USGS: Man-Made Earthquakes Increasing In U.S.

by William Teach | April 24, 2015 7:14 am

If true, this could be seriously concerning. Until you get to the end of the USGS article, information not mentioned in the LA Times article.

(LA Times[1]) For the first time, the U.S. Geological Survey has unveiled a map of earthquakes thought to be triggered by human activity in the eastern and central United States.

Oklahoma is by far the worst-hit state recently, according to the USGS study released Thursday. The state last year had more earthquakes magnitude 3 or higher than California, part of a huge increase recorded in recent years.

Seismic activity in Texas near the Dallas-Fort Worth area has also increased substantially recently. Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico and Ohio have all experienced more frequent quakes in the last year.

All of the areas highlighted on the map “are located near deep fluid injection wells or other industrial activities capable of inducing earthquakes,” the study said.

Mark Petersen, chief of the USGS’ National Seismic Hazard Project, said the pattern of increased quakes is troubling.

“These earthquakes are occurring at a higher rate than ever before, and pose a much greater risk and threat to people living nearby,” Petersen said.

On one hand, if fracking is causing these earthquakes, that is a serious concern. On the other hand, correlation is not causation. There have been many times that science has said “X is causing Y”, and then a bit of time goes by, and science says “whoops, nope, x doesn’t cause Y. Our Bad!” Of course, there are other times where science comes back, after much real world research, and confidently states that “after much research, it has been determined that X does, in Fact, cause Y”.

The release of the map comes as officials are coming to terms with the idea that wastewater disposal following oil and gas extraction is causing more earthquakes. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves shooting a high-pressure mix of water, sand and chemicals deep underground to extract oil and natural gas. The resulting wastewater is often forced underground as well, but can trigger earthquakes on faults that haven’t moved in a very long time.

We should all be a bit skeptical whenever anyone declares X. Especially when we get this from the USGS[2] (one would have thought that the LA Times writers could have actually linked the USGS article)

The U. S. Geological Survey (USGS) released a report today[3] that outlines a preliminary set of models to forecast how hazardous ground shaking could be in the areas where sharp increases in seismicity have been recorded. The models ultimately aim to calculate how often earthquakes are expected to occur in the next year and how hard the ground will likely shake as a result. This report looked at the central and eastern United States; future research will incorporate data from the western states as well.

This report also identifies issues that must be resolved to develop a final hazard model, which is scheduled for release at the end of the year after the preliminary models are further examined. These preliminary models should be considered experimental in nature and should not be used for decision-making.

The report is based on computer models and looking into the future, and less on investigation. None of which should be “be used for decision-making”. The LA Times left that part out.

USGS scientists identified 17 areas within eight states with increased rates of induced seismicity. Since 2000, several of these areas have experienced high levels of seismicity, with substantial increases since 2009 that continue today. This is the first comprehensive assessment of the hazard levels associated with induced earthquakes in these areas. A detailed list of these areas is provided in the accompanying map, including the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Texas.

Here’s a question: what about other areas that are using fracking? Are earthquakes increasing in those areas? USGS plans on more studies for the Western US. What about areas like Pennsylvania, which are increasing their use of fracking?

Wastewater that is salty or polluted by chemicals needs to be disposed of in a manner that prevents contaminating freshwater sources. Large volumes of wastewater can result from a variety of processes, such as a byproduct from energy production. Wastewater injection increases the underground pore pressure, which may lubricate nearby faults thereby making earthquakes more likely to occur. Although the disposal process has the potential to trigger earthquakes, most wastewater disposal wells do not produce felt earthquakes.

Many questions have been raised about whether hydraulic fracturing[4]—commonly referred to as “fracking”—is responsible for the recent increase of earthquakes. USGS’s studies suggest that the actual hydraulic fracturing process is only occasionally the direct cause of felt earthquakes.

So, um, wait, the end of the USGS article is saying that the many different processes involved with fracking may, in fact, not be the cause of the earthquakes? What was the purpose of the fear-mongering in the early part of the USGS article?

All that said, this does certainly deserve more study to determine the reality. Research on the ground. What we need less of is fear-mongering with few to no facts based on preliminary models.

Crossed at Pirate’s Cove[5]. Follow me on Twitter @WilliamTeach[6].

  1. LA Times:
  2. USGS:
  3. released a report today:
  4. hydraulic fracturing:
  5. Pirate’s Cove:
  6. @WilliamTeach:

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