The oil and gas industry is pumping out huge volumes of fracked oil but even more of the salty and potentially toxic wastewater that also comes out of the ground. Due to the geologic nature of shale formations, drillers can't pump this wastewater back into them after the shale is fracked and has produced oil and gas. Instead, they transport it to areas where injection wells can be drilled into porous rock and the wastewater can be pumped down and stored. Those injection wells can be either deep or shallow.
The rise of the fracking industry in the central U.S., especially Oklahoma, has coincided with a rise in earthquake activity, which is linked to deep injection wells. But not all fracking areas see the same level of human-caused earthquakes. This raises an obvious question: If Oklahoma's earthquake activity shot up as the state's oil and gas industry began injecting fracking wastewater into deep wells, then why not use shallower wells?
Unfortunately, shallow wastewater disposal wells come with their own suite of potential problems. Topping that list is the risk of contaminating freshwater aquifers as wastewater is pumped at high pressure underground, where that pressure can be released through faults, fractures, and improperly plugged oil and gas wells. The fracking industry is producing record amounts of oil, gas, and wastewater, meaning this problem of wastewater disposal isn't going away soon.
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Photo credit: Ashley Braun @abraun3