It’s the battle of the era – scientists versus energy companies. While scientists have been revealing new disturbing information about the impact of oil drilling for years, the U.S. has seen a drastic growth in the industry through fracking over the last decade.
CNN reported that the U.S. Energy Information Administration recorded 300,000 fracking wells last year, compared to just 23,000 in 2000.
“It’s pretty bogus. It’s why you have to have independent scientists to do the real research from universities,“ said Chris Hamilton, professor of political science.
Hamilton references the importance of unbiased scientists without oil company interests in mind in order to bring the best research to the table.
“Listening to the scientists from the oil companies saying its not connected is probably not much different than [listening to] the scientists connected to the tobacco companies 50 years ago,” Hamilton said.
Sept. 3 at 7:02 a.m., a record-breaking 5.6 earthquake located 10 miles northwest of Pawnee, Oklahoma, occurred. Aftershock was felt from as far as central Nebraska to Texas, Arkansas, and Arizona.
After the earthquake, the state of Oklahoma ordered thirty-seven of the well disposals near the Pawnee area to be shut down until further notice.
“There was a time about two years ago when the Oklahoma geological survey refused to state that there was any scientific connection between fracking and earthquakes,” said Hamilton. “But at the same time, the Kansas geological survey issued their own reports saying [that there was a connection].”
Commonly known as ‘fracking,’ this is actually a process of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing by injecting water and chemicals into underground pockets that hold natural gas.
It’s not the initial drilling in the fracking process that causes these earthquakes, but the storage and disposal wells. When these leak or rupture, the waste mixture of water and oil flows back into the earth and can cause the structure plates of the earth to slip.
“It just makes sense. It fits the scientific perspective about it,” Hamilton said.
Scientists in Kansas and Oklahoma previously predicted that the increased fracking in the area would cause a cycle of earthquakes – starting with smaller earthquakes, leading up to one of about 5 or 6 magnitude.
As it turns out, this was exactly the case prior to the Sept. 3 earthquake. The United States Geological Survey reported that a 3.2 magnitude earthquake occurred Sept. 1 just to the southwest of the Sept. 3 epicenter. In less than an hour, four aftershocks from the Sept. 1 event were recorded, the largest being a 3.6.
Over the next few days as the investigation plays out, observers can expect political pushback against the environmental science.
“My guess is there’ll be a lot of political denial from oil company funded politicians saying, ‘Oh, well we’ll have to study this for the next 500 years,’” said Hamilton.
Unfortunately, laws of oil regulation have not caught up to the growth of the industry.
“It looks to me like they’re going to have to curtail some of this or reform the industry because the industry’s process is not well regulated,” Hamilton said. “That’s the policy problem.”
Hamilton also suggested that future changes in policy would depend on the outcome of these ongoing earthquakes and the growing damaged they cause. Disasters and tragedies resulting in lawsuits against companies with government interests, often result in the start of policy change.
“That’ll get your elected officials to wake up and smell the coffee,” he said.
In the meantime, students have many opportunities to get involved in the growing efforts directed at fracking and other types of environmentally damaging energy production.
Hamilton’s suggestions include attending meetings of environmental activists, educating oneself both in classes here at Washburn such as the natural disaster course or Human Impact on the Environment, and taking the time to look into alternative forms of energy.