God Hates Fracks

The Washington Monument, National Cathedral, and, for good measure, a fault-straddling nuke plant have all been shut down by the DC earthquake yesterday, even as the media rushes on to the next thing with typical alacrity.  Of course, this is precisely the point; nothing to see here, and certainly no lesson to be learned.  No one mentioned a similar “unusual” earthquake a few hours earlier in Colorado, which, like the epicentral area in Virginia, has been seismically quiescent until recently being subjected to injection-based energy extraction, too.

But although there are vocal and dedicated deniers of human-caused global warming lavishly funded by the energy industry, so far there are no loud deniers of human-caused earthquakes because a combination of media amnesia and stupidity make them (so far) unnecessary.  You see, human-caused seismicity has a long and sordid history going back to when the Army thought it would be a good idea to dispose of poisonous chemicals by injecting them into the ground.  The resulting swarms of earthquakes stopped as soon as the Army (no doubt reluctantly) halted this ridiculous practice.  The same thing happened a few years back in Arkansas.

Fast forward to The Bush Administration, which exempted the then-new method of extracting natural gas via hydraulic fracturing from regulation under the Clean Water Act; proving that they knew that “fracking” endangered groundwater, but that they didn’t even care whether it caused earthquakes.  But common sense and semi-forgotten college geology points to the fact that it surely must, and author Jonathan Franzen even wrote a novel, Strong Motion, about it in 1992.  In Franzen’s (pre-Corrections) tale, an unscrupulous but undoubtedly frugal company injects its poisonous wastes into its unused wells, causing a string of earthquakes that rattle New England.  Franzen’s idea is based on an elementary understanding of earth movement:  given that faults are constantly in motion, the only reason we don’t have earthquakes all day long is the result of friction between moving masses of land.  Finally, enough tension builds up to break that friction, and the result is an earthquake.  The largest ones, like San Francisco in 1906, offset fences and roads by ten feet and more.  That’s a lot of tension, to put it mildly.

So the question is, why would anybody in their right mind think it would be smart to squirt enormous amounts of lubricating fluid at high pressure into the fault-ridden ground?  Although getting rid of poisons cheaply and prolonging unsustainable dependency on increasingly scarce fossil fuels are both undeniably worthy endeavors in the eyes of their practitioners, they aren’t so good for the rest of us when the walls start heaving and stones start falling.  And although the Republican Party doesn’t believe in science, its donors in the energy industry certainly do; they employ legions of scientists.  Surely some gas company geologist, if not all of them, knew that fracking could harm groundwater or they wouldn’t have insisted on being exempt from laws designed to protect it.  Further, they also knew that injection wells had caused earthquakes in the past, but in this case they decided that public ignorance and media denialism, maybe with a little dollop of tort reform on top, would exempt them from any accountability for earthquake damage.  And now, (if you’ll pardon the pun) the fracking Washington Monument has a huge, potentially destabilizing crack in it.  It’s fitting, when you think about it.