Shortly before midnight Mountain Time on August 23, the largest earthquake in Colorado in more than a century, with a magnitude of 5.3, sent tremors as far away as Kansas. Some twelve hours later, a magnitude 5.8 earthquake centered in Northern Virginia sent shock waves as far away as Toronto. The local damage in each event did not appear extensive, though structural effects, on bridges, tunnels, nuclear power plants and more are yet to be determined.
Through the afternoon and evening of August 23rd, the national media uncovered the big story of the East Coast quake: where their colleagues posted in New York or Washington were and what they thought when they felt a bump, sway, rumble or funny feeling. But with no national correspondents already on site, the Colorado quake was left to the locals. But both quakes were profound, rippling with far-reaching lessons about our outdated and unsafe energy practices that we ignore at great peril.
1. Human activity can cause earthquakes. No less an authority than the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) asserts this. And they offer as an illustration a series of atypical Colorado quakes in the 1960s, resulting from the Army’s injection of waste fluid produced by its Rocky Mountain Arsenal chemical weapons plant northeast of Denver.
2. Seismic activity has been linked to the injection of waste water from the unconventional production of natural gas using hydraulic fracturing (also known as fracking). A southeastern New Mexico area that has been experiencing repeated earthquakes since the late 1990s are near the injection wells for oil production waste water, the New Mexico Tech Observatory has reported. In April 2011, in Arkansas, two natural gas wells were closed down until scientists can determine why over a thousand unexplained earthquakes occurred in areas near drilling sites and waste injection wells. Since the well’s closing, a supervisor at the Arkansas Geological Survey reports, incidence of earthquakes have declined dramatically, much as they did in Colorado fifty years ago.
3. The petroleum industry is resistant to taking into account scientific and historical data. In late summer 2001, a swarm of earthquakes occurred near fracking waste water injection wells outside of Trinidad, Colorado, and USGS has not ruled out the wells as the cause. The epicenter of the August 22 Colorado quake was Trinidad, the capital of Las Animas County, the vastest county in Colorado and, for over a decade, the hotbed of state’s most extensive fracking operations, including the unconventional coalbed methane extraction. Las Animas is one of seven locations in the U.S. where the EPA announced that it will launch a study to determine the impacts of hydraulic fracturing, focusing on Las Animas’ drinking water. But local groups say the physical stability of the region could be at risk.
4. Nuclear plants which lie on fault lines intensify the risks of earthquakes. With Japan’s nuclear catastrophe on the public radar, the nuclear power industry has been quick to assure that American reactors have been built to resist such seismic events. The North Anna nuclear plant, less than 20 miles from the Virginia quake, shut down automatically, venting a small amount of steam but no radioactive material, according to plant spokesperson. But one reactor is already not functioning and the others are running on diesel. As early as 1973, plant owners knew that a fault line ran under the reactors, and covered it up. The plant was built amid mudslide and rock falls, clear signs of geological instability.
5. Industry often seeks to keep information and historical data private.The epicenter of Virginia’s earthquake lies near the Marcellus Shale. Though no hydraulic fracturing permits have been issued due to a legal suit by the Southern Environmental Law Center, the Center considers the George Washington National Forest — much of which lies above the Marcellus — among the ten most endangered in the South due to hydraulic fracturing plans for the area. A half century of lessons from Colorado’s history with fluid injection and earthquakes will be essential to safeguard the integrity of Virginia’s fragile and ecologically essential Marcellus region. But while Virginia’s Marcellus has not been fracked yet, the commonwealth has been in the forefront of coal bed methane extraction, which — like shale bed extraction — depends on hydraulic fracturing, horizontal drilling, blasting, explosions and injection of waste water under the earth.
[Image via John Murden, Creative Commons licensed]