with the territory, like Oklahoma and tornadoes, or Cleveland and blizzards. Except that unlike tornadoes or blizzards, earthquakes don’t announce their impending arrival.

As U.S. Geological Survey seismologist Dr. Lucy Jones reminded us, “We have over 100 faults large enough to produce at least a magnitude six and we have almost 11 million people in the county. So LA County alone has one quarter of the nation’s seismic risk.”

Most of you already know that earthquakes are usually measured on the Richter Scale; and that it’s a logarithmic scale; each whole number represents 10 times the shaking amplitude of the one before it, but releases 32 times more energy. So, a magnitude 5.0 quake has ten times the shaking energy as a magnitude 4.0 quake. But where a 4.0 quake releases the equivalent of 16.5 tons of TNT being set off below the ground; a 5.0 quake releases 32 times that amount, 528 tons.

And since you already knew all that, no need to go into the details here.

What concerns those of us who were sitting on or near the recent 5.1 quake of March 28, 2014, or any of the 47 bazillion (by my unofficial count) pre-and-after shocks, is how big a part fracking might be playing in beating up our dwellings and frazzling our nerves, and what we might expect in the future. Are we dealing here with Mother Nature, or Papa Chevron? It’s harrowing enough to go through the 100% natural quakes, without loading in the factory-made tremors the oil and gas companies send us.

Couple of things to know: “fracking” is a nickname for the process of hydraulic fracturing; this process has been in use since the late 1940s. Water and other materials are injected into oil or gas wells under high pressure (about 4,000 psi). This breaks up (fractures) the rocks holding the oil or gas, allowing its own pressure to push it to the surface. The cracks produced are usually small, 1 mm or so wide. After the fracking operation, a proppant (usually water mixed with sand) is injected after the fracturing process, to hold the fractures open.

To some extent, this mimics the natural processes; Southern California has plenty of naturally-fractured rock, which has allowed petroleum to puddle at the surface; think of the La Brea Tar Pits, or the tar you get on your feet at the Santa Barbara beaches.

Fracking as a process causes problems: it uses a lot of water (1-5 million gallons per well); it contaminates ground water in the area with the spilled hydrocarbons; the exhaust fumes from the diesel generators can blow into residential areas; and well gasses like methane are also frequently released into the atmosphere. But those are topics for another time.

So, how much of a link can we see between fracking and earthquakes? And, how big is the problem?

According to Dr. Paul Asimow, professor of Geology and Geochemistry at Cal Tech, “There is no question in my mind that fracking can and does cause earthquakes, as big as magnitude 5. The statistics of increased earthquake incidence in areas of Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and so on are (in my opinion) incontrovertible.”

And even though an oil well is not all that big, 7-12” inside diameter at the far end, they can run 3,000 feet or more horizontally from their 2-6,000 foot deep well shaft. So just because a drilling site is not right next to your house or school or business doesn’t mean the drill doesn’t run under it.

I’m going to use our home in La Habra as an example, just to focus the narration. We are about a mile and a half in a straight line northwest from the magnitude 5.1 quake of March 28; and about the same distance southwest from the cluster of quakes in the Brea Canyon area that followed over the next couple of days. We have a single-story 1959 house built on a foundation (not a slab) and tied to that foundation, on a properly-graded lot.

We got a lot of plaster and stucco damage, and lost a lot of glassware, but no water or gas leaks, nothing structural we’ve seen so far, and—most important—nobody hurt.

So, with fracking so much in the news, we wondered if any fracking was going on in our area. We looked at the California State Water Resources Control Board web site. They have a great interactive map called the Geotracker on their web site (listed at the end of the article). It’s readable and detailed; just type in the area you’re interested in.

Turns out there are a lot of oil wells in our area—more than we had ever imagined. And over a hundred of these well sites are “hydro-fractured well sites;” fracked wells. And in Brea Canyon they sit on a convergence of faults, including the Whittier Fault Zone; that’s the one that cut loose in 1987, causing a 5.9 magnitude quake that killed eight people, injured dozens more, and caused over $350 million in property damage.

And it’s right where Shell Oil wants to build 3,600 new houses.

Overlaying this California State Water Resources Control Board map with the U.S. Geological Survey quake map for the same area provides an amazingly close match. The quakes are concentrated around the fracked wells.

But the kicker here is that not only are there over 100 fracked well sites clustered in this small area, but most of these sites have more than one well operating from them. Some have only one well; one has over 1,000. Adding up the total of these wells shows over 13,000 active fracked wells all in this one small area, and all on known active faults.

Our homes may be our castles, but here in Southern California we are besieged from beneath not only by the forces of Nature rearranging herself to get comfortable, but the forces of Chevron, Shell, and other oil companies rearranging our planet to make a few more bucks.

So, what can we do to protect our castles and our families? Unfortunately, our option list isn’t real long. Buying earthquake insurance is one of these options, but a very expensive one. Using the California Earthquake Authority’s template (they don’t sell insurance, but the template is useful to calculate costs for when you talk to a company that does sell the insurance), we found that for our house, using minimum limits on values and replacement costs, our deductible would have been over $90,000. And the yearly premium would be more than our entire current homeowners’ policy premium. Not helpful.

No doubt, there is an answer in this situation somewhere. However, as Dr. Asimow cautions, “…the answer may be subtle, not obvious. As long as the public, policy makers, scientists, and energy companies are all open to dialogue and sharing of data and nobody gets dogmatic or closed-minded, we should be able to settle the matter to everyone’s satisfaction.”

So, we let the science in to collect data, then sort and organize it. And perhaps, we can find a way to sort the natural earthquakes from the man-made kind.

And in a fair world, it would be really great if the frackers paid for the damages their way of doing business is causing us frackees.



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