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Man-Made Earthquakes: A Manageable Risk?

The last few decades have seen manmade global warming go from a fringe concern to a major policy and economic issue. The continuous and ever-increasing burning of fossil fuels will be responsible for tremendous changes within this century, both within the US and abroad, raising many interesting insurance concerns.

However, I don’t actually want to talk about global warming in this and subsequent posts. There’s another concerning trend that’s also tied to the energy industry and our continuous dependence on fossil fuels, yet that has only recently begun to garner attention.

Several months ago, Popular Science published an article about man-made earthquakes. In it, they describe how new drilling technologies have disrupted the underlying bedrock in many regions of the Midwest, particularly in Oklahoma. While man-made earthquakes have always been a problem, their rapid increase in number and intensity has been particularly alarming.

The main concern in this case isn’t actually petroleum extraction, but injection. This technique is used for many different reasons. Often, as is the case in the many drilling sites that resulted in earthquakes in the Popular Science article, injection is simply a method to dispose of unwanted wastewater. In fact, wastewater injection can happen anywhere, even when oil production isn’t involved. In addition, CO2 is increasingly injected into the ground in an attempt to mitigate global warming.

Injection can also be used to help force inaccessible oil out of the ground. Forcing water down into an oil reservoir increases pressure, improving overall extraction, and is more and more necessary as oil becomes less accessible now that all the readily available sources have been extracted. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracturing, is another, somewhat more disruptive technique that relies on injection, with the goal being to actually introduce cracks into the rock formation through which petroleum can be extracted.

There are many potential consequences of water injection; for example, a significant amount of the opposition to fracking has been focused on the potential to introduce fracking chemicals into water sources and the general environment. However, the potential for earthquakes could be a longer term, and far more widespread concern.

Most of the earthquakes that have been tied to these techniques have been small, with the largest, centered near Prague, OK, having resulted in the damage of 14 homes. However, they still adversely affect the lives of those who live near injection sites, and there is still real potential for far more catastrophic levels of damage.

In the next post in this series, I’ll discuss how these techniques can lead to far more significant problems in the future.