Frack It!

salve times; font-size: 12pt;”>By Phil Erwin

This is a response to “Stop Fracking in California” (Sept. 15), in which Naomi Fisher worried that the practice of “fracking” (hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells) is a cause of earthquakes, and should therefore be banned. Ms. Fisher’s concern stems from reporting by an unnamed television news announcer, who asserted a “proven” connection between fracking and earthquakes – an absolutely false assertion.

Here is what you need to know in order to be informed about “fracking”:

  1. Hydraulic fracturing has been used in oil and gas production for decades.
  2. The fluid used in fracking is almost entirely water and sand. There is a very small mix of chemicals included – typically about one-half of one percent.
  3. The chemicals used are very common, found on the labels of products we all buy at the grocery store. This includes chemicals found in our food, cosmetics and cleaning supplies. (See
  4. Fracking happens only when “completing” a well, not continuously over the life of a well. That tiny percent of chemicals is a one-time exposure for the environment (whereas you introduce those chemicals back into the environment daily, by using products you routinely bring home in containers.)
  5. Historically, only a small vertical section at the bottom of a wellbore (drill hole) was fracked, typically several thousand feet below the surface. Recent technological improvements have led to fracking horizontal stretches extending in several directions. More fluid is used, but fewer holes are drilled to fully exploit an area – typically one wellbore instead of four, six, or eight wells. The overall environmental impact is therefore much reduced.      
  6. The fracking fluid is pumped out during early operations, captured and held for reclamation, either in lined basins or tanks; or else is pumped back into previously depleted and abandoned wells, known as “injection wells.”
  7. Water is also captured during the normal operation of a well, and is reclaimed or re-injected, just as is the fracking fluid.   Fracking water is a miniscule percentage of production water, which is pumped for the entire life of the well, and is the real environmental challenge.
  8. There is no clear and proven connection between fracking and earthquakes, either in their frequency or strength.
  9. However, there are clear indications that weak earthquakes (often undetectable without instruments) may be associated with disposing of fluids in injection wells. For example, the area southeast of Oklahoma City has experienced numerous low-level earthquakes near where four active injection wells are disposing of 4 million barrels of wastewater a month.

It seems reasonable to presume that injecting fluids under high pressure into rock formations could cause those formations to swell, get heavier, perhaps even get slipperier – particularly if those fluids include slippery chemicals. It also seems reasonable to suppose that rock formations so altered or affected might move around more than they otherwise would have. That seems especially likely if those formations include earthquake faults, particularly if those faults are already active.

What is not really known is whether low-level earthquakes cause bigger earthquakes, or warn of bigger quakes to come, or perhaps actually reduce the risk of bigger earthquakes, by relieving the buildup of stresses. So we don’t really know whether such induced movement is a good thing, or a bad thing – or both!

So, what should we conclude about fracking?

  1. It’s a good thing. More oil/gas, fewer holes, less cost, less environmental impact.
  2. There appears to be a connection between earthquakes and the use of injection wells, irrespective of fracking. The problem is the wastewater associated with production, which dwarfs the amount produced by fracking.
  3. The fracking process itself is irrelevant to the core problem, which is: Can the water be safely re-injected into the earth, and if not, how can we best dispose of it?

California doesn’t need any more earthquakes than it already has. And we should all be more involved in pressing our elected officials to sensible action. But rather than urging a ban on fracking, we should demand a moratorium on the use of injection wells, and vigorous promotion of serious scientific study on the relationship between injection wells and the earthquake risks they represent.

And now you know more than most TV commentators about fracking.







Phil Erwin is an author and IT administrator living in Newbury Park. He holds an Environmental Science degree.


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Naomi Fisher
Naomi Fisher
5 years ago

Hey, Phil,
So why can’t they build an electrical plant that burns the waste water from the fracking and use a carbon based mat to catch the burn off and create carbon bricks to burn. Its a process New York has been doing with trash for the last ten years. Why can’t we do the same for fracking?

Citizen Reporter
5 years ago
Reply to  Naomi Fisher

Seems to make sense.

Ralph DeVane
Ralph DeVane
6 years ago

Everyone who wants to know about Fracking should watch the movie “Fracknation”. It is a documentary that addresses all the objections to fracking and concludes there is no negative effect on the environment from it.