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Another Fracking Headache: Earthquakes

On Wednesday, November 16, members of Fight for a Fair Economy Coalition - a conglomeration of unions and social justice groups, with some Occupy Buffalo folks sprinkled on top in solidarity - entertained folks applying for HEAP benefits and marched to protest cuts to the program. This sign roasts National Fuel Gas CEO David Smith. The event was called "Fuel the 99%: The Great Disconnect." (photo by Buck Quigley)

Last week, the online energy news site published a piece citing US government documents that suggest a link between hydraulic fracturing and increased frequency in earthquakes.

Specifically, the article suggests the possibility of a link beween fracking and the powerful November earthquake that “rattled Oklahoma and was felt as far away as Illinois.”

The author, John Daly, begins his case with the case of the US Army’s Rocky Mountain Arsenal, which drilled a deep injection well in 1961 and pumped 165 million gallons of liquid waste into it. In 1966, the arsenal stopped using the well due to evidence that the practice was “triggering earthquakes in the area.” Daly reports that the conclusion was echoed with increasing certainty by the US Gelogical Survey and the EPA years later. In the United Kingdom, the British Geological Survey has also linked minor earthquakes to fracking, which, especially in the deep, well, high-volume, horizontally drilled form, bears great resemblance to the use of deep injection well for the disposal of liquid waste.

In a statement before Pennsylvania’s Citizens’ Marcellus Shale Commission in September, hydrogeologist Paul A. Rubin of the environmental consulting firm HydroQuest argued that fracking for natural gas in regions prone to earthquakes is dangerous, because it increases the chances of accidents that will release the toxic chemicals in fracking fluids into water supplies. Here’s what Rubin said:

Gas production wells should not be placed within seismically active regions where ground shaking/motion will damage the integrity of cement seals. While assessment is warranted to establish acceptable threshold values, appropriate maximum values for Richter magnitude and modified Mercalli shaking-vibration intensity may be on the order of 3.0 (III) or less for both. Philadelphia, PA, for example, recently experienced structural damage to buildings from an earthquake some 200 miles to the SW. Clearly, if the related earthquake intensity of 4.7 could damage buildings, it was also likely to result in damage to the integrity of cement sheaths, especially with repeated seismic events through time. Seismic hazard risk must be evaluated over the duration of the life of aquifers—1,000,000 plus years…

So, a stubborn loop: According to various government agencies, deep-well, high-volume, horizontal hydrofracking may cause earthquakes. And, according to Rubin, earthquakes can compromise the structures that drilling companies use to isolate drilling chemicals from water supplies.

Meantime, on Wednesday, November 16, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation began its public hearings about its Revised Draft Generic Impact Statement on fracking, which lays out a regulatory regime under which the DEC and the Cuomo administration hopes to begin issuing permits to drillers to go to work on the state’s Marcellus Shale—and, later, perhaps its Utica Shale, too. A group called the Coalition to Protect New York, based in Watkins Glen, planned to protest outside Wednesdays hearings in Dansville, which they deride as “a sham,” calling the DEC’s RDGEIS “an embarrassment and a joke.”

“Regulatory agencies were intended to protect people and nature,” the group said in a statement, “but they’ve instead become permitting agencies serving industry and enabling politicians to avoid making hard decisions.”

In Dansville, the group intended to introduce a proposed new state law that would make fracking a criminal offense.

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