Fear of “Fracking Earthquakes” Is Misplaced

Opponents of hydraulic fracturing have routinely attempted to frighten the public into believing that the process has a direct connection to earthquakes that can be felt – something that they know will be particularly scary for Californians (we experience enough earthquakes already, thank you.) We’ve tackled this issue before and explained that claiming a “direct link” between hydraulic fracturing and earthquakes is a willful attempt to misinform the public. The release of a recent report from Columbia University examining seismicity and wastewater injection provides an unfortunate example of how this fear and misinformation have influenced how even the press reports on these issues.

Nonetheless, the fear that so many activists have stoked has also been heard in the halls of Congress, and the Members have unfortunately taken to recycling this talking point. Just this week, during a joint hearing of the House of Representatives’ Science, Space and Technology Committee’s Energy and Environment panels on issues surrounding hydraulic fracturing, California Representative Eric Swalwell (D-Dublin) said this during his opening statement:

“[I]t is worth noting to these expert witnesses that a particular concern to Californians is the possibility that hydraulic fracturing might cause earthquakes. It would be very short-sighted to produce energy via fracking only to find out later that it caused such damage.”

While concern is understandable, Congressman Swalwell and his constituents can rest easy: there has never been a felt seismic event related to hydraulic fracturing in our state — even though the process has been used thousands of times over more than five decades.In fact, California’s state geologist, John Parrish, said last year that “we have a lot of information about the seismicity that is caused by hydraulic fracking,” adding that “the magnitudes of these are all less than magnitude 1.” To put that in perspective, the U.S. Geological Survey describes magnitude 1 as being the low end of seismic events that are “not felt except by a very few under especially favorable conditions.”

Here are a few additional examples of what experts have said about hydraulic fracturing and seismicity:

Mark Zoback, Stanford University geophysicist and advisor to the Obama Administration:

[E]xtremely small microseismic events occur during hydraulic fracturing operations. These microseismic events affect a very small volume of rock and release, on average, about the same amount of energy as a gallon of milk falling off a kitchen counter.”(SOURCE)

National Research Council (part of the prestigious National Academies of Science):

“The process of hydraulic fracturing a well as presently implemented for shale gas recovery does not pose a high risk for inducing felt seismic events…. [O]nly a small fraction of injection and extraction activities among the hundreds of thousands of energy development sites in the United States have induced seismicity at levels noticeable to the public.” (SOURCE)

Closer to home, an extensive study of hydraulic fracturing in the Inglewood Oilfield in Los Angeles concluded late last year:

“Microseismic monitoring showed all fractures were separated from the designated base of fresh water by 7,700 feet (1.5 miles) or more. … Before-and-after monitoring of groundwater quality in monitor wells did not show impacts from high-volume hydraulic fracturing … Before-during-and-after measurements of vibration and seismicity, including analysis of data from the permanently installed California Institute of Technology accelerometer at the Baldwin Hills, indicates that the high-volume hydraulic fracturing … had no detectable effects on vibration, and did not induce seismicity.” (SOURCE)

Not only have there been no felt seismic events linked to hydraulic fracturing in California, there have also been no earthquakes linked to wastewater disposal in California. Not one!

To his great credit, Congressman Swalwell later said of hydraulic fracturing:

“If we can make it safe, we should make it happen.”

This shows that the Congressman, like most Californians, is committed to letting science, rather than ideology, guide him on this issue.

That’s good news, because the record speaks for itself: hydraulic fracturing is a fundamentally safe technology that has been used more than 1.2 million times in this country over the past 60 years, including right here in California. It has been deployed without the adverse environmental impacts – including earthquakes – that professional activists would have citizens and policymakers believe are inherent with its use.  With the nation’s (and perhaps the world’s) largest oil reserve lying under the struggling Central Valley, the fact that this technology is safe and will continue to get safer and more efficient is, again, very good news indeed.


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