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U.S. Government Confirms Link Between Earthquakes and Shale Gas Extraction

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As the natural gas industry mounts an unprecedented advertising campaign to convince the public that fracking is environmentally benign, US government agencies have determined otherwise.

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On November 5, an earthquake measuring 5.6 rattled Oklahoma and was felt as far away as Illinois.

Until two years ago Oklahoma typically had about 50 earthquakes a year, but in 2010, 1,047 quakes shook the state.

Why?

In Lincoln County, where most of this past weekend's seismic incidents were centered, there are 181 injection wells, according to Matt Skinner, an official from the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, the agency which oversees oil and gas production in the state.

Cause and effect?

The practice of injecting water into deep rock formations causes earthquakes, both the U.S. Army and the U.S. Geological Survey have concluded.

The U.S. natural gas industry pumps a mixture of water and assorted chemicals deep underground to shatter sediment layers containing natural gas, a process called hydraulic fracturing, known more informally as "fracking." While environmental groups have primarily focused on fracking's capacity to pollute underground water, a more ominous byproduct emerges from U.S. government studies; forcing fluids under high pressure deep underground produces increased regional seismic activity.

As the U.S. natural gas industry mounts an unprecedented and expensive advertising campaign to convince the public that such practices are environmentally benign, U.S. government agencies have determined otherwise.

According to the U.S. Army's Rocky Mountain Arsenal website, the RMA drilled a deep well for disposing of the site's liquid waste after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency "concluded that this procedure is effective and protective of the environment." According to the RMA, "The Rocky Mountain Arsenal deep injection well was constructed in 1961, and was drilled to a depth of 12,045 feet" and 165 million gallons of Basin F liquid waste, consisting of "very salty water that includes some metals, chlorides, wastewater and toxic organics" was injected into the well during 1962-1966.

Why was the process halted? "The Army discontinued use of the well in February 1966 because of the possibility that the fluid injection was "triggering earthquakes in the area," according to the RMA. In 1990, the "Earthquake Hazard Associated with Deep Well Injection--A Report to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency" study of RMA events by Craig Nicholson, and R.I. Wesson stated simply, "Injection had been discontinued at the site in the previous year once the link between the fluid injection and the earlier series of earthquakes was established."

Twenty-five years later, "possibility" and "established" changed in the Environmental Protection Agency's July 2001 87-page study, "Technical Program Overview: Underground Injection Control Regulations EPA 816-r-02-025," which reported, "In 1967, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) determined that a deep, hazardous waste disposal well at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal was causing significant seismic events in the vicinity of Denver, Colorado."

There is a significant divergence between "possibility," "established" and "was causing," and the most recent report was a decade ago. Much hydraulic fracturing to liberate shale oil gas in the Marcellus shale has occurred since.

According to the USGS website, under the undated heading, "Can we cause earthquakes? Is there any way to prevent earthquakes?" the agency notes, "Earthquakes induced by human activity have been documented in a few locations in the United States, Japan, and Canada.

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