7 million Americans at risk from man-made earthquakes

How Oil Drilling Created an Earthquake Crisis

In today's sci-fi trope come true, but in a scary way instead of a cool way: man-made earth quakes are real, potentially deadly, and proliferating fast.

A report released Monday by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) found that man-made earthquakes have increased more than ten times over in 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 non-natural 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 nearer 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 five and ten-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 boomed there so did the earthquakes. These days the state experiences hundreds of mostly minor tremors a year.

Related: The deadliest earthquakes in United States history:

17 PHOTOS
The deadliest earthquakes in US history
See Gallery
7 million Americans at risk from man-made earthquakes
Damaged Kaiser Medical Building in the Northridge Reseda area of Los Angeles after 1994 earthquake (Photo by Visions of America/UIG via Getty Images)
A car at a Mazda dealership crushed in the Los Angeles earthquake of January 17, 1994 (Photo by Visions of America/UIG via Getty Images)

1886 Charleston Earthquake 

(Photo: hdes.copeland/Flickr)

1886 Charleston Earthquake 

(Photo: hdes.copeland/Flickr)

1886 Charleston Earthquake 

(Photo: hdes.copeland/Flickr)

April 1960: Valdivia, Chile

(Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

picture taken in April 1960 in Valdivia of people looking at an enormous crack on a street due to the earthquake that struck the area on May 22, 1960. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STF/AFP/Getty Images)

October 18, 1989: San Francisco, California

(Photo by Rich Pilling/Getty Images)

August 24, 2014: Napa, California

(Photo credit Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

March 10, 1933: Long Beach, California

(Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

Damaged building exterior, damage caused by the 1933 earthquake, Long Beach, California, March 12, 1933. (Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)
Part of a long line of homeless earthquake victims as they wait for food rations at a relief tent set up after a series of devastating quakes, Long Beach, California, March 13, 1933. The powerful quakes began March 11 and killed 115 people and did $75,000,000 in damage. Signs on the tent read 'Free Food' and 'Food Administer.' (Photo by FPG/Getty Images)

April 6, 1946: Aleutian Islands

(Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

April 9, 1946: Hilo, Hawaii 

Homeless people are taken to emergency accommodation on US Army trucks, 9th April 1946, after a Pacific-wide tsunami hit Hilo, Hawaii. The tidal wave, on 1st April, was caused by an earthquake near the Aleutian Islands. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

1906: Full-length view of pedestrians examining frame houses, which lean to one side on the verge of collapse after the Great Earthquake in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
1906: View of a cobblestone street, which was split down the middle after the Great Earthquake in San Francisco, California. A wooden cart has fallen into the crack. (Photo by American Stock/Getty Images)
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

Mining companies are already latching onto two of the reports findings: that fracking, long suspected as a 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 10th floor of an office building in Kansas we'd be pretty nervous right about now.

Related: How the Northwest is preparing for 'The Big One':

1 PHOTOS
NTP: Washington prepares for potential future tsunami
See Gallery
7 million Americans at risk from man-made earthquakes
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

Read Full Story