A 5.9 earthquake — the strongest in over 100 years to strike the East Coast — forced the evacuation of personnel from the White House and U.S. Treasury. Some protesters outside the White House joked that Mother Nature was just trying to jolt President Obama awake to take action on climate change and stop relying on dirty energy. Too bad Obama was vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard and couldn’t have heard the joke first-hand.
The protestors’ comments said in jest may not be too far from the truth. In his State of the Union speech this year, President Obama declared support for a so-called “clean energy standard” which he said would include natural gas, nuclear power, and so-called “clean coal.” And the energy options being pursued under the “clean energy standard” endorsed by President Obama may have synergistic and potentially catastrophic consequences that we narrowly escaped in this quake.
Sound farfetched? Read on. The quake’s epicenter was in Mineral, Virginia, approximately 10 miles from two nuclear power reactors at the North Anna site. According to a statement by a representative of Dominion Power, operators of the plants, the two reactors were designed to withstand a 5.9 to 6.1 quake. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission ranked the North Anna Reactors as being seventh in the nation in terms of earthquake risks. At the time of this writing, both reactors were operating on diesel generators and their operators claim there is no quake damage.
But just how close did we come to catastrophe? And what could cause the quakes to rumble through a part of the United States that rarely sees such powerful quakes? Was it a mere freak of nature? Or is something else going on?
We may never know for sure, but there is a growing consensus that a natural gas drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing is linked to earthquakes. For example, Arkansas has experienced a swarm of earthquakes in the aftermath of hydraulic fracturing (also called “fracking”) for natural gas. Other regions of the country where fracking is taking place, Texas, West Virginia, and New York, have also witnessed a series of quakes in the vicinity of these drilling sites. In the process of fracking, water and toxic fluid is injected deep underground at high pressure deep into rocks in order to actually create micro-earthquakes. These mini-quakes, in turn, release the gas trapped deep in the rock, allowing it to bubble to the surface.
The United States Geological Survey thinks the earthquake swarms that follow are caused less by the fracking itself than by the reinjection of wastewater from fracking, blasted under high pressure into the ground. The wastewater can act as a lubricant, while also providing pressure that can lead to a quake.
Virginia is part of the Marcellus Shale, a rocky, underground geological formation which may contain about 84 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered, technically recoverable natural gas and 3.4 billion barrels of undiscovered, technically recoverable natural gas liquids, according to a new assessment by the U. S. Geological Survey (USGS). The Marcellus Shale also includes the states of New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and Maryland. While Virginia has so far experienced less fracking than other states, the surrounding region —especially West Virginia — is being actively explored for natural gas, while fracking, reinjection of waste and earthquakes takes place with some regularity.
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Then there is climate change and a possible connection to earthquakes. The jury is still out on the effects of climate change and rising sea levels in terms of earthquakes. Melting glaciers and rising sea levels could potentially have an impact on tectonic plates — rebounding as the weight of glaciers shifts to sea-- and volcanic activity. But the science around this is far from conclusive.
And while many label natural gas as a clean alternative to coal, a recent Cornell University study questions the common perception that natural gas is better for the climate. When one accounts for the vast quantity of methane — a heat-trapping gas over 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide — that leaks into the atmosphere in the process of drilling for gas, the climate impact of gas may be comparable to that of coal.
And finally, there is the issue of mountaintop removal coal mining. The blasting of mountaintops could, theoretically, lead to a seismic shift. And a manmade small quake from fracking or mountaintop removal coal mining could in turn trigger a larger earthquake, according to Dr. Graham Kent, a seismologist answering questions on a Washington Post blog post on the quake’s aftermath.
So let’s return to the North Anna reactors and the protestors in front of the White House: North Anna’s nukes are less than 100 miles from DC, and as the wind blows, a meltdown there could contaminate the nation’s power center with deadly radiation. These reactors, online for over 30 years, have generated approximately 1,200 metric tons of nuclear spent fuel containing about 228,000 curies of highly radioactive materials — among the largest concentration of waste in the country, including long-lived Cesium-137.
The cause of the quakes may never be known, but if it turns out that hydrofracking did in fact bring Virginia –and our nation’s capitol--close to a nuclear meltdown, a la Fukushima, would this jolt the president of the United States out of his slumber on the environmental hazards of so-called “clean energy standard” options?
Sometimes, Mother Nature speaks loudly and clearly. Let’s hope this time, Obama is listening.