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Two recent reports on Ohio’s wastewater injection well program discredit chronic allegations by opponents of hydraulic fracturing. These include claims that the creation of such wells leads directly to earthquakes, and that the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has neglected to establish proper regulations to keep Ohioans safe.
The first report, released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, responded to a letter signed by 23 anti-fracking groups in Ohio. They demanded a federal audit of ODNR’s well program and asked the agency to override the department’s regulatory authority. They charged ODNR with violating the Safe Drinking Water Act and providing “inadequate public notice and public participation” in the well permitting process.
Contrary to activists’ claims, the EPA concludes that ODNR runs “a good quality program.” It notes that Ohio has “taken concrete steps to address emerging issues, and in particular has adopted regulations to reduce risk from seismic-related activities.”
The report cites ODNR’s “areas of strong performance”: its handling of inspections, its ability to resolve violations, its permitting processes, and its ability to keep pace with changes in the well program. The EPA says ODNR’s communications decisions are “within the bounds of the EPA-approved program.”
The second report, issued by StatesFirst, a partnership of the Ground Water Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, buttresses the EPA’s findings in Ohio. It praises ODNR’s management and communications operations.
The StatesFirst report refutes the claim that fracking often causes earthquakes — one of the knee-jerk, frequently parroted arguments of fracking opponents. It concludes that most injection wells “do not pose a hazard for induced seismicity” and that “only a few dozen … wells are believed to have induced felt earthquakes.”
Hydraulic fracturing has been used in at least one million wells since 1947. It has proved to be safe and effective.
Isaac Orr, a research fellow at the Heartland Institute, notes that in “nearly 200 instances of man-made earthquakes studied [since 1929], hydraulic fracturing was found to have been responsible for three earthquakes large enough to be felt on the surface.” A Durham University study cited by Mr. Orr concludes that hydraulic fracturing “is not a significant mechanism for inducing felt earthquakes,” and that it is “extremely unlikely any of us will be able to feel [a fracking-caused] earthquake.”
Earthquakes produced by wastewater injection wells are more common, but they are rare and not very powerful. The EPA concluded last year that most injection wells do not cause earthquakes, and that “very few” earthquakes produced by those that do can be felt by humans.
Another study, published in the journal Science in 2014, found that only four of the roughly 4,500 injection wells in Oklahoma were likely to have induced seismic activity.
Using the term “earthquake” to refer to the minor seismic activity produced by the overwhelming number of injection wells is technically correct, but highly misleading. When most people think of an earthquake, they think of something similar to the quakes that occurred in San Francisco in 1906 and Los Angeles in 1994.
Those tragic events included deaths, collapsed buildings, chewed-up roadways, fires, and pandemonium. The seismic activity produced by injection wells comes nowhere close to such disasters.
The biggest “earthquake” produced in Ohio because of an injection well registered only a magnitude of 3 (M3.0) on the moment magnitude scale (MMS). The U.S. Geological Survey notes that such a tremor creates only “vibrations similar to the passing of a truck.”
The MMS is a logarithmic scale; an M4.0 is 10 times as powerful as an M3.0, and an M5.0 is 100 times as powerful. To cause structural damage, an earthquake must usually be above M5.5.
By comparison, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake registered M7.8 — more than 10,000 times as powerful as an M3.0. These measurements indicate why it is more accurate to describe the rarely experienced seismic activity produced by injection wells as tremors, rather than earthquakes.
Despite what fact-challenged anti-frackers claim, sensible precautions and regulations — such as those undertaken by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources — can mitigate the risks of damage from seismic activity created by wastewater disposal injection wells.
The EPA has confirmed this. Other states with a significant fracking presence should follow ODNR’s lead.