The Sierra Club filed a lawsuit Tuesday alleging three energy companies increased the risk of a damaging earthquakes in Oklahoma and Kansas by using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and disposing fracking wastewater underground.
“These quakes have toppled historic towers, caused parts of houses to fall and injure people, cracked basements and shattered nerves,” state the court filings. “As shown on Figure 1 attached to this complaint, the number of earthquakes in Oklahoma has increased more than 300 fold, from a maximum of 167 before 2009 to 5,838 in 2015.”
The Sierra Club’s legal filing states that it wants a judge to reduce the amount of fracking in both states and force energy companies to pay for “reinforce[ment of] vulnerable structures that current forecasts indicate could be impacted by large magnitude earthquakes during the interim period.”
The Sierra Club doesn’t state that the increase in earthquakes is tied to fracking or wastewater disposal. In fact, the amount of fracking in both states has been greatly reduced over the past year due to low energy prices. The lawsuit closely follows a moderately strong Saturday earthquake in Oklahoma.
However, the scientific consensus has long been that fracking doesn’t cause damaging earthquakes.
“Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as ‘fracking’, does not appear to be linked to the increased rate of magnitude 3 and larger earthquakes” states the United States Geological Survey (USGS).
Earthquakes are measured on a logarithmic scale, and the difference between whole numbers on the scale is huge. A 9.0 quake can devastate a country, while a 3.0 quake generally cannot be felt except under extremely specific and very rare conditions. An earthquake that measures 3.0 on the Richter scale releases 31 times the energy of a 2.0 quake and has a shaking amplitude 10 times smaller than that of a 3.0 quake.
The kind of earthquakes that fracking might cause are orders of magnitude weaker than the kinds of quakes which could do the damages alleged by The Sierra Club. Fracking earthquake myths from environmentalists are so widespread that USGS actually maintains a “Myths and Misconceptions” section of its website to debunk them.
The USGS does list wastewater disposal as a “contributing factor” to moderate Oklahoma earthquakes. However, these kinds are quakes are generally to weak to do any damage and orders of magnitude weaker than a serious earthquake. Additionally, less than 1 percent of wastewater injection wells are linked to earthquakes of any kind.
Despite this, fracking companies have begun purifying the water used in fracking so it can be reused or discharged to assuage fears.
The Sierra Club has a long history of being opposing the scientific consensus about fracking. The group’s website claims that “fracking has contaminated the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of Americans” despite contradictory research done by regulatory bodies, academics and even the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).