Long hailed as a cleaner alternative to traditional fossil-fuel energy sources, natural gas is looking more and more like a transition fuel on America's road to renewable energy. How long the transition period lasts will largely depend on economics – as long as it's cheaper than renewable energy, natural gas will stay on top. However, forces (whether natural or not is still up for debate) seem to be at work to undermine the economic benefits of natural gas.
It's not natural gas itself that is posing a problem, but rather the way that it's recovered. Hydraulic fracturing is a process of mixing water, sand and chemicals and forcing it into the ground to extract natural gas. The toxic wastewater is often pumped into the ground for storage after the natural gas has been recovered. More and more research suggests that the practice of storing wastewater underground is causing increased seismic activity. Areas where wastewater is injected back into the earth for storage have seen more frequent earthquakes of increasing magnitude.
Midwestern states, such as Colorado, Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Ohio, seem to be experiencing a disproportionate and sharp increase in the frequency of earthquakes with a magnitude greater than 3. Scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) attributed the 2011 Raton Basin, CO, earthquake and the Prague, OK, earthquake to wastewater injection practices. These quakes had magnitudes of 5.3 and 5.6, respectively. The Colorado earthquake was the state's largest in 44 years. The Oklahoma quake was its largest on record.
Now that science has drawn a definitive link between earthquakes and fracking wastewater injection, the door is open for potentially successful lawsuits to recover losses associated with the quakes against frackers. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) estimates that all earthquake losses in the U.S. total more than $5.25 billion each year. Homeowners and insurers bear most of that expense. However, if property owners and insurance companies are able to point to fracking activities as the cause of a damaging earthquake, they may be able to make a case for recovery. Expensive lawsuits have the potential to drive up the cost of doing business for natural gas producers, and we may see its economic viability wan.
The question lingers as to what the timeline for this looks like. The wheels of justice can turn painfully slow at times, giving fracking companies ample opportunity to race to the bottom of the proverbial natural gas well. Let's just hope that by the time that well runs dry, we'll have built a more sustainable (and stable) energy infrastructure.
Featured photo courtesy of Bill Ellsworth, USGS