What We Know About Fracking Activity and the Ohio Earthquake

Map by US Geological Survey

A map of the internet response to the Ohio earthquake, with its epicenter

What happened with the earthquake in Ohio over the weekend, and how is it linked to fracking? Here’s what we know:

  • The earthquake measured 4.0, the largest in Ohio this year.
  • The New York Times is reporting that Ohio officials say the earthquake wasn’t caused by fracking, but rather by injection wells disposing of used fracking fluid. These wells are used to send the wastewater from fracking (a mix of water, sand and chemicals) deep underground for disposal.
  • The Times is also reporting that officials in Ohio say dispoal operations will “remain halted in the Youngstown area until scientists could analyze data from the most recent of a string of earthquakes there.”
  • This is the eleventh earthquake in the Youngstown area this year, and the most intense one. The earthquakes have all taken place near an injection well that goes 9,200 feet deep, according to the Times, and “as been used for the disposal of millions of gallons of brine and other waste liquids produced at natural-gas wells.”
  • Most of the injection wells in Ohio are for storing fracking fluids from wells in Pennsylvania.
  • Northeast Ohio is not a stranger to earthquakes, with reports dating back to 1823 but they typically do not occur at such a magnitude, according to the US Geological Survey. Their largest quake ever happened in 1986, with a magnitude of 4.8, which caused damage. Another large quake took place in 1998, with a magnitude of 4.5
  • An earthquake in Ohio with a magnitude of 4.0 might seem like small potatoes to those living on the fault line in California, but the US Geological Survey says that quakes are vastly different east of the Rockies. Earthquakes there “are typically felt over a much broader region” and “can be felt over an area as much as ten times larger than a similar magnitude earthquake on the west coast.”
  • A similar earthquake (with a magnitude of 4.8) occurred in South Texas in October, an area of heavy fracking for both natural gas and oil in the Eagle Ford Shale.

The big question in all of this is: Does fracking activity cause earthquakes? Our sister site StateImpact Pennyslvania, which closely follows drilling in that state, took a stab at the question earlier this year.

The short answer is yes, if you consider that deep injection wells are a part of the fracking process. While the actual fracking wells that source oil and gas have not been directly tied to earthquakes, the use of these deep injection wells has. There have been other earthquakes linked to injection wells in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, as well as in Arkansas and England. You can read the rest of their explainer here.

A seismologist with the University of Texas told KUT News after the October quake in South Texas that fracking itself doesn’t cause earthquakes, but that deep injection wells can. “They [drilling companies] pump the water back into the ground into a deep aquifer to get rid of it,” Cliff Frohlich of UT’s Institute for Geophysics told KUT News at the time. “The quakes have been associated with the pumping of water back into the ground, not the producing of the gas,” he said.

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