Shaken Up

26 Earthquakes Later, Fracking’s Smoking Gun Is in Texas

After 11 quakes in the last two days – with one registering at a 3.6 – Irving, Texas’ sudden onset tremor problem might be the fracking industry’s nightmare.

01.07.15 7:07 PM ET

There’s a monster lurking under Texas, beneath the sand and oil and cowboy bones, and it’s getting a little restless after a 15 million year nap. Shaking things up in the city of Irving, just slightly west of Dallas, where no less than ten earthquakes yesterday and today bring the total tremors to 26 since October in that town alone. Over 100 quakes have been registered in the North Texas region since 2008, a staggering uptick from just a single one prior that year.

The Balcones Fault Zone divides the Lone Star State in half, loosely following the route of Interstate 35 and passing under Fort Worth, Waco, Austin, and San Antonio. And it’s not just a huge amount of human populations that sit on top of it. There are also thousands of fracking wells boring down in to the earth’s crust, pumping millions of gallons of water down with the direct intent of breaking apart what lay beneath.

Irving itself has more than 2,000 of these sites nearby, and some of the more than 216,000 state wide “injection wells” responsible for disposing of fracking’s wastewater byproduct are in close proximity. Located thousands of feet below the ground, these wells hold millions of gallons of chemically tainted h2o, and science has proven that the pressure and liquid combination can combine to “lubricate” fault lines. And that may well be what is happening in the Barnett Shale region around, yes, Dallas and Irving.

Barnett Shale is the largest land-based gas field in Texas, with an estimated 40 trillion cubic feet of natural gas just waiting to be hammered out of the ground and into your SUV’s tank. It’s a nearly bottomless potential bank account for corporations with the resources to drill and grind. But, as the people of Irving are now discovering, all of this poking and prodding is not without potential consequences.

And it’s not just Texas. Poland Township in Ohio had 77 earthquakes happen last March that researchers have definitively linked to fracking, in a paper published just days ago. And British Columbia has the oil addiction shakes, too. 

So we know that boring down to the bedrock and pumping it full of fluid can cause earthquakes. And while it’s also admittedly rare that these quakes are felt by humans, this shows signs of changing. Could the (thus far) timid trembling give way to a full-on, grand mal seizure?

The simple answer seems to be yes. They can. Studies are showing that the magnitude of the activity may be linked to how long a disposal well is in use, meaning that the more we spew wastewater into aging wells, the higher the potential for a major incident. 

“With time, as an injection activity continues, so will the seismic hazard as measured by the maximum magnitude,” the US Geological Survey’s Art McGarr was quoted as saying by NPR.

Whatever the cause, the activity is growing more violent.

“This is the largest earthquake in Irving since the ’70s. That’s as far back as our catalog goes,” USGS geophysicist Jessica Turner said to CBSDFW. “There hasn’t been anything like this at all, so it’s new.”

This is not making the 228,000 residents of Irving, Texas feel very relaxed. The most recent activity had a high point of 3.6 on the Richter Scale. While minor, it’s strong enough to be felt and shake objects. And feel it they did -- the local 911 system was overloaded with calls, the school district held earthquake drills, and the Irving’s mayor met with her counterpart in Dallas to discuss emergency management plans, according to the Dallas Morning News.

And “minor” can be relative.

"Was looking to see if an 18-wheeler wrecked into our building! That is what it felt like,” Irving local Aletha Allie Pate Martinez told a local ABC affiliate.

As of now, there’s no 100-percent definitive scientific connection between this latest swarm of earthquakes and fracking activity, but the United States Geologic Survey noted in a statement on the swarm, “Activities that have induced felt earthquakes in some geologic environments have included impoundment of water behind dams, injection of fluid into the earth's crust, extraction of fluid or gas, and removal of rock in mining or quarrying operations.”

Worth noting: This cluster of quakes is taking place almost directly beneath the Exxon-Mobile world headquarters, which is located in Irving. The company’s CEO, Rex Tillerson, joined a lawsuit last year to prevent a water tower used in the fracking process from being built near his 83-acre horse ranch in a swanky suburban Dallas enclave. Whether these are considered ironic or karmic quakes – that’s up to you. But for the repeatedly shaken up people of North Texas, it’s not very funny anymore.