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Did Jonathan Franzen Predict the Fracking-Causes-Earthquakes Debate 20 Years Ago?

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Did Jonathan Franzen, the American novelist who broke through to semi-household name status with his 2001 novel The Corrections (and its subsequent Oprah-related controversy) predict the current fracking-causes-earthquakes kerfuffle back in 1992?

As Brian Ted Jones points out over at litcrit site The Millions, Franzen’s second novel, Strong Motion, published in 1992 to critical acclaim but negligible sales (I got my copy for 79 cents off a remainder table), tells the story of a mysterious outbreak of earthquakes in Massachusetts. One of the earthquakes kills the grandmother of protagonist Louis Holland, setting off much Franzen-style family tension over her inheritance. During the feuding, Holland meets and falls in love with seismologist Reneé Seitcheck, who has discovered, Jones notes, “that these earthquakes are the byproduct of industrial drilling. The responsible party is a petrochemical firm whose agents attempt to assassinate Seitcheck after she proves that the company’s practice of injecting toxic waste into the ground is the cause of the bizarre quakes.”

Jones, a trial lawyer born and raised in Oklahoma, writes that his state -- like Massachusetts, not a region much known for seismic activity in the past -- has seen an alarming rise in earthquakes, such as the 5.6 magnitude one that “struck the tiny town of Sparks in Lincoln County, Oklahoma. The quake was one of the largest ever recorded in the state’s history, and another example of the sharp increase in seismic activity Oklahoma has experienced in recent years. Up through 2009, Oklahoma had averaged about fifty earthquakes a year. The total number of quakes reported in 2010?  1,047.”

Number of injection wells currently active in Lincoln County? 181.

Jones’ short piece notes that there are still plenty of experts -- as well as an entire industry -- denying or downplaying the connection between fracking and the recent increase in earthquake activity. He quotes one such cautious expert, Oklahoma Geological Survey seismologist Austin Holland (no relation to the lead character in Strong Motion -- that’s just an odd coincidence) who “told the Associated Press there’s no reason -- at this point -- to blame these quakes on anything other than normal seismic activity.”

“However,” Jones continues, “Mr. Holland has studied this question before, and his findings were quite a bit more troubling -- even if his way of putting them was transparently cautious. In a paper entitled ‘Examination of Possibly Induced Seismicity from Hydraulic Fracturing in the Eola Field, Garvin County, Oklahoma’ (available here), Mr. Holland said:

The strong spatial and temporal correlations to the hydraulic-fracturing in Picket Unit B Well 4-18 (located in Garvin County Oklahoma) certainly suggest that the earthquakes observed in the Eola Field (also in Garvin County Oklahoma) could have possibly been triggered by this activity.

In that same paper, Mr. Holland admitted an important proximity in time between fracking and episodes of unusual seismicity, noted that the epicenters of the Garvin County earthquakes were within five kilometers of the injection wells, and that the earthquakes occurred at, or near, the associated injection depths. Mr. Holland’s conclusion, however, was basically, ‘Still -- we can’t say for sure that fracking causes earthquakes.’ ”

Jones is most troubled, though, by Holland’s “weird epilogue” to his paper, in which he seems to suggest that, should a connection between fracking and earthquakes be established definitively, the silver lining would be that current research might “provide oil and gas operators the ability to minimize any adverse effects[.]”

As Jones quite reasonably notes: “[A]ren’t the earthquakes the adverse effects we’re talking about here? If a scientist has shown that fracking causes earthquakes, hasn’t he or she already demonstrated the adverse effects of fracking -- namely, that it causes earthquakes?”

Franzen’s novel uses its fracking plot in several ways: as the engine of the novel’s thriller-style aspects, as sociopolitical commentary, as a deep metaphor for the kind of seismic upheaval that runs through human relationships. Jones has a slightly less metaphorical connection to the issue: “I live in Oklahoma, with my wife and two sons,” he writes. “Monday night we felt another earthquake. I was lying on our bed, holding my youngest boy -- he’ll turn two years old next month -- when the shaking began.”

(See also: EPA Finds Compound Used in Fracking in Wyoming Aquifer)
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