We never had earthquake drills when I was growing up in school in north Texas—just tornado and fire drills—because we never had earthquakes. But that could change if natural gas exploration continues to proliferate at its current rates.
Many people around the country are experiencing earthquakes for the first time, as Ohioans living in Russ Belt City did on New Year’s Eve when they felt the tremors of a 4.0 magnitude quake that experts now say was linked to a 9,000-foot deep well in Youngstown, Ohio.
Gas-drilling operations at five locations across Youngstown were suspended by the state’s Department of Natural Resources on Sunday after experts cited wastewater injection at the sites as the likely cause.
Injection of wastewater at gas wells, called brine, is part of the hydraulic fracturing process used in horizontal oil drilling in which millions of gallons of water, mixed with sand and hundreds of unknown chemicals, are pumped underground at extreme pressures to break up the rock and free any gas deposits.
Ohio has experienced more than 10 earthquakes since March—an unprecedented number considering that, before this year, there hasn’t been an earthquake in the state since the 18th century, according to the New York Times.
But part of the missing story behind the earthquakes is that the community was organizing to put a stop on the particular D&L Energy-owned site before its injection activity disrupted the fault line on which it was built.
“For the last year the Youngstown community has been organizing against that well, and it’s been calling on state officials and it’s been calling on the industry to monitor it and regulate it and to look into what was causing the earthquakes,” says Janina Klimas, coordinator with the Ohio Student Environmental Coalition. “And the industry and the regulatory bodies obviously weren’t very interested in doing so. Unfortunately it took a 4.0 magnitude earthquake in the area to kind of get that wake up call.”
In late November, protesters planned an action at the injection site now linked to the earthquake. Seven community and environmental activists blocked the entrance gates to the injection facility and were subsequently arrested.
Klimas details more of the previous organizing going on in Ohio against the injection sites at WeArePowerShift.org.
“[Ohio Gov. John Kasich is] saying that the earthquakes from a waste injection well site are totally not related to fracking at all,” Klimas told Campus Progress, but said she thinks that “there’s a pretty strong argument that if we didn’t have fracking waste, we wouldn’t have a fracking waste injection well, and it wouldn’t be on a fault line and we wouldn’t have earthquakes.”
Ohio sits over the Marcellus Shale, the largest natural gas formation in the nation. Communities that reside on large shale areas have experienced a natural gas drilling boom in recent years and the trend correlates with seismic activity in previously inactive regions.
In addition to earthquakes, fracking has jeopardized drinking water and air quality for many communities at the expense of mineral rights owners who, because they own the minerals beneath the earth, can bring in surface developers to extract them.
It’s a practical problem embedded in many state legislatures around the country preventing community and environmental organizers from achieving full moratoriums on natural gas drilling in their areas.
In organizing for a moratorium in my own local town, the fight has been bitter. The Dallas-Fort Worth area alone has seen the spuration of about 15,000 gas wells since the modern technique of fracking shale gas was developed on the Barnett Shale in the 1990s.
“I’m 59 years old and in my lifetime I don’t recall ever hearing about an earthquake in the DFW area until they started fracking,” said Sharon Wilson, otherwise known as TXSharon, her online persona that runs the popular Texas drilling reform blog site, Bluedaze.
“It’s not new news,” Wilson says. “I was doing so many earthquake posts that I finally just put a couple studies in the frequently asked questions part. We already knew fracking was linked to earthquakes just like we know it contaminates our water.”
In my own experience in Denton, Tex., a coalition of community activists has been pushing the city council to investigate well sites that were operating without a special use permit. One site is relatively close to an athletics dormitory on our university campus.
Additionally, many localities have put together drilling task forces to give feedback, suggestions, and expertise on drilling regulation within city limits, but often these task forces may be stacked with industry spokespeople and representatives that are in fact not citizens of the particular city. One task force member in Denton, Ed Ireland of the Barnett Shale Energy Educational Council, is actually paid to teach children why fracking is good.
While there are still many practical problems facing activists pushing for local moratoriums and stricter drilling regulations across the country, it’s not all bad news on the fracking forefront. Many states have now mandated that drilling companies disclose what chemicals they pump into the ground to break up rock.
The shift toward clean and renewable energy in the much larger battle against climate change is still an uphill climb, but realities like earthquakes can’t be ignored by politicians and the oil-and-gas companies for much longer.
Rep. Bob Hagan will host a press conference at the Ohio Statehouse next week; Hagan has introduced legislation in support of a statewide fracking moratorium.