The O. Zone

Can gas drilling cause earthquakes?

By David O. Williams
Real AspenMarch 2, 2011
Natural gas drilling in recent days has been linked to potentially unhealthy levels of radium in drinking water supplies in Pennsylvania. Closer to home, state health officials monitoring air quality have issued an ozone advisory for the Upper Green River Basin in west-central Wyoming – an area of steady drilling activity.

Now comes word that activities related to the common drilling practice known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” may be causing a “swarm” of increasingly intense earthquakes in Arkansas.

The New York Times is reporting that state oil and gas regulators have implemented an emergency moratorium in order to determine whether the use of injection wells, used to dispose of the wastewater that results from fracking, may be behind the highest level of seismic activity in the region in 35 years.

“The situation has garnered national attention because of its possible connection to natural-gas drilling operations in the area. Researchers with the Arkansas Geological Survey have pointed out spatial and temporal relationships between the earthquakes and the use of injection wells, which are used to dispose of the wastewater left over from gas drilling. (Researchers see no such correlation between the quakes and the drilling itself, a process called hydraulic fracturing.)

“While a possible connection is being studied, the Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission has imposed an emergency moratorium on the drilling of new injection wells in the area. Wells that were active before the moratorium, which began in December, remain in use.”

The Times on Sunday also published an article detailing a wastewater treatment infrastructure in heavily drilled areas of Pennsylvania that is being overwhelmed by the amount of toxic material dredged up during the fracking process, which injects water, sand and undisclosed chemicals deep into natural gas wells to fracture rock formations and free up hydrocarbons.

The report drew immediate reaction from Colorado’s congressional delegation – specifically 2nd Congressional District Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder – who has been instrumental in introducing legislation requiring greater scrutiny and regulation of fracking.

Colorado was featured prominently in “Gasland,” an Oscar-nominated documentary that examined fracking and its connection to alleged groundwater contamination in Weld and Garfield counties – the two most heavily drilled areas of the state.

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