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Fracking's Latest Scandal? Earthquake Swarms

Turns out that when a barely regulated industry injects highly pressurized wastewater into faults, things can go terribly wrong.

Ausbrooks and Horton partnered for nearly a year to research the Arkansas earthquakes, driving around the state to install seismometers and collect data. And yet when it came time to publish the results in a leading scholarly journal, Seismological Research Letters, Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe forced Ausbrooks to remove his name as coauthor. Ausbrooks' boss at the Arkansas Geological Survey is Bekki White, who did two decades of consulting for the petroleum industry prior to her current post. "Ms. White conferred with our office," Matt DeCample, a Beebe spokesman, tells me. "We felt that putting the state and/or Mr. Ausbrooks as a coauthor would represent additional academic credentials beyond their usual scope of work. The survey is in the business of data collection, not interpreting that data and reaching conclusions." When I ask Ausbrooks for a better explanation, he laughs nervously. "Oh, let's just say, I want to say, but I can't. I'll just put it this way: There's money and politics involved." (The state collects $14 million in property taxes from Chesapeake Energy alone.)

Joe and Mary Reneau.

Fracking is an area where conflicts of interest seem particularly apt to emerge. In December, UT-Austin was forced to retract a much-ballyhooed study showing that fracking didn't pollute groundwater after Bloomberg News and an independent analysis by the Public Accountability Initiative revealed that the lead author (and former head of the USGS), Charles Groat, had received an undisclosed 10,000 shares a year and an annual fee ($58,500 in 2011) from a fracking company. The head of UT-Austin's Energy Institute, Raymond Orbach, also stepped down. (Groat is now the head of the Water Institute of the Gulf in Louisiana; Orbach remains at UT.)

Seismologists and geophysicists who work in academia often consult for the oil and gas industry. For example, Stanford's Zoback is on the board of the Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America, a nonprofit oil and gas advocacy group whose charter is to "effectively deliver hydrocarbons from domestic resources to the citizens of the United States." Its members include Halliburton, Chevron, BP, and ConocoPhillips. During our conversations, he peppers his answers to my queries with caveats. "People forget that earthquakes are a natural geologic process, and in most of the cases, what the [injection wells] are doing is relieving forces already in the Earth's crust on faults that would have someday produced an earthquake anyway—maybe thousands of years from now. The oil industry has a history of operating 155,000 [wells] without a problem. Now we have a handful of cases. Without seeming like I'm taking industry's side, where is the problem?"

Keranen, too, juggles conflicting interests. When we talk, she occasionally cuts herself off mid-sentence and then confesses, apologetically, "I have to be careful what I say." Her research on the Prague quakes hasn't been published and she seems concerned it might antagonize those who will decide on her academic tenure. Randy Keller is the chair of the University of Oklahoma's ConocoPhillips School of Geology and Geophysics. In 2007, the energy behemoth donated $6 million to the university, earning it top billing. Keller is also director of the Oklahoma Geological Survey, which has a mandate to "promote wise use of Oklahoma's natural resources." Such alliances make it difficult for him to point fingers. In December 2011, the OGS published an official position statement on induced seismicity, emphasizing that quakes could easily originate through natural dynamics and that "a rush to judgment" would be "harmful to state, public, and industry interests."

When I emailed Keller in October to inquire whether the OGS had modified its assessment in the face of Keranen's findings, he replied, "We do feel that the location of these events…the nature of the aftershock sequence, and the focal mechanisms can be explained by a natural event." A few hours later, he sent me a follow-up. "I wonder if you understand what I was trying to say. We have never flatly said that the injection wells did not trigger the earthquakes. Our opinion is that we do not yet have the data and research results to make a definitive statement about this issue." Keranen walks the same line, saying that her study will show that wastewater injection "very potentially" roused the Wilzetta Fault. Politics aside, there's widespread scientific consensus that unregulated wastewater injection presents a serious risk to public safety. "We're seeing mid-5.0 earthquakes, and they've caused significant damage," Rubinstein says. "We're beyond nuisance."

So what would the scientists do? One option is to require operators to check geological records before drilling new wells. The Wilzetta, mapped during Oklahoma's 1950s oil boom, could have been avoided. Another approach is using high-frequency sound waves to render three-dimensional images of underlying faults—technology that oil and gas companies already employ to hunt for untapped reservoirs. For existing wells, operators could set up seismometers to capture the tremors that often portend larger events. Finally, simply pumping less water into wells might mitigate earthquakes. Horton attempted to test this tactic in Arkansas. "We suggested reducing the amount of fluid they were injecting and continue [seismic] monitoring. We actually submitted a proposal to the industry to do that and they blew us off." Ohio's regulations for Class II wells, effective as of October, encompass many of these proposals.

Stanford's Zoback is not opposed to regulation, so long as it's not a knee-jerk reaction: "Three things are predictable whenever earthquakes occur that might be caused by fluid injection: The companies involved deny it, the regulators go into a brain freeze because they don't know what to do, and the press goes into a feeding frenzy because they get to beat up on the oil and gas industry, whether it is responsible or not. While I'm making a joke here, there is currently no framework for scientifically based regulation. Assessing and managing the risk associated with triggered seismicity is a complex issue. The last thing we want to implement is a bunch of new regulations that are well meaning but ineffective and unduly burdensome."

Getting regulators to agree on new rules is not going to be easy, because the connection between injection wells and earthquakes is inherently circumstantial. Seismologists can't situate sensors miles underground the instant an earthquake occurs, which means they might never be absolutely certain that wastewater and not natural forces led to the rupture. Frohlich puts it this way: "If you do the statistics, smoking causes lung cancer. But that doesn't mean that smoking caused your lung cancer." Ultimately, the courts may decide how much evidence is enough, if the lawsuit in Arkansas goes to trial.

Until then, the Reneaus face more home repairs and an uncertain future. When I leave, Joe walks me out to the driveway. Resurfaced after it buckled in the quake, it's already showing hairline cracks from recent tremors. Joe blames injection wells but thinks culpability will be hard to come by. "My theory is that even if God came down and said, 'You oil company guys are at fault,' they would still deny it. The only thing that's going to stop this is another big earthquake."

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