WE like our scientific conclusions to come with a high degree of certainty, but smart scientists know better than to flatly declare that the earth is round until they're darn sure that it is round.
A new conclusion about seismic activity says that man is “almost certainly” responsible for a spate of recent earthquakes in Oklahoma and elsewhere. This is not a certainty, mind you, but an “almost” certainty. That's enough for political activists to seize on the conclusion, tie the earthquake outbreak to hydraulic fracturing and strike another blow for environmentalism.
Some isolated earthquakes may be related to saltwater injection, a byproduct of fracturing, but that's only a supposition at this point. To conclude that a swath of earthquakes across America is attributable solely to oil and gas activity is a seismic leap.
Cited as part of the conclusion is the record number of quakes and the record size of the central Oklahoma earthquake last year. “Record” is the key word here, as it is in the debate over climate change. In 2011, Oklahoma had the hottest summer on “record” and this was “almost” certainly a result of climate change, which was “almost” certainly caused by humankind.
Problem is, climatological events and geological events go back millions of years (of that we are “almost” certain, while allowing others to believe in a younger earth). We don't know how hot it was in Oklahoma just 200 years ago because records weren't kept. We don't know how many earthquakes were recorded in Oklahoma 500 years ago because there was no way to measure them.
We do know that earthquakes — and hot summers — have been experienced since humans have walked the earth and we are truly certain, not “almost” certain, that people didn't cause this throughout history.
A U.S. Geological Survey study has concluded that deep-injection wells are the likely source of a dramatic increase in seismic activity: “A naturally occurring rate change of this magnitude is unprecedented outside of volcanic settings or in the absence of a main shock ... While the seismicity rate changes described here are almost certainly man-made, it remains to be determined how they are related to either changes in extraction methodologies or the rate of oil and gas production.”
So, these scientists are “almost” certain that man is responsible for the earthquakes but less than certain about how we're responsible. For the anti-fossil fuel activists, the two things can't be separated. Earthquakes are increasing. Fracking is increasing. Ergo, fracking is causing earthquakes. To stop the earthquakes, we must stop the fracking!
We'd like a little more certainty in the link between earthquake frequency and fracking activity before concluding that a decades-old technique is suddenly rocking the universe and needs to be stopped. We've all seen what's happened with climate change and how the “almost” certainties in that area are incorporated into expensive and sometimes radical public policy.
That train has left the station, however. With earthquakes and fracking, let's move our knowledge a little farther down the track before we derail the economy over an “almost” certain belief.