The disposal of wastewater used in the booming practice known as “fracking” is responsible for a rash of recent earthquakes in Ohio, and critics have latched on to the seismic events as evidence that the popular natural gas extraction method is dangerous and should be banned.
Ohio has experienced at least 11 tremors since March, including a 4.0 temblor that shook Youngstown on New Year’s Eve. State officials say the earthquakes were triggered by deep injection wells, where the water, sand and chemical cocktails used to frack wells are deposited.
State officials have shut down all disposal wells within a five-mile radius around the epicenter of the Dec. 31 tremor, which reportedly was felt as far away as upstate New York.
The events have cast more doubt on the safety of fracking, which has enabled companies to tap natural gas trapped thousands of feet below ground and, in the process, helped fuel economic revivals in Pennsylvania, North Dakota and elsewhere.
Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency blamed the process for the contamination of drinking water in the small town of Pavillion, Wyo. The industry has denied those charges, and a third-party review of the EPA report is expected to begin soon.
Further investigation of the Ohio earthquakes is also under way, and fracking supporters are sticking to their guns.
“There’s plenty of data out there that suggests this is not a recurring problem,” said Rob Nichols, spokesman for Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican. “Natural gas could generate tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of jobs in Ohio. For those out there who are willing to drive a stake through the heart of what could be an economic boon, we’re not going to let that happen.”
Mr. Nichols stressed that fracking itself - as distinct from the waste disposal - is in no way responsible for the tremors, despite several news reports to the contrary. Federal officials have confirmed that the practice is unlikely to generate significant seismic activity.
“The fracking itself probably does not put enough energy into the ground to trigger an earthquake. … That’s really not something that we should be concerned about,” William Leith, senior science adviser for earthquake and geologic hazards with the U.S. Geological Survey, said in an interview with National Public Radio last month.
While the most recent temblor gave residents in and around Youngstown a scare, there were no serious injuries or property damage. With the exception of the New Year’s Eve event, all of the Ohio tremors had a magnitude of 2.7 or lower, barely blips on the radar screen when compared with the 5.8 earthquake that shook the East Coast last year.
That August quake - which also caused no deaths - was more than 1,000 times as powerful as a 2.7 temblor and still less than one-tenth as powerful as the 7.0 earthquakes that often cause catastrophic damage in such places as Japan, New Zealand and California.
Despite their relatively low magnitudes, Mr. Nichols said, the temblors are getting the necessary attention from state officials. All options, he said, will remain on the table, including a prohibition on wastewater wells near fault lines.
Fracking advocates also point out that while the disposals did cause the quakes, most natural gas companies do not dispose of fracking waste that way. Instead, they recycle and reuse the millions of gallons of water needed to frack a well.
Others opt for the much cheaper method of pumping the used fluids back into the ground. There are at least 177 such sites across Ohio, and about 1 million gallons of wastewater were deposited there last year.
The vast majority of those wells have caused no trouble, but Mr. Nichols and others expect the Ohio earthquakes to be used as ammunition for those fundamentally opposed to fracking for unrelated reasons, including hostility to fossil fuels.
“There are some out there who want nothing other than windmills and solar panels. But Ohio can’t meet its energy needs through those alone,” Mr. Nichols said.