Josh Harkinson

Josh Harkinson

Reporter

Born in Texas and based in San Francisco, Josh covers tech, labor, drug policy, and the environment. PGP public key.

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Was the Los Angeles Earthquake Caused by Fracking Techniques?

| Mon Mar. 17, 2014 6:44 PM EDT
The epicenter of today's LA quake was eight miles from oil waste injection wells. Kyle Ferrar, FracTracker Alliance

Was the 4.4-magnitude earthquake that rattled Los Angeles on Monday morning caused by fracking methods? It's hard to say, but what's clear from the above map, made by Kyle Ferrar of the FracTracker Alliance, is that the quake's epicenter was just eight miles from a disposal well where oil and gas wastewater is being injected underground at high pressure.

Don Drysdale, spokesman for the state agency that oversees California Geological Survey, told me that state seismologists don't think that the injection well was close enough to make a difference (and the agency has also raised the possibility that Monday's quake could have been a foreshock for a larger one). But environmental groups aren't so sure.

In 2011, a 5.7-magnitude temblor in Oklahoma—where quakes are rare—destroyed 14 homes and baffled seismologists.

In other states, injection wells located 7.5 miles from a fault have been shown to induce seismic activity, points out Andrew Grinberg, the oil and gas project manager for Clean Water Action. "We are not saying that this quake is a result of an injection," he adds, "but with so many faults all over California, we need a better understanding of how, when, and where induced seismicity can occur with relation to injection."

"Shaky Ground," a new report from Clean Water Action, Earthworks, and the Center for Biological Diversity, argues that the close proximity of such wells to active faults could increase the state's risk of earthquakes. According to the report, more than half of the state's permitted oil wastewater injection wells are located less than 10 miles from an active fault, and 87 of them, or about 6 percent, are located within a mile of an active fault.

Scientists have long known that injecting large amounts of wastewater underground can cause earthquakes by increasing pressure and reducing friction along fault lines. One of the best known early examples took place in 1961, when the US Army disposed of millions of gallons of hazardous waste by injecting it 12,000 feet beneath the surface of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal near Denver. The influx caused more than 1,500 earthquakes over a five year period in an area not known for seismic activity; the worst among them registered at more than 5.0 on the Richter scale and caused $500,000 in damage. Geologists later discovered that the Army well had been drilled into an unknown fault.

As Michael Behar detailed in-depth last year in Mother Jones, fracking is now a leading suspect for a spate of serious earthquakes in places that hardly ever see them, such as Oklahoma, where in 2011, a 5.7-magnitude temblor destroyed 14 homes and baffled seismologists.

"In some locations of the US, the disposal of wastewater associated with oil/gas production, including hydraulic fracturing operations, appears to have triggered some low-magnitude seismic activity," concedes Drysdale, the Geological Survey spokesman. But in California, he adds, oil companies are required to evaluate surrounding geology before disposing of wastewater underground, and can't inject it at dangerously high pressures.

Yet Grinberg, a coauthor of the "Shaky Ground" report, says that the existing regulations don't go far enough now that quake-prone California is poised for a fracking boom. Though he'd like to see a moratorium on fracking while the risks are studied, he wants any eventual regulations to at least require seismic monitoring at or near injection wells and to look at the cumulative earthquake risk of entire oil fields.

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Listen: Radio Ads From America's Pot-Growing Mecca

| Mon Mar. 17, 2014 5:00 AM EDT

No place in America grows as much marijuana as Northern California's Trinity, Mendocino, and Humboldt counties. Backcountry pot farming isn't just a leading industry in the so-called Emerald Triangle; it's pretty much the only industry. As I discovered on a recent road trip to investigate the environmental impacts of large-scale pot farming, nowhere is this more obvious than on the radio. Here's a sampling of actual ads you're likely to hear on the way to your neighbor's bud-trimming party:

In a Radical Shift, California Police Chiefs Push for Regulation of Medical Marijuana

| Thu Mar. 13, 2014 5:00 AM EDT

California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana, but like the pimply-faced stoner dude you may have known in high school, it hasn't had the healthiest of relationships with Mary Jane. The Golden State differs from most others with medical pot laws in that it doesn't actually regulate production and sale of the herb. Instead, it lets cities and counties enact their own laws—though in practice most haven't. The result has been the Wild West of weed: Almost any adult can score a scrip and some bud from a local dispensary, assuming, of course, that it hasn't yet been raided and shut down by the feds. 

But all of that might be about to change. The California Police Chiefs Association (CPCA) recently announced support for a bill that would put the state in the business of regulating the medical pot trade. Though you'd think cops would have pushed for such a thing decades ago, the reality is quite the opposite: The CPCA and other law enforcement organizations have, until now, opposed pretty much every reform to California's medical marijuana system for fear that anything short of completely abolishing it would legitimize it.

"With no regulations, you get your doors kicked in."

The CPCA's change of heart "is a huge for us," says Nate Bradley, executive director of the California Cannabis Industry Association, the state's marijuana industry trade group. Bradley agrees with his police adversaries that tighter regs would legitimize medical marijuana, which is why the CCIA has pushed for them since the group's inception four years ago. Bolstering his case, the US Department of Justice last year announced that it would no longer raid dispensaries in states that it believes are regulating them adequately—a formulation that seemed to exclude California. New rules issued last month by the Obama administration allow banks to accept funds from pot dealers, but only if they're licensed in the state where they operate.

So why are California's drug warriors reversing course? "We could no longer ignore that the political landscape on this issue was shifting," the CPCA explained in a letter written jointly with the League of California Cities. Polls and changing federal policies suggest that medical pot reform "could be enacted," and that "without our proactive intervention, it could take a form that was severely damaging to our interests."

The bill that law enforcement groups are backing, SB 1262, is flawed, but it's something that "we can work with," says Bradley, who previously worked as a cop in California's Yuba County. Advocates of medical pot don't like how the bill constrains the ability of doctors to recommend marijuana, outlaws potent pot concentrates such as hash oil, and puts regulation in the hands of the Department of Public Health, rather than the Department of Alcoholic Beverages Control.

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