A new report warns that if oil companies continue to be granted access to drill for oil in California, the number of earthquakes and the inherent damage they cause will be devastating to Californians.
A magnitude 4.4 earthquake struck near Los Angeles around 6:25 a.m. PDT on Monday, rudely awakening many of the city’s residents and prompting news anchors to dash under the newsdesk for protection while still on the air.
Damage from the earthquake to structures and roadways remains minimal, and there haven’t been any reports of injuries. The earthquake struck days after a joint report was released by Earthworks, the Center for Biological Diversity and Clean Water Action, warning that if oil companies continue to be granted access to drill for oil in California, the number of earthquakes and the inherent damage they cause will be devastating to Californians.
Specifically, the report’s authors examined the practice known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in California and how it increases the odds that an earthquake occurs. Fracking has traditionally involved pumping high volumes of water, sand and other chemicals at a high pressure into a rock formation, causing it to crack and release oil and gas.
While the report’s authors recognize that fracking has occurred for years, they pointed out that scientists reported as early as the 1960s that seismic activity can occur from large volumes of fluids injected underground.
“One of the first recorded cases of human-induced earthquakes due to underground fluid injection occurred in 1961, when the U.S. Army began disposing of millions of gallons of liquid hazardous waste 12,000 feet below the surface at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal near Denver, Colorado,” according to the report.
“This injection spurred more than 1,500 earthquakes over a five-year period in an area not known for active seismicity. It culminated in three earthquakes of magnitudes 5.0 to 5.5 more than a year after injection ceased, the largest of which caused more than $500,000 in damages,” it said.
Despite all of this research, California Gov. Jerry Brown has broken away from the state’s Democratic Party’s stance on fracking and has publicly rejected calls for a statewide fracking moratorium, even though California is located in the Ring of Fire — a seismically active region surrounding the Pacific Ocean in which 90 percent of the world’s earthquakes occur.
“This isn’t rocket science,” said Earthworks’ Oil and Gas Accountability Project California Organizer Jhon Arbelaez, one of the report’s co-authors. “We’ve known for decades that wastewater injection increases earthquake risk.”
Since the state already experiences thousands of small earthquakes each year due to the complex system of faults that criss cross the state, Arbelaez and his coauthors, Shaye Wolf, Ph.D., and Andrew Grinberg, decided to examine how detrimental it would be to the state if an increase in fracking resulted in a human-induced earthquake.
While earthquakes can be devastating no matter where they occur, California has at least three very large faults, and if a human-induced earthquake occurred on or near any of them, it could have disastrous implications for Californians. The most prominent fault line in California is the San Andreas Fault, which forms the boundary between the Pacific and North American tectonic plates. The other two prominent fault lines are the San Jacinto Fault in Southern California and the Mendocino Triple Junction in Northern California.
Though it’s hard to pinpoint just how catastrophic the next earthquake will be in California, if for example, a major fault line like the 810-mile San Andreas Fault were to break, entire cities could cease to exist, including Los Angeles, depending on the location of the break. Buildings and homes would crumble, the already limited water sources would be polluted and the soil would erode, resulting in mudslide.
New chemicals, new risks
Given that the new chemical fluid mixtures oil companies are using in fracking are increasingly impacting geologic formations and increasing the risk of human-induced earthquakes, the report’s authors said their concerns about earthquakes increased along with the use of these potent chemicals.
One such chemical-fluid mixture the authors expressed concern about is one in which hydrochloric or hydrofluoric acids are mixed with fracking fluids in a process called acidizing. When this material is pumped underground, the chemicals modify the permeability of geologic formations by increasing hydrocarbon flow.
Since a lot of the findings about human-induced earthquakes weren’t new, MintPress News asked Wolf why there was a need for such a report. She said that while scientists have documented for decades that wastewater injections can trigger earthquakes, many places are experiencing fracking booms and a related surge in amounts of wastewater — especially since in places like California, more wastewater than oil is produced during the fracking process.
As a result, California currently has about 1,500 wastewater wells, and oil companies are eyeing the Monterey Shale reserve, which holds an estimated 15.42 billion barrels worth of oil. But as Wolf said, fracking the Monterey Shale could produce 9 trillion gallons of wastewater, dramatically increasing the risk of an earthquake.
Currently, 54 percent of California’s 1,553 active and new wastewater injection wells are located within 10 miles of a recently active fault, 23 percent are within 5 miles, and 6 percent are within 1 mile. An active fault is described as one in which seismic activity has occurred at least once in the past 200 years.
