So, I’m talking to a young truck driver. He’s a kid, really, but old enough to have a bachelor’s degree in something. He’s postponed his career for a temporary but lucrative sojourn in the oil field.
The Eagle Ford Shale, a major oil and gas play in south Texas, is thriving on improved fracking technologies that extract previously unavailable hydrocarbons and contribute significantly to our nation’s production boom. Fracking requires truckloads of water and plenty of drivers to service the new wells that pop up across the landscape every week. This young driver wasn’t making much per hour, but he was putting in a lot of overtime.
He seemed proud to be about this manly task — the oil patch is a world of husky young guys in pickup trucks and newly constructed trailer parks dotted with satellite dishes. In fact, his assertion that a fracking operation that he was involved in actually caused an earthquake was a modest boast.
Whatever his college major, it probably wasn’t seismology. But peculiar geological events have been occurring in Texas, as well as in other parts of the country where fracking is being deployed to tease from the substratum whatever hydrocarbons remain.
Texas is generally an earthquake-free zone, but CNNMoney’s website recently reported 30 small earthquakes since Nov. 1 in a rural area outside Fort Worth, a place where ordinarily the earthquake count would be close to zero.
Local residents are blaming deep injection wells that are used to dispose of the noxious wastewater produced by fracking. They made enough noise to persuade the Texas Railroad Commission — a generally industry-friendly entity — to hold a town hall meeting in Azle, where 900 residents showed up to demand an end to the injection of fracking wastewater.
This issue isn’t confined to a few small towns in Texas. A web search of "earthquakes and fracking" will produce reports of concerns in Pennsylvania, New York, Arkansas, Ohio, Oklahoma and Kansas, among others. In fact, just about everywhere fracking is being used, reports are accumulating of earthquakes and the contamination of underground water supplies by the foul chemicals required to break the embedded oil and gas out of the rock.
The evidence is impressive. U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist William Ellsworth recently noted in Science that the rate of earthquakes in the central and eastern United States rose from about 20 to about 100 per year between 2010 and 2013, in correlation with the increased use of fracking.
On the other hand, a petroleum engineer with decades of experience making a small fortune from oil and gas tells me that fracking is harmless and emphatically rejects the notion that it could possibly cause earthquakes or release enough gas into underground aquifers to make tap water burn.
Of course, a column like this doesn’t have the scope to say much that’s definitive about the impact that fracking has on the environment. And despite all the evidence, even Ellsworth suggests scientific caution, saying, "correlation is not causation."
Certainly. But whenever I encounter skepticism about our capacity to affect our environment, I think of Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, a hefty and impressive chronicle of communities, large and small, ancient and modern, that have risen and declined because they pushed up against and then exceeded the capacity of their environments.
Does fracking cause earthquakes and water pollution? I’m not prepared to say. But we shouldn’t be at all surprised that it might. And the underestimation of the effect of our activities on the global environment is always a dangerous mistake.
The Incan and Mayan civilizations collapsed in isolation. But the scale of our communities is much larger, and our capacity for collapse is global. The only thing that’s growing faster than the evidence of our global culture’s effect on the environment is our capacity to deny it.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.