Thursday, April 30, 2015

Fracking Our Way into the Unknown



Oklahoma, that battered state with unprecedented tornadoes is facing another anomaly—earthquakes. Although they are not unknown in the state, from 1972 to 2008 only an average of two were recorded each year. 
 
Then the lid came off the kettle.

Beginning in 2009, the frequency of annual earthquakes increased to hundreds in 2014 and 2015, an occurrence that now has a name—earthquake swarms. One of the most significant earthquakes of this current swarm was a 5.6 magnitude earthquake east of the Oklahoma City area, the strongest in the history of Oklahoma. Makes hornets in the backyard seem like a minor inconvenience.

2014 recorded 567 Oklahoma earthquakes (of at least 3.0 magnitude) in Oklahoma, more than those of that size during the previous 30 years combined. This sort of thing is happening elsewhere as well, where ‘swarms’ are found in and around fracking sites. Ohio and Pennsylvania, both states with not much quake history are shaking, rattling and rolling. Both states are fracking-active as well.

So take all that as you will. But the United States Geological Survey (USGS) says that small quakes can lead to large ones, particularly along ‘fault lines.’  Active volcanoes are at risk as well. Interestingly, fracking seems not so much of a risk as the disposal of fracking liquids, but it’s early days in the research.

So, two recent convergences caught my attention. 

First, Wyoming is among the most active in fracking sites. Enough that Earth Justice reports “In the drilling rig-studded Upper Green River Basin, levels of ozone—the main component of smog - have reached 124 parts per billion—well over the federal safety standard and worse than the worst day in Los Angeles in 2010.” 

Ah well, just another environmental outfit getting excited, no? But the location of those sites bothers me and I’ll tell you why. Three of the four Wyoming sites are contiguous to the eastern and southern boundaries of Yellowstone National Park.

And therein lies the rub of that second convergence.

I’d never heard of the Yellowstone Caldera until a couple of days ago, although I’ve visited the park numerous times and hunted nearby in Montana. But I read an article that called it a super-volcano located in Yellowstone National Park. 

Volcanoes scare me. Mount Ranier, near Seattle is a threat to pop off and I drove past Mt. St. Helens (a segment of the Pacific Ring of Fire that includes over 160 active volcanoes) on my way up the coast in the summer of 1980. It blew its top on the day after my birthday. Not a pretty sight, as our car made an actual motorboat-wake of ash on the highway. 

The Yellowstone Supervolcano makes St. Helens seem tiny. The magma (molten lava) lying under this caldera measures 34 by 45 miles and contains enough lava to fill the Grand Canyon.

That got my attention. Consider the convergences tied up neatly and pray we don’t foolishly and ignorantly untie them.

According to our old friend Wikipedia, “currently, volcanic activity is exhibited via numerous geothermal vents scattered throughout the region, including the famous Old Faithful Geyser, plus recorded ground swelling indicating ongoing inflation of the underlying magma chamber.

Swelling? Ongoing inflation? Could the bursting of that bubble be set off by nearby fracking?

Who the hell knows? Cluster-earthquakes are known to trigger larger ones and It doesn’t take much to ignite an explosion if the material is in place. The materials seem uncomfortably close in this particular circumstance.

So, along with the threat (and in some cases actuality) of poisoning our precious underground fresh-water aquifers, major earthquakes triggering both major and minor eruptions are a fracking possibility.

By the by, those aquifers are themselves interesting and contain what’s left of a major resource. As an example, the Ogallala Aquifer of the central United States is one of the world's great aquifers. This huge freshwater source, which underlies portions of eight states, contains primarily fossil water from the time of the last glaciation

Think about that. The water we put at risk is 12,000 years old and cannot be sufficiently recharged from the surface.

Anyway, that’s my day’s take on fracking and I know it promises energy independence, but there are other options and simply too many unanswered questions to take fracking at face value. Question number one; what the hell are they pumping down into the earth?

The answer is they won’t tell us. The fracking industry won’t even tell the EPA who purports (small laugh) to regulate them. Frackers claim all that chemical glop is an industrial secret and cannot be disclosed. Al Capone would have loved to use that excuse for bootleg whiskey.

I would suppose that if a pharmaceutical company refused to disclose the content and testing circumstances of a new drug, the FDA would simply deny them a certification. Case closed. With fracking, it seems logical to tell them, 

“You don’t have to tell us what chemicals you’re pumping into the ground. Simply pack up your equipment and go home until you do.”