California is known for its earthquakes. One of its largest cities — San Francisco — has been dubbed “the city that waits to die” because the risk for intense earthquakes is so high. For these reasons, Wolf said it’s surprising that lawmakers and state regulators haven’t looked more closely at the issue, especially since earthquakes increase the risk for other environmental hazards such as polluted drinking water.
“The risk of seismic impacts is yet another illustration that the massive wastestream resulting from oil production threatens California’s drinking water and public safety,” Grinberg said in a media statement. “While threats to water, air and health have been well-documented, our emerging understanding of the risk of induced seismicity is yet another reason for a time-out on fracking. The findings in this report continue this troubling trend: The more we learn about California’s oil industry, the more cause we find for alarm.”
Ignorance is bliss
Liquefaction is another issue affecting Californians after an earthquake. This occurs when the water-saturated sand and silt act like a liquid from the tremblings. When this happens, the ground can no longer support structures, resulting in damage to buildings, roads and pipelines.
“Oil regulators are ignoring this problem,” Wolf added. Because lawmakers are not doing enough to look at this issue, Wolf said many scientists in California are relying on data regarding seismic activity from other states where fracking booms have occurred, in order to gauge how the chemicals impact the likelihood of an earthquake.
What they found is that in places such as Oklahoma, where there were one to three earthquakes per year of a magnitude 3.0 or greater — meaning it can be felt and structural damage can occur — the number of earthquakes has increased more than tenfold since fracking took off in 2008. For example, there were 99 earthquakes of 3.0 magnitude or higher in 2013. In 2011 an earthquake occurred just outside of Oklahoma City. It was felt in 17 states, as far away as Milwaukee, Wisc. That earthquake also destroyed more than a dozen homes, injured two people and buckled a federal highway.
The relationship between fracking and earthquakes isn’t just a coincidence, and an increase in seismic activity is not unique to Oklahoma or California. Upticks in earthquake activity have also been recorded in Arkansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Ohio, Texas and West Virginia.
While Wolf and her fellow researchers recognize that due to a lack of regulation and study, the frequency and intensity of human-induced earthquakes in California is not known. But she said it’s surprising that lawmakers don’t appear to be more concerned about a likely increase in earthquakes, given that they are well aware of how devastating earthquakes would be to California’s highly populated areas such as Los Angeles, Long Beach, Santa Ana, Bakersfield and San Francisco.
Since fracking is legal in most of the state — the state’s only fracking moratorium is in place in Los Angeles — the report included some examples of just how devastating an earthquake could be to the state, as well as some major concerns the writers came across during their research.
Wolf said one of the biggest surprises to her was how many injection wells were located near active faults.
“It’s really striking when you look at the map near the San Andreas fault,” she said about the number of injection wells there are, considering these sites are putting millions of Californians at risk.
“This is a big cause for concern,” Wolf said, noting that state regulators are really doing nothing to address this problem — they’re not regulating injection wells or looking to see if wastewater sites have triggered earthquakes before.
One possible reason the state may not be regulating the wells is because under a regulatory determination issued by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1988, oil waste is not considered to be hazardous material for disposal purposes. In other words, California’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources can’t regulate oil and gas production and wastewater disposal, even though it may induce seismic activity, and some of those chemical additives can affect organ function and/or cause cancer.
Even if the DOGGR had the ability to regulate wastewater — the liquid material fracking produces more of than oil — DOGGR spokesman Don Drysdale said in 2012 that the agency had never given much consideration to the risks associated with wastewater injection sites and fracking.
While the state’s regulators and lawmakers don’t appear to fully understand the environmental risks associated with fracking, Wolf said Californians understand. She pointed out that many communities have been active and vibrant in forming a large anti-fracking movement. Because fracking has such a dirty and dangerous reputation of having the potential to not only cause more earthquakes but also to pollute water and farmland in the state, Wolf said there has been a big grassroots push to halt fracking there.
MintPress reached out to Gov. Brown’s office for a comment on the report’s findings and asked if this report would influence the governor to reconsider a fracking moratorium. As of press time, the office had not returned our request. Wolf said she and her fellow authors had not yet heard from the governor’s office, either.
Whether Gov. Brown will agree to a moratorium or do a complete 180 and ban fracking altogether remains to be seen. Only one thing is for sure: the more the oil industry ramps up fracking, the bigger the risk to the state of California.