Nevada is no stranger to earthquakes. In fact, the U.S. Geological Society ranks it the fourth most seismically-active U.S. state behind Alaska, California and Hawaii.
But a recent swarm of tremors in the northern part of the state hasn't gone unnoticed, especially since hydraulic fracturing was approved for the state in September.
Some believe the practice of "fracking" to extract oil and gas trapped in rock deep below the earth’s surface can trigger earthquakes. When a well is fracked, millions of gallons of water is pumped into the well along with chemicals and sand. A small explosion is then sent down the well which fractures the rock, the sand and water keep the fractures open and the oil and gas is collected.
But reporter Joe Wertz said it is not just fracking itself that can cause earthquakes, it is also the disposal wells that go along with the practice that can cause quakes.
A disposal well is where oil and gas companies dispose of the water used to open the well along with toxic water which is naturally trapped in the rock and comes out when a well is fracked or when conventional drilling is used.
Wertz said a half a dozen peer-reviewed scientific papers link earthquakes to disposal wells. However, he said there is a lot of complicated geology that goes into the quakes and pinpointing some of those triggers could make the difference.
“Scientists, regulators, oil and gas industry really wants a granular-level understanding of this so they can understand the risk factors. What does it take to create one of these quakes so we can come up with a mechanisms to avoid doing that,” Wertz said.
Fracking is leading the oil boom in the country and so far, there is not an alternative to fracking or a disposal wells.
But Wertz said there are ways to safely frack.
“We’re starting to move in a direction with the science and the regulations for finding a rational set of rules and regulations,” Wertz said.
Joe Wertz, environmental reporter, NPR's StateImpact project
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