Oklahoma earthquakes highlight an inconvenient truth about innovation


Recent earthquake activity in Oklahoma has created public debate about the risks and rewards of hydraulic fracturing. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)

The current debate that Oklahoma is having over the potential link between hydraulic fracturing and the unprecedented spike in earthquake activity in recent months offers a warning lesson: every innovation comes with tradeoffs. In this case, the reward of cheaper, more bountiful energy promised by hydraulic fracturing appears to be offset by the risk of increased seismic activity. When it comes to innovation, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

While the oil and gas industry rejects any suggestion that fracking might be the root cause of Oklahoma’s earthquake spike, it’s hard to ignore that something very strange is happening in Oklahoma. Over a fifteen-month period from 2010 to 2011, there were 850 earthquakes in Oklahoma – compared to just six in the entire period from 2000 to 2008. Through May of this year, Oklahoma had already experienced 145 earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or higher – an all-time record. As if to punctuate that point, this weekend saw another four earthquakes, all of them magnitude 3.0 or higher, and geological experts warned in May that a “damaging one” – bigger than the 5.6 quake in 2011 — is on the way.


A seismic map showing all magnitude 2.5 or higher earthquakes occurring over the past 30 days. The Oklahoma region stands out. (U.S. Geological Survey)

If you look at a map of seismic activity, the strangeness is only compounded. You would expect earthquakes in regions near fault lines or plate lines – such as California or regions of Mexico and the Caribbean – but why Oklahoma? When a region without any history of earthquakes suddenly becomes afflicted by earthquakes, that’s odd.

There are two natural reactions anytime a statistical anomaly like this happens: (A) look the other way and assume it’s all just a coincidence or (B) attempt to assign blame to a culprit.

In the case of the mysterious Oklahoma earthquakes, a potential culprit has already been identified: hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”). In a study released in the journal Science at the beginning of July, a team of researchers found a clear link between Oklahoma’s earthquakes and the “massive wastewater injection” required by fracking. The U.S. Geological Survey agrees, as does the Oklahoma Geological Survey. According to scientists in other states as well, the evidence is mounting that massive injection of toxic wastewater from hydraulic fracturing back into the earth – but not necessarily the process of fracking itself – is responsible for increased seismic activity.

It’s scientist vs. scientist now, as both sides attempt to provide data and statistics showing that there is – or isn’t – any correlation between fracking and the higher incidence of earthquakes. And, in all fairness, regions that are hotbeds of fracking activity – such as North Dakota – don’t appear to be experiencing Oklahoma’s seismic spike.

Fracking, which some probably view as one of the greatest innovations ever, may turn out to have way too many side effects to be worth it. Yes, fracking has brought us the “shale revolution” and has transformed the United States into an energy leader, but at what cost? In the inevitable weighing of risk and reward, the risk of a magnitude 5.5 or higher earthquake now seems too high to ignore.

We typically think of innovations in terms of iPads and smartphones, and assume that innovation is somehow a “risk-less” endeavor. More innovation means more cool stuff for consumers, right? There is no magnitude 5.5 earthquake scenario for the companies of Silicon Valley, only the region of Silicon Valley. Yes, we hear stories about sweatshop conditions in overseas factories where all these wonderful devices are manufactured or bizarre stories of medical problems caused by gadget usage. By and large, though, we’re willing to overlook these risks because they seem to be manageable or (cynically, perhaps) tolerable.

But what about innovations such as hydraulic fracturing? There, the costs appear to be much higher, and mostly because these risks are occurring closer to home. Earthquakes in Oklahoma are events that are real and tangible. If hydraulic fracturing were packaged and sold like a pharmaceutical drug, it would presumably have to come with a strong warning on its label: “Possible side effects may include earthquakes.”

Some states – such as Ohio and Arkansas – have already read the equivalent of these warning labels and decided to take action. Ohio has banned the use of disposal wells near fault lines, while Arkansas has banned the use of drilling wells in a specific region. They have determined that the costs of innovation outweigh the perceived benefits. They’d rather forgo some of the potential economic effects of oil companies in their states to avoid a potential disaster involving human lives.

Ultimately, new innovations are tried in the court of public opinion. We weigh the risks and rewards and determine as a society whether the risks are acceptable. Think of the hue and cry over any product that fails to perform as advertised, and especially the race to recall any product that proves to be a safety or health hazard. While it’s true that all innovations come with tradeoffs, not all innovations are intrinsically the same. Some innovations are judged to be innocent until proven guilty, while others — such as hydraulic fracturing — are judged to be guilty until proven innocent. And so the burden of proof falls on the oil and gas industry to show us that the tradeoffs involved in fracking are worth it.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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