The newest USDA maps depicting earthquake risks from both natural and human-induced sources comes with a groundbreaking admission. According to the report, fracking is the primary risk factor responsible for causing human-induced earthquakes.
The maps focus on the central and eastern portions of the U.S, which is otherwise referred to as the CEUS. In this region, an astounding 3.5 million people live and work in the areas that have ‘significant potential’ for human-induced seismic activity in 2017. The majority of which are living in southern Kansas and Oklahoma. Yet only half a million people are at risk from naturally caused seismic activity in 2017. Out of 4 million people who are currently at a high risk for seismic activity, 3.5 million are in harm’s way due to human-induced earthquakes.
Human-induced earthquakes are those caused by human activities. The USGA cites wastewater disposal from fracking as the primary factor for the majority of the CEUS. While Oklahoma only average about two earthquakes that were greater than or equal to magnitude 2.7 annually, their risk is now equal to the high-hazard areas of California, due to the disposal of wastewater.
“The 2016 forecast was quite accurate in assessing hazardous areas, especially in Oklahoma,” said Petersen. “Significant damage was experienced in Oklahoma during the past year as was forecasted in the 2016 model. However, the significantly decreased number of earthquakes in north Texas and Arkansas was not expected, and this was likely due to a decline in injection activity.”
“There is specific concern in parts of the central U.S. since the forecasted hazard levels are higher than what is considered in current building codes, which only incorporate natural earthquakes,” said Petersen.
Just last year, Oklahoma regulators began releasing guidelines for the first time in attempts to reduce the risk of major earthquakes that have been induced due to fracking operations. Included in those measures was a mandate that would work to immediately shut down operations in the event of a magnitude 3.5 or higher earthquake.
Jeremy Boak, the director of the Oklahoma Geological Survey stated that the overall number of earthquakes had decreased over the past year, however, the number of higher magnitude earthquakes has hit an all time high.
One example of this was back in September when the largest earthquake in the state’s history struck near Pawnee. It was registered as a magnitude 5.8.
Mark Peterson believes that continued regulations on wastewater injection along with declining oil and gas prices may have contributed to the decline in the total number of earthquakes. I don’t know when or if it will go back to the pre-2008 era,” he said on a conference call for journalists. “But I think it’s hopeful that we can considerably decrease the number of earthquakes in that region.”
And while the newest report brings much insight into the true nature of fracking, this information serves no purpose without action. Both Maryland and New York has shut down fracking operations in their states and it appears that if other states don’t begin following suit, that we could be seeing a rise in earthquake magnitude. Hopefully, the USGA’s report will inspire state legislatures to follow suit with Oklahoma and make the beginning steps to thwart human-induced seismic activity.