Are Arkansas’ earthquakes manmade? While scientists work to determine the cause of over 700 earthquakes in a phenomenon that has come to be known as the Guy Earthquake Swarm, alarms are sounding that the quakes are caused by waste disposal for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for natural gas.
Fracking is the process of injecting fluids into oil or gas wells at high pressure in order to fracture the formations and enable the oil or gas to flow more freely and be pumped to the surface. Some of the fracking fluid stays underground, and some of it returns to the surface as waste. Since 2009, natural gas drillers have been pumping fracking wastes, also known as ‘produced water’ into disposal wells in the region around Guy, Arkansas. Beginning in that same time period, the region began experiencing earthquakes, including last Sunday’s quake measuring 4.7 on the Richter scale.
The earthquake issue came to a head last week when two natural gas drillers suspended their practice of injecting fracking wastes underground.
Waste disposal for hydraulic fracturing is a particularly hot-button issue. State regulators across the country struggle with the question of what to do with produced water. New Mexico is fighting a high-profile battle right now around waste disposal pits; among other things, industry does not want to be required to line waste disposal pits. Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania the state is clashing with the US EPA over whether fracking wastewater should be processed in municipal sewage treatment plants, with the US EPA arguing that the municipal systems aren’t equipped to protect Pennsylvania’s waterways from radioactive particles and other chemicals in the produced water.
When considering these surface impacts, many observers consider that re-injecting the produced water is environmentally preferable. However, the revelation from Arkansas linking re-injected water to earthquakes shows that there is no good solution to hydraulic fracturing waste. It is toxic on the surface and dangerous underground.
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