With the release this week of a new study from the University of Texas, the debate over whether fracking causes earthquakes has intensified, with anti-fracking activists continuing to call for a halt to the controversial technique of shale gas and oil fracking.
But what does the science say? Does fracking cause earthquakes, and, if so, are we talking a harmless rumble or a planet-cracking disaster?
Early news reports covering the study were quick to label it conclusive proof that fracking causes earthquakes, despite clear, unequivocal statements from the Texas study’s co-author Cliff Frolich like “Although there is a considerable amount of hydraulic fracturing activity in the Eagle Ford, we don’t see a strong signal associated with that and earthquakes.”
Are we right to be afraid of fracking earthquakes?
The University of Texas report adds weight to previous studies which suggest that fracking wells may not be the cause of the seismic disturbances.
In fact, the study concludes, quakes are likely caused by the underground disposal of waste water from conventional oil and gas wells, not from fracking operations. So can we say that fracking does not cause earthquakes?
Unfortunately, the case is still not that simple. The truth is that current research can neither confirm or rule out fracking as a cause of tremors, though this doesn’t stop commentators on both sides of the issue from weighing in.
So what should we do? Cliff Frolich told the San Antonio Express-News: “I don’t think people should be hugely concerned because of the huge amount of production and injection we’ve had in Texas. If it were a big problem, Texas would be famous for all its earthquakes.” He added that “this is a phenomenon that we need to understand, but it’s not appropriate to say it’s vastly dangerous.”
The key to minimising future earthquakes lies in more research: by uncovering the mechanisms behind the quakes, we can develop safer ways of accessing valuable fossil fuels.