Media Misrepresent New Study on Fracking, Earthquakes

A new study adds to the weight of evidence that injecting wastewater deep underground after completion of the fracking process can cause an increase in seismic activity. Environmental activist groups and their media allies, however, are falsely claiming the study, published in Science Advances, shows a direct link between the fracking itself and earthquakes.

A team of scientists studied seismic activity in two areas of the central United States where the number of minor earthquakes has increased near fracking sites. The scientists first concluded the increase in seismic activity is most likely due to human activity. Looking more closely at the causes, the scientists determined that large-volume wastewater disposal after completion of the fracking process is a likely cause.

Yale Environment 360 falsely claimed a direct link between fracking and earthquakes.

Yale Environment 360 falsely claimed a direct link between fracking and earthquakes.

After the conclusion of fracking activities to recover oil and natural gas, energy producers are left with wastewater that was used in the fracking process. The wastewater can be processed to remove brine and fracking chemicals and then recycled or disposed above ground, or it can be reinjected into the rock formations from which oil and natural gas were recovered. The least expensive and most commonly utilized option is to reinject the wastewater and store it underground.

Several scientific studies have concluded that an increase in seismic events near fracking sites is due to the reinjection of wastewater after conclusion of the fracking process. Scientists believe particular geologic formations and reinjection practices are more susceptible to seismic activity than others, but their knowledge of how and why this is the case is incomplete. Regardless, the scientific literature shows strong agreement that any connection between fracking and earthquakes is an indirect one tied to what energy producers do with wastewater after the fracking process is completed. The new Science Advances study agrees with the growing scientific consensus that post-fracking wastewater disposal – not fracking itself – is the cause of increased seismicity near some fracking sites.

Yale Environment 360 produced a headline and article typical of how the media have misrepresented the new study. The article, titled “Fracking Linked to Increase in Texas Quakes, According to New Study” and appearing at the top of Google News searches for “fracking,” included the lead paragraph: “Using recent seismic data and studies of ancient fault lines, scientists have concluded that an increase in earthquake activity in parts of the United States is directly tied to hydraulic fracturing, the process of injecting pressurized wastewater deep into cracks in the earth’s crust to extract reserves of hard-to-reach oil and gas.” The study, however, said no such thing. The scientists never concluded the process of injecting water “to extract reserves of … oil and gas” increased earthquake activity. The extraction of oil and natural gas was already concluded before the tangential, post-fracking disposal of wastewater was linked to increases in seismic activity.

State policymakers are taking the lead on regulating wastewater reinjection to limit seismicity. Oklahoma, a red state in the heart of fracking country, provides a good example. Two years ago, Oklahoma implemented a program of monitoring seismic activity near fracking sites and imposing wastewater reinjection restrictions at the first sign of minor seismic activity. Since mid-2015, earthquake activity in Oklahoma has declined by 86 percent. This has occurred even while oil and natural gas production have increased.

Where seismic activity near fracking sites has increased, the increase is not directly tied to the fracking process. It is tied to tangential, post-fracking wastewater disposal practices that scientists are learning how to address. When environmental activists and their media allies claim studies show fracking is directly tied to earthquakes, they are – either out of ignorance or duplicitous motive – spreading a scientifically unsubstantiated agenda to restrict oil and natural gas production under false pretenses.

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