Could a Yellowstone supervolcano eruption be triggered by earthquakes induced by United States oil fracking? We asked scientists Dr. Robert Smith of the University of Utah and Dr. Michael Stickney of the Montana State Geological Survey that very question, and they believe it is a “complex question that would require a complex response.” While geologists will need time to study the question in detail, in the near term, we can discuss what is known about the issue.
In a related report by The Inquisitr, the USGS also recently said the Yellowstone earthquake threat is high, and in July alone, there were 99 earthquakes recorded, although this is considered a normal level of seismicity for Yellowstone National Park. Previously, Dr. Smith also made a prediction based upon the earthquake data that the Yellowstone volcano would erupt in a specific location if it ever did erupt in our lifetimes. The good news is that Dr. Smith believes the annual odds of an eruption are one in a million, which is quite a relief.
Many Americans may be surprised to hear that United States oil production now beats even Saudi Arabia due to the growing fracking operations throughout the Midwest. But one huge potential unintended consequence to the success of the oil industry is that fracking is being tied to earthquakes throughout the American Midwest. A study on “induced earthquakes” by the United States Geological Services claims that “injected fluids can migrate substantial horizontal and vertical distances from the injection location,” and thus, the injected wastewater “counteracts the frictional forces on faults and, in effect, ‘pries them apart,’ thereby facilitating earthquake slip.”
As an example of how fracking might be affecting seismicity in the United States, the state of Oklahoma used to average a little over one earthquake per year but now it beats even California despite the latter state being physically located along a major fault line. At first glance, this evidence may seem to solidify the link between earthquakes and fracking, but the Oklahoma Geological Survey believes this may be normal activity:
“The frequency of earthquakes has increased in Oklahoma however, the majority of these earthquakes align with the natural stresses in Oklahoma and appear to be occurring on previously known and unknown faults, therefore, these earthquakes do not appear to be inconsistent with what might be called normal seismicity for Oklahoma.”
We also asked Dr. Stickney about the potential for earthquakes being induced by human activity:
“Most seismologists would agree that some activities of man can and do induce seismic activity. Recent studies seem to indicate that hydro fracturing (fracking) is seldom the cause of earthquakes of sufficient size to be noticed by humans. A more frequent cause of induced seismicity is the disposal of spent fracking fluids, and other production fluids related to oil and gas development and production, down some deep disposal wells. There are many tens of thousands of disposal wells sited across the U.S. but only a fraction of a percent of these wells appear to have associated seismicity.”
Fracking Near Yellowstone National Park
So could fracking even affect the Yellowstone volcano? Back in the fall of 2013, a company called Energy Corporation of America was discussing the potential of introducing fracking in areas near Yellowstone National Park in order to explore energy reserves previously inaccessible in Montana and Wyoming. The company had previously focused on other states further to the east and south of the United States, but Chief Executive John Mork told CNN he wanted to introduce an undetermined number of wells along the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone National Park. Mork admitted this project would take years and, earlier in 2014, the citizens near Billings, Montana were considering whether or not to allow oil and gas drilling in their region. Reports from The Billings Gazette also claimed hydraulic fracking is being proposed in areas “approximately 80 miles from the edge of the Yellowstone caldera,” which was reported with quite a bit of alarm.
We asked Dr. Stickney about the potential for fracking occurring in Yellowstone National Park, and he stated it will never happen based upon current U.S. law:
“Yellowstone National Park is protected by law from any oil or gas exploration or development. The portion of Montana that borders Yellowstone is predominately very old crystalline basement rocks (Beartooth Mountain Range) or thick piles of volcanic rocks (Absaroka and Gallatin Ranges), neither of which would be conducive to hosting oil or gas deposits. If fracking operations are planned north of these mountain ranges, it would be at distances of many tens of miles from the borders of the park and even farther from the Yellowstone volcano. Thus it seems extremely unlikely that any potential oil or gas development in Montana could affect the Yellowstone volcano. The areas in Montana immediately outside of Yellowstone are protected by law (and compact) against geothermal development.”
In addition, a report from Energy Tomorrow claims that new EPA regulations being proposed in 2014 would effectively make areas surrounding Yellowstone National Park unattainable by the oil industry.
In the end, unfortunately, we are unable to answer the main question, although it should not be a concern at this current time. It’s possible that computer simulations could attempt to determine whether or not fracking could potentially induce a caldera under high pressure to release some or all of its explosive power, but it’s a question that is likely to be debated and researched by geologists for years to come.
Do you think the U.S. government should allow fracking for oil so relatively close to the Yellowstone volcano?