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Did Fracking Cause an Earthquake in Alberta?

So far there's no conclusive proof, but fracking has been connected to earthquakes in other places, and British Columbia is already cracking down.

Mack Lamoureux

Mack Lamoureux

Fracking operation in progress. Photo via Wikimedia Commons, by Joshua Doubek

On January 22, the small Albertan town of Fox Creek (population 2,000), was struck by a 4.4-magnitude earthquake shortly before midnight. While the earthquake caused neither significant property damage nor injury, it did cause residents' doors to slam and their beds to move. More importantly, however, the earthquake sparked an intense debate regarding the cause of the seismic activity.

So far the science is still out on the definitive cause of the quake, but preliminary research by the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) suggests it may have been linked to hydraulic fracturing—or fracking, as it's more commonly known. If the industrial oil- and gas-extraction practice is indeed the culprit, it will be the largest fracking-induced earthquake on record.

AER spokesperson Ryan Bartlett wrote in an emailed statement to VICE, "Preliminary information indicates the event may be related to hydraulic fracturing operations in the area."

When asked what that "preliminary information" was, Bartlett responded with another email saying, "The occurrence of a cluster of earthquakes preceding the larger earthquakes suggests that it is an induced earthquake. It is, however, impossible to definitively state that it was not a naturally occurring event."

Fracking is a controversial but long-used process of extracting oil and natural gas from deep-seated rock formations, typically shale. In order to extract the hydrocarbons, you have to break up the rock. This is done by injecting a "fracturing" fluid containing a mix of substances, including sand, at a high pressure. The fluid, as it's injected, cracks the rock, and the sand essentially works to prop open the fracture and create a pathway for the hydrocarbons to flow into the drill hole. Due to fears of groundwater contamination and, more recently, of fracking-induced earthquakes, the process has been banned in France and Tunisia. In 2013, Quebec placed a moratorium on the process until better regulations are implemented.

Jeffrey Gu, an associate professor of geophysics at the University of Alberta, is investigating the Fox Creek incident and has published a study linking wastewater disposal—which involves a fluid-injecting practice similar to fracking—to earthquakes. Recently, the geophysicist has been investigating possible ties between fracking and earthquakes.

"Because of the presence of fluid in the ground, and because of the changes of the stress underground, it can potentially lead to earthquakes," Gu told VICE. "If there are faults that are already in existence near the water injection, and also if there are existing faults ready to slip, adding water can lubricate the fault and cause it to slip."

While there are thousands of injection wells in Alberta, only a very minor percentage of these will result in an earthquake that can be felt. These occurrences are referred to as anomalous induced seismicity. It's still unknown why fracking only causes small controlled earthquakes in some locations, and at others earthquakes of larger magnitude. Gu thinks that it all may come down to the fracking sites' geology.

"At this time I don't think it's very clear which kind of operations are potentially more likely to trigger earthquakes," said Gu, "but it is my belief that it is not so much about the operation itself. It's more about the geology, and potentially where and how much water is being injected, and that really has a great deal to do with ground conditions."

Apart from the earthquakes, the chemicals used in fracking are also controversial. There's a fear that injecting the fracking fluid can lead to groundwater contamination. A number of the chemicals used in the fracking process have been linked to health issues, which concerns scientists. While many chemicals found in fracking fluid are known to be harmful, the levels of exposure occurring from fracking are unknown. Regardless, groundwater contamination remains a contentious subject between industry specialists, scientists, and environmentalists.

Dr. Susan Nagel leads a team studying the health impacts of fracking fluid chemicals, specifically ones that cause developmental issues. Nagel discussed the possible ramifications of these chemicals with The Guardian last December.

"It is absolutely in the realm of possibility that at current human exposure levels, we might expect to see some of these effects," said Nagel. "And at the very least, we should be looking for them."

Alberta is no stranger to the fracking controversy. Last year scientist and oil-patch consultant Jessica Ernst won the right to sue the Alberta government over fracking. Ernst alleges that fracking near her town, Rosebud, has so contaminated her well water that the water is flammable.

Despite the lawsuit, Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers spokesperson Markus Ermisch told VICE, "If you look at data from the Alberta Energy Regulator or from the BC Oil and Gas Commission, they have concluded that there have been about 175,000 hydraulic fracturing jobs in BC and Alberta, and not one of them has resulted in drinking water contamination."

Brian Mason, former leader of the Alberta NDP Party and current environment critic, has said he wants independent experts apart from the AER to conduct an investigation of the Fox Creek incident and the implementation of stronger fracking regulations.

"We're not proposing [the practice be] shut down, but we do think we should be reviewing the scientific research on the potential impacts and drawing appropriate conclusions," Mason told VICE. "It's also not regulated sufficiently in our view, and that's another area that needs to be studied and expanded.

"It has grown into a significant industry in the province without any proper evaluation of its potential impacts," Mason added. "We need to remedy that."

There is a distinct possibility that the conclusions found in the AER Fox Creek investigation may parallel those found by a 2012 study conducted by the BC Oil and Gas commission regarding seismic activity in British Columbia's Horn River Basin. The study started after the commission became "aware of a number of anomalous, low-level seismic events which were recorded by Natural Resources Canada near areas of oil and gas development."

It concludes that "the events observed within remote and isolated areas of the Horn River Basin between 2009 and 2011 were caused by fluid injection during hydraulic fracturing in proximity to pre-existing faults." The study conclusively found a link between seismicity and hydraulic fracturing in a number of Horn River earthquakes. The majority of these quakes were in the two- to 3.5-magnitude range.

Due to this study, BC has set up several stations throughout the province to monitor seismic activity and its connection to industry. Markus Ermisch told VICE that because of this finding, there has been an attempt to fix the issue.

"Eight seismograph stations were added to the Canadian National Seismograph network in northeastern BC," Ermisch said. "Those eight now bring the total to ten monitoring stations up in northeastern BC that measure seismic activity, and industry is partially funding these monitoring stations."

Alberta has yet to see similar action, but Ermisch says it's not illogical to think that a similar response could take place if the Fox Creek earthquake is conclusively tied to fracking.

There seems to be a general consensus among scientists that fracking should be better regulated. When asked about what recommendations he would endorse, Gu said he's in favor of further regulations and testing.

"If I were the regulator, I would make sure that the companies have the monitoring system in place," he said. "In other words, having to do the homework before they get into a specific area to fracture it, so they have to know the geology and really understand the possible risks associated with [that] particular area," said Gu. "It's something that people should pay attention too, but there is no need to be overly concerned."

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