Of Fracking and Franzen: Is Strong Motion Coming True in Oklahoma?

November 10, 2011 | 12 4 min read

coverJonathan Franzen’s second novel, Strong Motion, was about a mysterious outbreak of earthquakes in Massachusetts. The novel’s heroine, seismologist Reneé Seitcheck, discovers that these earthquakes are the byproduct of industrial drilling. The responsible party is a petrochemical firm whose agents attempt to assassinate Seitcheck after she proves that the company’s practice of injecting toxic waste into the ground is the cause of the bizarre quakes.

Something oddly similar might be happening in Oklahoma (which, like Massachusetts, is not your traditional hotbed of seismic activity). This past Saturday, a 5.6 magnitude earthquake struck the tiny town of Sparks in Lincoln County, Oklahoma. The quake was one of the largest ever recorded in the state’s history, and another example of the sharp increase in seismic activity Oklahoma has experienced in recent years. Up through 2009, Oklahoma had averaged about fifty earthquakes a year. The total number of quakes reported in 2010?  1,047.

This swift and dramatic change in Oklahoma’s vulnerability to earthquakes has some people wondering if the practice of hydraulic fracturing — or “fracking” — might be the culprit. Fracking is the process of injecting highly-pressurized fluids into the earth to break up shale and rock and release otherwise inaccessible sources of natural gas. The waste fluid is then shot back underground at sites called “injection wells.” There are 181 active injection wells in Lincoln County Oklahoma.

Energy companies deny that fracking causes earthquakes, and seismologist Austin Holland at the Oklahoma Geological Survey told the Associated Press there’s no reason — at this point — to blame these quakes on anything other than normal seismic activity.

However, Mr. Holland has studied this question before, and his findings were quite a bit more troubling — even if his way of putting them was transparently cautious. In a paper entitled “Examination of Possibly Induced Seismicity from Hydraulic Fracturing in the Eola Field, Garvin County, Oklahoma” (available here), Mr. Holland said:

The strong spatial and temporal correlations to the hydraulic-fracturing in Picket Unit B Well 4-18 [located in Garvin County Oklahoma] certainly suggest that the earthquakes observed in the Eola Field [also in Garvin County Oklahoma] could have possibly been triggered by this activity.

In that same paper, Mr. Holland admitted an important proximity in time between fracking and episodes of unusual seismicity, noted that the epicenters of the Garvin County earthquakes were within five kilometers of the injection wells, and that the earthquakes occurred at, or near, the associated injection depths. Mr. Holland’s conclusion, however, was basically, “Still — we can’t say for sure that fracking causes earthquakes.”

More troubling by far, though, is Mr. Holland’s weird epilogue, in which he agrees that studying the relationship between fracking and earthquakes might have one useful outcome: “It may also be possible to identify what criteria may affect the likelihood of anthropogenically induced earthquakes and provide oil and gas operators the ability to minimize any adverse effects[.]”

Perhaps I got lost in Mr. Holland’s grammar, but aren’t the earthquakes the adverse effects we’re talking about here? If a scientist has shown that fracking causes earthquakes, hasn’t he or she already demonstrated the adverse effects of fracking — namely, that it causes earthquakes? What minimization could he be talking about? Can you stop an earthquake once you’ve started it? Can it be hampered? Can it be softened? Or are we to understand that oil companies will pay to reinforce homes and repair damaged properties, foot medical costs, and make right any wrongful deaths? Because they obviously aren’t going to stop fracking — even if they believe it causes earthquakes.

We know this to be true, because at least one energy company wholeheartedly agrees that fracking causes earthquakes — and they’ve decided to keep doing it anyway. Cuadrilla Resources, a British company, has admitted it’s “highly probable” their fracking operation caused a series of small tremors in Lancashire, England (read the press release here). Cuadrilla hopes to get right back to fracking, though, after implementation of an “early detection system” that will serve to minimize the seismic impact of their operations.

I cannot imagine the circumstances under which I would discover that my actions had caused an earthquake. But I think if I did, my next move would probably be to stop doing whatever it was I was doing — not to figure out a way to live with the earthquakes. Because if energy companies actually believe that fracking causes earthquakes — and if they continue to frack — where does it end? If a company learned that fracking was responsible for international terrorism, would they stop? If they learned that fracking caused blindness in little orphan baby girls, would they care? If the sudden and contemporaneous deaths of all first-born male children within a hundred-mile radius of the Lincoln County injection sites was conclusively linked to fracking, would the drilling companies even slow down? And if not, would anyone in power stand up to stop them?

In Strong Motion, Franzen uses the language of earthquakes to describe forceful love. “Strong motion” is, in fact, a geological term for the powerful turbulence that occurs near the epicenter of a quake. It’s a good metaphor, with deep roots. Love is a force of biological authority, after all, and we humans are just bits of dust and dirt and stone that have managed over millions of years to stand up, to think, to mate and bear children, and to find ways to protect what we love.

I live in Oklahoma, with my wife and two sons. Monday night we felt another earthquake. I was lying on our bed, holding my youngest boy — he’ll turn two years old next month — when the shaking began.

was born in 1984 and raised in the towns of Talihina and Red Oak, Oklahoma. He is a graduate of St. John's College, and holds a law degree from the University of Oklahoma. He lives with his wife, Jenne, and their sons Oscar and GuyJack.

12 comments:

  1. brian,

    Wonderful essay. Informative. Thought provoking. Personal.

    elle,

    Your comment was just copying the “Simpson’s Did It” episode of South Park

  2. Man-made earthquakes aren’t a completely negative occurrence. Releasing tension in fault-lines under (sort of) controlled conditions could reduce the frequency of large, destructive, earthquakes. There’s nothing negative about 3.0 earthquakes, they happen constantly, it’s only large earthquakes that are a concern (including the one in Oklahoma, man-induced or not. So his post-script is accurate.

  3. Would someone please let Rachel Maddow know about this idea? Because I think she’s be interested in publicizing it. I’m a Texas, not an Oklahoma, writer, but in my home state as well, my best friend lives on a street where everyone was offered big money if they signed off on fracking in their neighborhood.

    Miraculously, they declined.

  4. Funny thing. Franzen writes a postmodern novel using as a metaphor a relatively fantastic fictionalization of how tectonic plates work. Then he switches to realist fiction. Then the tectonic stuff comes true. Kinda freaky, no?

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