7 Million Americans at Risk From Man-Made Earthquakes

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A Tulsa refinery on increasingly shaky groundPhoto: Paul Taggart/2011 Bloomberg

In today’s sci-fi trope come true, but in a scary way instead of in a cool way: Man-made earthquakes are real, potentially deadly, and proliferating quickly.

A report released Monday by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) found that man-made earthquakes have increased more than ten times over parts of the central United States, putting 7 million people at risk in the coming year. Historically, the USGS report has only included information on natural earthquakes focused mainly on the West Coast, but this year, man-made earthquakes have become too significant to ignore.

Today’s nonnatural earthquakes — as opposed to the man-made earthquakes of the ’90s that were caused by secret government space weapons — are for the most part caused by wastewater injection — or de-watering — a method for dealing with the water byproduct left over from oil and gas extraction. We’re talking a lot of water. Sometimes 50 barrels of water are produced just to get one barrel of oil, and all of that saltwater is then pumped into deep wells in order to keep it from contaminating freshwater closer to the surface. The wells put pressure on the earth’s crust and can cause earthquakes.

Man-made earthquakes tend to be small, as earthquakes go, but the report warns they can have serious ramifications. Towns across Oklahoma, for example, have between a 5 and 10 percent chance of a damaging earthquake striking this year, about the same odds faced by the Bay Area. Oklahoma hasn’t historically been earthquake country, but as the oil and gas industries have boomed there, so too have the earthquakes. These days, the state experiences hundreds of mostly minor tremors a year.

Mining companies are already latching onto two of the reports findings: that fracking, a long-suspected cause of earthquakes, is actually a relatively insignificant earthquake-maker, and that only a relatively small number of wells are actually responsible for serious seismic activity. But, those wells can cause earthquakes all over the place, sometimes more than 700 miles away. For example, Vox notes that Jones, Oklahoma, has experienced thousands of earthquakes in the last eight years, but has no wells.

Natural earthquakes are still many times stronger than the man-made jobs, but it is worth noting that while the infrastructure in places like San Francisco is built to withstand some shaking, the same can’t be said for cities where this is a new phenomenon.

If we were working on the tenth floor of an office building in Kansas, we’d be pretty nervous right about now.