ARE WE CAUSING EARTHQUAKES? Harold Hough
Now that considerable doubt has been cast on manmade warming, environmentalists are now trying to blame the mineral resources industry for causing earthquakes.
The latest crime against humanity received public attention in a National Geographic article in January 2007 and gained more publicity during the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster in Utah. Now the media and environmentalists are accusing the practice of ‘fracking” shale to produce oil and gas of causing earthquakes in the Oklahoma/Texas area.
However, reality and media reports are quite different. The report in the National Geographic came from Columbia University professor Dr. Christian Klose, who said that the 1989 Newcastle earthquake in Australia was caused by 200 years of mining coal in the region. Although many geologists criticized the report, they were ignored in the search for headlines. According to Klose, the removal of millions of tons of coal and pumping ground water to allow mining had triggered an earthquake that killed 13 and injured hundreds.
First, the media is playing fast and loose with truth. The Earth is quite active and seismic events are constantly happening. Some of these are natural and some manmade. Trucks driving down the road will cause seismic activity in addition to rock movement in mines (called mining bumps). These include rock falls and they can be measured by sensitive seismic equipment. But, they aren’t considered earthquakes.
The US Government’s standard for defining an earthquake is 4.0 on the Richter Scale. 4.0 earthquakes are very common in California and are so slight that many people wouldn’t even notice it. In fact, the vibrations are similar to a passing truck. Serious damage to buildings doesn’t occur until the level reaches 7.0. But, that didn’t stop the media from calling the 3.9 seismic event in Utah a “mine induced earthquake.” The media stories quickly blended fact with anti-mining hype. Dailygreen.com headlined its article, “Utah Mine Collapse May Have Triggered Earthquake.” However, local seismologists disagreed. University of Utah seismologist Relu Burlacu said, “It had nothing to do with mining activity.” He noted that the seismic event was 4.3 minutes long and mining bumps don’t last that long.
The same thing happened with the recent stories on fracking. Anti-fracking media quickly created a story about fracking induced earthquakes based on a USGS study. The reality, however, was that the study said no such thing.
Even the anti-mining Obama administration stepped in to deny the charges. "There is no evidence to suggest that hydraulic fracturing itself is the cause of the increased rate of earthquakes," Interior Department Deputy Secretary David Hayes. He added, "The accuracy of these media reports varied greatly."
Even the author of the study disagreed. Geophysicist Bill Ellsworth told a CNBC reporter, "I was greatly surprised to see how words were being used in the press in ways that were inappropriate. We don't see any connection between fracking and earthquakes of any concern to society." Ellsworth was at the annual meeting of the Seismological Society of America.
So, what about the Newcastle earthquake that caused the uproar in the first place? Dr. Klose said that the coal mines had weakened the earth’s crust and reactivated a major fault under the city. The story excited the anti-mining activists because he questioned the economic value of mining by saying that the $4.5 billion in damages exceeded the value of the coal mined. However, his work is questioned by Australian seismologists.
Although the 1989 Newcastle was only a moderate earthquake (5.6 on the Richter Scale), it did cause 13 people to die. The biggest problem wasn’t the severity of the quake, but the age of the buildings, which weren’t designed with any reinforcement. Although the area has a history of earthquakes and seismic events, authorities didn’t insist on improving building standards. Most of the deaths occurred at Newcastle Workers Club, which was an older masonry building that collapsed. Three other deaths were from falling awnings.
Dr. Klose used this earthquake to support his theory that mining can cause earthquakes. Although he did visit Australia, it appears that he avoided or ignored many facts that would have refuted his arguments. One critical piece of evidence was the historical record, which showed that there had been major earthquakes in 1925, and 1868. At that time of the 1868 earthquake, there wasn’t enough mining going on to induce an earthquake. There had also been thousands of earthquakes before then which had no relation to mining. He also ignored local seismologists who know more about the local tectonics and seismic history.
Seismic data also supports the skeptics’ position. Data shows that the quake started 13 kilometers below ground, but the mines were only 700 meters deep. Professor Robert Melchers of Newcastle University noted that, “to say that this is definitely the cause of the triggering event is just a little far-fetched.” And Kevin McClue, a leading Australian seismologist noted, “I think it would have been useful if Dr. Klose had talked to us about the history of earthquakes in the Newcastle area, and he might not have been quite so sure about cause and effect here.”
So, once again, the mineral resources industry is being blamed for natural events. It won’t be the last time, but at least we have the evidence to prove that these charges are false.