Seismic Shivers

Oklahoma, where the wind goes sweepin’ ‘cross the plains…is also home to a regular annual quota of “meaningful” earthquakes. According to geographical records, the state usually gets anywhere between forty and a hundred quakes of Richter 2.5 or higher. But last year that number went up by 100 percent…and this year, as of February 18, there had already been 103! If this goes on, as Rachel Maddow explained this week, the state may well get almost eight hundred quakes this year.

Does anyone suspect a link to the increasingly widespread practice of hydraulic fracturing — “fracking” — as a means of extracting natural gas?

Geologist Donald Clarke lectured on the report Wednesday at the University of Tulsa. He said to think of pumping fracking waste water back into the ground like filling up an empty glass.

“When that glass fills up, it overflows,” Clarke said. “So when you get the maximum pressure on this, the pore pressure, it’s got to go somewhere. Something gives. It either comes up or it cracks, and that’s when you get the little earthquakes.”

More than 800 billion gallons of fracking waste water were pumped into more than 30,000 wells in 2012. Clarke said just eight quakes have been felt where injection wells were the likely cause.

“If we clean up those few, it’s problem-free. Do you have no problems with 30,000 automobiles produced by Detroit?” Clarke said. “You can’t get 30,000 without problems.”

Well, maybe so. On the other hand, if the consequences of one of those earthquakes include thousands of dollars in property damage, and maybe lives disrupted or destroyed — perhaps the analogy to a crummy motorcar isn’t the right one.

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