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Exceeding The Limits of the Natural Recycling System

The planetary eco-system can deal with many types of pollution, the smoke from a fire, some CO2 releases, sewage. However, humanity is now exceeding the limits of the natural recycling system in many ways, and in addition the eco-system has no short-term fix for poisons introduced into critical resources like water sources. At present such toxic pollution is often introduced into the eco-system with no effective calculation of the true cost, the polluter therefore does not have to factor in the total costs of production into its financial calculations. For example, in a study of Alberta’s tar sands oil production researchers found that the oil sands industry substantially increased loadings of toxic “priority pollutants”, such as cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, silver, and zinc to the Athabasca River and its tributaries via air and water pathways.[1] The pressures from producers to make profits can too easily override environmental concerns, particularly at a time when low oil prices have put great pressure on the profitability of non-traditional oil and gas production. In the United States, The New York Times noted in 2015 that hydrocarbon producers opposed new Federal regulation of their industry, fearing that they could raise the cost of fracking, The Independent Petroleum Association of America filed a lawsuit challenging the new US regulations, calling them “a reaction to unsubstantiated concerns”.[2] Unfortunately the concerns were substantiated, in June 2015 the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a draft study which found that, “there are above and below ground mechanisms by which hydraulic fracturing activities have the potential to impact drinking water resources.” The EPA did conclude that it could not find evidence of widespread, systemic impacts by fracking on drinking water resources in the United States,  although it did find specific instances where there had been contamination of drinking water wells, and it noted the paucity of long-term studies on the problem, and inaccessibility of some information on fracturing activity and potential impacts.[3]

Although fears about the contamination of water suppliers by fracking and other oil industry activity have often driven public opposition to the practice, and the most dramatic impact to date, other than greenhouse gas emissions, appears to be the threat of earthquakes. Experience in the United States has shown that where waste water from fracking is injected into deep wells, this can induce large earthquakes. Ellsworth said, “several of the largest earthquakes in the U.S. midcontinent in 2011 and 2012 may have been triggered by nearby disposal wells. The largest of these was a magnitude 5.6 event in central Oklahoma that destroyed 14 homes and injured two people.”[4] Keranen et al examined the November 2011 Prague, Oklahoma earthquake, and noted that in this case the triggering events occurred up to 20 years prior to the earthquakes.[5] Van der Elst et al found that in 2013, the “Prague earthquake, then the subsequent 5.7 Mw event is not only one of the largest earthquakes to be associated with waste water disposal but also one of the largest earthquakes to be linked indirectly to a remote triggering event,” they also said that “At least half of the 4.5 moment magnitude (Mw) or larger earthquakes to strike the interior of the United States in the past decade have occurred in regions of potential injection-induced seismicity. In some cases, the onset of seismicity follows injection by only days or weeks …, and the association with pumping at particular wells is clear.”[6] Kim concluded that, “the recent earthquakes in Youngstown, Ohio were induced by the fluid injection at a deep injection well.”[7]

In short the injection of fluids deep into the earth can trigger seismic events where a fault line is under sufficient stress, and this is not only associated with fracking, but can also occur when water is injected to recover geothermic energy, has happened in Basel, Switzerland in 2006.[8] The same issues can also arise when dams are constructed, especially in seismically active areas like Italy,[9] water can act as a lubricate, allowing movement along a fault line.

[1] Kelly, Erin N et al – “Oil sands development contributes elements toxic at low concentrations to the Athabasca River and its tributaries”, PNAS 14 September 2010, Vol. 107, No 37, pp. 16178-16183

[2] Davenport, Coral – “New Federal Rules Are Set for Fracking”, The New York Times, 20 March 2015

[3] “Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources”, United States Environmental Protection Agency, External Review Draft, EPA/600/R-15/047a, Washington DC, June 2015,, accessed 25 October 2015

[4] Ellsworth, William L – “Injection-Induced Earthquakes”, Science, 12 July 2013, Vol. 341, Issue 6142, pp. DOI: 10.1126/science.1225942

[5] Keranen, Katie M et al – “Potentially induced earthquakes in Oklahoma, USA: Links between wastewater injection and the 2011 M w 5.7 earthquake sequence”, GEOLOGY, June 2013; v. 41; no. 6; p. 699–702; Data Repository item 2013191, doi:10.1130/G34045.1

[6] van der Elst, Nicholas J. et al.- “Enhanced Remote Earthquake Triggering at Fluid-Injection Sites in the Midwestern United States”, Science 341, 164 (2013), DOI: 10.1126/science.1238948

[7] Kim, Won-Young – “Induced seismicity associated with fluid injection into a deep well in Youngstown, Ohio”, Journal of Geophysical Research- Solid Earth, Volume 118, Issue 7, July 2013, Pages 3506–3518, , Oman and Saudi Arabia, 1992″e when dams are constructed, especially in seismically active areas like Italy.sufficient stress,  , DOI: 10.1002/jgrb.50247

[8] Giardini, Domenico – “Geothermal quake risks must be faced”, Nature 462, 848-849 (17 December 2009) doi:10.1038/462848a

[9] See “Gupta, Harsh K – “Reservoir-Induced Earthquakes”, Elsevier, Amsterdam, 1992

© Andrew Palmer 2016

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