7 million Americans at risk from man-made earthquakes

How Oil Drilling Created an Earthquake Crisis
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:

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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':

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