Texas Activists Use Fear and Misinformation to Link ‘Fracking’ and Earthquakes

Anti-fracking activists thrive on creating hysteria, typically employing anecdotes and scare tactics rather than scientific facts or hard data.  Case in point would be a recent town hall meeting on seismic events in Azle, Texas, which was organized by a number of anti-fracking groups.

The activists in charge didn’t even try to hide the fact that their goal was to instill anger in the attendees.

Sharon Wilson, anti-fracking activist with Earthworks, stated during the Azle town hall, “We hope you’ll go away still mad.”

Meanwhile, Jim Schermbeck, anti-fracking activist with Downwinders at Risk, followed up by stating: “You’re mad, and that’s good.”

You have to appreciate their candor, but unfortunately this tactic isn’t new. Groups such as and Occupy Wall Street have recently jumped on the anti-fracking bandwagon, and they are increasingly leading the movement with an emphasis on anger, fear, and emotional arguments.

And these groups are not exactly “local” or grassroots, either.  Rather, they are funded by big money foundations that tend to funnel their money explicitly toward causes that they agree with, opposition to “fracking” being one of them. Many are headquartered in New York or Washington D.C., all the while claiming they “represent” the local view.

Fortunately, and regardless of whether these activists are “grassroots” or not, the facts just aren’t on their side.

As we’ve noted before, the link between the hydraulic fracturing process and earthquakes is dubious at best. More often than not, the media and anti-fracking groups conflate wastewater disposal wells with the process of hydraulic fracturing, often deliberately so in the case of activists.

As various scientific experts have noted, hydraulic fracturing is not the culprit, and the overall seismic risk associated with development is actually quite low.

After studying seismicity in the Eagle Ford Shale and Barnett Shale, Cliff Frohlich of the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics recently stated:

“I don’t think people should be hugely concerned because of the huge amount of production and injection we’ve had in Texas.  If it were a big problem, Texas would be famous for all its earthquakes.”

And while Dr. Frohlich’s research has found a correlation between injection wells and small seismic events, Frohlich did note in his research of the Barnett Shale:

“I didn’t find any higher risks from disposal of hydraulic fracturing fluids than was thought before.  My study found more small quakes, nearly all less than magnitude 3.0, but just more of the smaller ones than were previously known. The risk is all from big quakes, which don’t seem to occur here.”

Again, he focuses on the fact that disposal wells are being studied in connection with seismic activity, but not the process of hydraulic fracturing – and the risk of major seismic events is still quite low.

A study from the National Research Council (part of the National Academy of Sciences) concluded that “hydraulic fracturing a well as presently implemented for shale gas recovery does not pose a high risk for inducing felt seismic events.” The study goes onto to note:

“[O]nly a very 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.”

Bill Ellsworth, senior U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist has actually expressed frustration that people are claiming “fracking” causes earthquakes, when his and others’ research is actually examining wastewater disposal, a different process entirely.

For example, Ellsworth recently stated, “We don’t see any connection between fracking and earthquakes of any concern to society.”  He also observed:

“[T]here is a link between disposal of waste water and earthquakes. And in many of these cases, it’s been fixed by either shutting down the offending well or reducing the volume that’s being produced. So there are really straight-forward fixes to the problem when earthquakes begin to occur.”

David Hayes, U.S. Department of Interior, stated regarding the departments recent study of seismic activity:

“USGS’s studies do not suggest that hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as ‘fracking,’ causes the increased rate of earthquakes. USGS’s scientists have found, however, that at some locations the increase in seismicity coincides with the injection of wastewater in deep disposal wells.”

Hayes further noted:

“Not all wastewater disposal wells induce earthquakes. Of approximately 150,000 Class II injection wells in the United States, including roughly 40,000 waste fluid disposal wells for oil and gas operations, only a tiny fraction of these disposal wells have induced earthquakes that are large enough to be of concern to the public. Information on wastewater disposal wells and the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Underground Injection Control program is available online.”

Recent studies have offered evidence that improperly sited or poorly managed disposal wells may be correlated with minor quake activity, although state geologists from Oklahoma and Colorado have both raised doubts about any causality.  And while it’s true that hydraulic fracturing does yield wastewater, it’s also true that so-called conventional production yields wastewater as well, as do a variety of industrial processes, including manufacturing.

Where are the “Ban Manufacturing Now” signs?

It should also be stressed: low risk obviously doesn’t mean no risk, and the good news is that Texas state regulators are taking a comprehensive look at the issue so we can all move forward using the best available data. There are obviously residents in north Texas specifically who want answers on why several small seismic events have occurred in the region recently, and we can all agree that those questions deserve to be answered by rigorous analysis. The last thing we want to do is leap to conclusions simply because a few activists who ideologically oppose oil and gas development happen to be the loudest people in the room. That doesn’t solve any problems, and we should always focus on science and hard data.

Nonetheless, activists are deliberately trying to confuse the public with dubious terms like “frackquake,” among other bits of misinformation. They’re also ginning up fear and hysteria – by their own admission – so they can manipulate the public into joining their activist crusade against domestic energy development.

In other words, activists want people mad and misinformed, which is hardly a recipe for pragmatic solutions.


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