California + Fracking = The Big One?

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California is a beautiful, and scary, place to live. Much like this picture:

The San Andreas Fault in Central California's Carrizo Plain.

That long knife fight scar is the stuff of nightmares for many a Cali resident, the Red Cross, and FEMA. It is the San Andreas fault, long overdue for the Big One -- a magnitude 8 or larger quake, which would devastate our golden state.

Needless to say, inducing earthquakes is NOT something you want to mess with here. Yet earthquakes can, and have, been set off around the country, by a practice which is expanding daily in California: taking toxic wastewater from fracking and injecting it deep underground. These injections have been linked by scientists to "induced" quakes, as detailed in this recent Mother Jones article.

In a nutshell, this is thought to happen because pumping lots of fluid underground decreases friction along seismic faults and pries them apart, making them more likely to slip (which is how quakes are produced). As fracking increases across California and more and more wastewater is injected, faults can reach a tipping point -- as scientists discovered in Youngstown, Ohio, which experienced 109 earthquakes linked to injection.

And once faults are under enough pressure, earthquakes half a world away can also remotely trigger swarms of quakes around injection sites. According to a recent report by scientists at Columbia University, this already has occurred at injection well sites in Oklahoma, Colorado, and Texas.

In California, an intricate spiderweb of fault lines criss-cross the ground under our feet. Here's an interactive fault map courtesy of Caltech's Earthquake Data Center:

Earthquake faults in Southern California. | Screenshot: Courtesy Caltech
Earthquake faults in Southern California. | Screenshot: Courtesy Caltech

All of those red lines are major faults.

The three red lines near Culver City happen to lie smack under the Inglewood oil field. The 2014 drilling plan for the oil field was just released -- 53 new wells are slated to be drilled this coming year, about half of which are injection wells.

Will these new injection wells stress the fault lines that run through the oil field to the point of no return? We really don't know.

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But we do know that this has happened in the past, causing the catastrophic failure of the Baldwin Hills Dam in 1963, according to Stanford University engineer Richard Meehan.

Meehan recently posted a video on YouTube which details how the same geologic and water injection issues which caused the Baldwin dam collapse still affect the oil field today, and are activating the fault lines which lie under neighboring homes and schools.

But despite all the scientific evidence of earthquake risk, the oil companies are free to move forward full-bore, without taking the potentially catastrophic consequences into account. And that's just what they are doing in Inglewood, and in the massive fracking operations of Kern County -- which, whoops! -- are right next door to the San Andreas fault itself.

So, get your your water and canned food ready, check out the Red Cross' handy quake preparedness list -- and perhaps drop Jerry Brown a line to discuss all this -- before heading back out into the sunshine.

We live on unsteady ground here in California.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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