This commentary originally appeared in the McAllen Monitor on March 16, 2015.
If you live in Texas, you have undoubtedly heard a thing or two about the recent earthquakes. The Texas media is filled with reports about how fracking and wastewater disposal wells, which frequently accompany the fracking process, are causing Texas to become more like earthquake-prone California. This concept is pitched to the public as common sense: more earthquakes are occurring at the same time more fracking wells are being used. Yet, correlation is not causation. And bare data can be manipulated into support for any position.
Earthquakes, tremors and aftershocks must typically be at a 3.0 magnitude in order to be felt by individuals. Since 2010, the global number of earthquakes above a magnitude of 3.0 has risen. Using this information in isolation, fracking opponents are pointing the finger at fracking operations in an attempt to infect the public consciousness. But as is often the case, when basic data is reviewed, it becomes clear that the cause for the increase in earthquakes is still very much undetermined.
Consider the recent discovery of an ancient fault line running under a large portion of the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex. Craig Pearson, the Railroad Commission’s seismologist, and of the Southern Methodist University seismology team, attributse the newly discovered fault line to the subterranean roots of the Ouachita Mountains. These roots run from the northeast corner of the state through central Texas and possibly as far as the Marathon uplift in far West Texas. Does this mean the fault line is just as expansive? No one knows.
Fault lines are important. They mark the location of tectonic plates, which regardless of their age and relative dormancy, can still slip.
Take a moment to consider your grade school volcano science project. You might recall that several things can occur when tectonic plates move: earthquakes, volcanoes and mountains. Earthquakes are a more immediate response from two plates slipping and rubbing alongside each other. But mountains are formed over long periods of time when plates press laterally against one another and the resulting pressure forces the earth upwards. The point is when there is smoke there is fire and where there are mountains there are tectonic plates.
Interestingly, rather than being a “gotcha!” moment for fracking opponents, the fault line discovery clouds the debate further.
The most popular theory circulated today is that wastewater disposal wells are lubricating the tectonic plates and reactivating dormant fault lines. However, disposal wells are typically dug to depths of around 10,000 feet and the earthquakes in North and Central Texas are originating at depths of three miles below the surface. Meaning that more than a mile of Earth separates the epicenter of the earthquake from the deepest part of the disposal well.
Out of the top four fracking-production states, Texas and Colorado were the only two that truly experienced any earthquake activity during 2014. Pennsylvania experienced only two, both registering under 2.5 magnitudes. North Dakota experienced none. Notably, states where no fracking occurs, like Washington, Connecticut and New York, were hit with a spate of earthquakes in 2014.
In a paper published in mid 2014, researchers for the USGS stated that their studies have shown an increase in earthquakes globally. They found that the increase was randomly dispersed, with large magnitude earthquakes of 5.0 or higher occurring more frequently overseas — where no fracking is occurring. If we are to believe the rhetoric, fracking is responsible for earthquakes; but if we are to believe their data, fracking isn’t responsible for earthquakes.
Yes, the number of earthquakes in Texas and globally has increased. Yes, the numbers of fracking wells and wastewater injection wells being used in Texas has increased. Are the two related? Frankly, no one knows and those who say definitely one way or the other are being disingenuous or deceptive.
Leigh Thompson is a policy analyst with the Armstrong Center for Energy and the Environment at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.