What the Frack?

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Yesterday morning Reuters, a business and financial news source, published an article about a new dimension of the fracking debate: home insurance. With rising concerns about man-made earthquakes, insurers in Oklahoma are none too keen on providing policies to cover earthquake damage. Some insurance companies are increasing earthquake insurance prices by more than 250%, while others increased the deductibles so clients would have to pay for more damage out of pocket. Finally, some companies are beginning not to offer earthquake insurance at all.
According to the Reuters article, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) has tracked earthquakes in Oklahoma and found that earthquake frequency is increasing surprisingly quickly. In 2008 the state had “a handful” of earthquakes, then 103 in 2013, and 890 in 2015. Meanwhile, the value of earthquake insurance more than tripled from 2009-2015. Scientists have connected this increase in earthquakes with the disposal of wastewater from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. By injecting chemical-laden water into deep wastewater wells, energy companies disturb faults and induce earthquakes. As UT Austin Professor Dr. Cliff Frohlich explains, fracking engineers are careful to avoid faults because they don’t want to waste the water they’re using for fracking. Wastewater disposal is not done as carefully because many industries don’t care where the water goes when they are done using it. Dr. Frohlich says, “They’re trying to get rid of it, so they want a very porous material where fluids can flow away across long distances. So they’re more likely to get to a fault.” Even more concerning, some scientists think that as more water is pumped into the waste wells the disturbances will increase, meaning that as wells are used for longer periods of time more frequent and more powerful earthquakes will occur. With this increased risk, is it any wonder insurance companies are backing away from the problem and discussing their willingness to sue oil and gas companies for damages when the insurers do have to pay?
Energy companies claim that as long as wastewater disposal is carefully managed, there should not be any problems. However, industry officials acknowledge the earthquakes and their connection to fracking. For example, emails obtained from open record requests to the Texas Railroad Commission (regulates oil and gas drilling in Texas) demonstrated that industry members have even talked to EPA about their concerns over these earthquakes and the connection to fracking.
But the fossil fuel industry is huge. Fracking in particular has grown from being the source of less than 2% of domestic oil production in the U.S. in 2000 to the source of greater than 50% of domestic oil production in 2016, an increase of over 48% in less than 16 years. The United States is now third globally in oil production behind Russia and Saudi Arabia. We’ve gone from 23,000 fracking wells producing 102,000 barrels of oil per day in 2000 to 300,000 wells producing 4.3 million barrels daily in 2016. It seems daunting to try to stand up to such an enormous industry, regardless of the damages it causes and the problematic policies that lie in its wake.
Yet as much of a problem as the new insurance policies are, low income families are going to suffer the most. Families that can barely afford their current mortgage and insurance plan are not going to be able to afford the price hikes and high deductible. These families will not be able to move away from high earthquake areas and definitely will not be able to easily repair damages after an earthquake. According to Talk Poverty Oklahoma had a 16.6% poverty rate in 2015, higher than the U.S. national poverty rate of 14.8%. Therefore, as we’ve seen with so many other environmental health issues, fracking earthquakes will likely disproportionately affect low income communities. Again we face the question: how do we protect people instead of just profit?

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