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Pick Your Poison: The Fracking Industry’s Wastewater Injection Well Problem

Pick Your Poison: The Fracking Industry’s Wastewater Injection Well Problem

Oklahoma fracking industry site

The first known oil well in Oklahoma happened by accident. It was 1859 and Lewis Ross was actually drilling for saltwater(brine), not oil. Brine was highly valued at the time for the salt that could be used to preserve meat. As Ross drilled deeper for brine, he hit oil. And people have been drilling for oil in Oklahoma ever since.

Lewis Ross might find today’s drilling landscape in the Sooner State somewhat ironic. The oil and gas industry, which has surging production due to horizontal drilling and fracking, is pumping out huge volumes of oil but even more brine. So much brine, in fact, that the fracking industry needs a way to dispose of the brine, or “produced water,” that comes out of oil and gas wells because it isn’t suitable for curing meats. In addition to salts, these wastewaters can contain naturally occurring radioactive elements and heavy metals.

But the industry’s preferred approaches for disposing of fracking wastewater — pumping it underground in either deep or shallow injection wells for long-term storage — both come with serious risks for nearby communities.

In Oklahoma, drillers primarily use deep injection wells for storing their wastewater from fracked shale wells, and while the state was producing the same amount of oil in 1985 as in 2015, something else has changed. The rise of the fracking industry in the central U.S. has coincided with a rise in earthquake activity.

From 1975 to 2008, Oklahoma averaged from one to three earthquakes of magnitude 3 or greater a year. But by 2014, the state averaged 1.6 of these earthquakes a dayIt now has a website that tracks them in real time.

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