People Want Answers that Don’t Exist

Once upon a time, oil prices rose.  When these prices rose, it became financially viable to begin utilizing long known techniques for releasing oil from shale.  We’ve known how to do this for a long time, but it was too expensive and oil too cheap to make sense.  When the oil price rose, fracking was profitable and the Barnett Shale was opened to exploration.

When this happened, the NIMBY crowd started looking for any reason to complain and stop the drilling.  They had some false starts, like flaming water hoaxes and such, but they eventually settled on “fracking causes earthquakes” after there was a small (3.3) earthquake felt in Azle, Texas.

This is what we know:

  • Earthquakes most often happen without there being any human inducement.  This is just how the earth works.  Most often, an earthquake is just an earthquake and has nothing to do with us.
  • Earthquakes can occur in areas where we have never recorded earthquakes before.  Sometimes places that have been seismically quiet for centuries can abruptly become active.  This, too, can happen without any human inducement.
  • Sometimes earthquakes have a strong enough correlation with injection wells to suggest that the injection wells, along with other unknown factors, are a likely cause.

    You can infer that there are other factors involved, because,

  • The vast, vast majority of injection wells have no correlated seismic activity.
  • We also know that all earthquakes correlated with injection wells are small and produce no substantial property damage.

Finally, SMU and UT studied and confirmed all of this.

So what is the result at the end of the day?

  1. We don’t know what caused the earthquakes in Azle.  We know that there was an injection well very close to the epicenter, and that there have been other instances of injection wells very close to epicenters of places that were previously seismically quiet, suggesting that there is a correlation.
  2. We know that injection wells are not the sole cause of seismic activity, because there are thousands upon thousands of injection wells in this country that have no correlated seismic activity.
  3. We know that fracking has nothing to do with it.  There is no correlation between fracking and seismic activity (other than the explosives themselves used in the process, and those are barely detectable.)
  4. We know that even if the injection wells are causing small earthquakes, they cannot cause a big earthquake.
  5. Finally, if we keep studying this, we might find that there is a specific geological formation that, when injected with salt water, becomes seismically active.

If we do, that is a good thing for everyone, because we will know two things — we will know where not to drop an injection well, and we will know that it is very likely that we can drop injection wells anywhere else with a high degree of confidence.  Everyone wants to know that, the homeowners and the drillers.

One Comment

  1. “Correlation isn’t causation” should be taught along with “i before e except after c”.