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Oklahoma Okay With Fracking-Induced Earthquakes

Boy, talk about taking the short-term view!

Classic shock doctrine: Make governments so starved for money, they'll accept risks they'd normally avoid in better times! Many parts of the country are unprepared to deal with this, mine included. There's a couple of cracks in the wall that weren't there before the 5.5 quake that struck here in 2011. Hell, it even cracked the glass on a piece of artwork I had hanging. I remember my California friends scoffed: "5.5? That's nothing."

But it's actually something in Pennsylvania, because unlike California, which has shifting faults, we're on solid granite and nothing here is built to withstand a quake. When fracking injection sets off a tremor here, the entire East Coast rings like a bell. The quake, which originated in Virginia, damaged the Washington Monument and the National Cathedral.

This massive experiment in public safety will continue as long as the states and towns are in such bad financial straits that they're willing to throw the dice. Bug, or feature?

Oklahoma typically had one to three earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or greater annually from 1975 until 2008, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Last year, the state had 564, far more than any other state except Alaska, as this chart shows. Nineteen of those were of at least magnitude 4.0, which is the point at which earthquakes begin to cause damage.

Seismologists aren't sure exactly how, but fracking may be be the culprit. The survey called drilling "a likely contributing factor" this spring, pointing to clusters of earthquakes in areas near wells, and earthquakes have been attributed to wells in Texas, Ohio and other parts of the country as well. Specifically, the deep disposal wells drilled to store the wastewater from fracking seem to be weakening faults and causing seismic activity for miles around, as Bryan Walsh has written. He notes that while most wells don't have any effect, and the tremors are generally weak, understanding just why some wells result in earthquakes is still a priority for the industry and for regulators. Buildings in states like Oklahoma weren't designed to withstand frequent or severe earthquakes, and if drilling companies want to overcome opposition in states like California, where the geology is unstable already, they'll have to convince the public that the seismic risks can be managed.

Meanwhile, Mike Soraghan reports that people in Oklahoma aren't especially concerned, and they think the economic benefits of drilling are worth the risks. "You get a little income from something, and you're more okay with it," one county commissioner told him.

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