No, it wasn’t Nikolai Tesla returning from the grave to stir up a little more mischief with his reciprocating machine. But if reports from Arkansas state scientists are to be believed, the recent rash of earthquakes that struck the state are manmade in nature.
Companies are often quick to suggest that America is simply being negligent complaining about oil and natural gas, when it sitting above vast buried reserves. But according to some, recent incidents in Arkansas illustrated that there’s sometimes more to the picture. Drilling, they say, can be dangerous and costly.
Arkansas has periodically been hit by small quakes throughout its long colonized history.
However, in the rural area north of the state’s capital, Little Rock, something strange was afoot. Starting last September the quakes began to get stronger and more frequent. Suddenly quakes would occur on a daily basis.
At a town hall meeting one citizen bemoans, “If the earthquakes continue to get stronger and stronger and stronger (sic), it’s going be people’s homes ruined, and possibly people’s lives.”
State geologists with the Arkansas Geological Survey became alarmed. Since last September, 1,200 small quakes had struck the region, including a magnitude 4.7 quake, the likes of which had not been seen in 35 years. Investigating, the geologists found a surprising connection — natural gas injection wells had been brought online at the same time as the quakes began.
The natural gas facilities use injection wells. Injection wells are the most common way to extract deep oil or gas deposits. They shoot pressurized water or steam deep into the Earth’s crust, washing up the lucrative hydrocarbons.
But in the case of the Arkansas wells, state geologists say the wells were near a fault line and that the disruption of deep sediments triggered local instabilities, which they believe caused the earthquakes. Nearly all of the quakes occurred between the major wells, geographically.
States Scott Ausbrooks in a CNN interview , “These wells went online and the earthquakes definitely went up in number and size of earthquakes. If there’s not some sort causal relations it is going to be an extraordinary coincidence.”
The natural gas companies disputed the theory, saying that not enough evidence existed to show a clear correlation. One company accused state officials of being in “a rush to find a villain.”
Nonetheless, they shut off the wells in March. And according to state officials, the quakes have grown less frequent.
Natural Gas extraction operators and pro-gas regulators still aren’t convinced, though. States Shane Khoury, AR Oil and Gas Commission, “The better question is whether [the quakes] are being induced or enhanced in any way by the injection operations in or both of these wells.”
Of course, this is the kind of case where science may never be able to absolutely “prove” what happened beyond a doubt. Nonetheless, a clear link between the injections and disruption of the local fault appears to have played out.
The good news is that not all oil and natural gas sediments across the U.S. fall near fault lines. The bad news is that some do.
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