Convergence in Buenos Aires Argentina

A South American Crossroads

by Brook Lenker, Executive Director

Gracious. Passionate. Determined.

Few words fully capture the evocative resilience of Argentina where history is as turbulent as the winds of Patagonia. Fracking for oil and natural gas is a growing storm on the national horizon, and the effects will be fueled or mitigated by the ceaseless power of the Argentine people.

In the plains of Vaca Muerta, the forces collide. Democracy and calls for transparency meet big energy and nonresponsive government. Chevron has seduced YPF, the state-supported oil company, for a heavily-subsidized stake in the hydrocarbon riches. The shale play represents some of the largest oil and gas reserves in the world, proportional to the scale of concern about excessive use of water and its possible contamination; ranching and agriculture are the lifeblood of this drought-prone land. So much is at stake.

Our Energy Solutions in South America

FracTracker, Earthworks, and Ecologic Institute sent a delegation to Argentina and Uruguay from May 5 through the 12th as part of an outreach program called Our Energy Solutions made possible by our hosts’ generosity, foundation support, and last year’s Indiegogo campaign.

Eager audiences greeted our presentations about the American experience with unconventional oil and gas development and the promise of renewable energy. It was standing room only at a Senate forum in Buenos Aires and the offices of El Telegrafo in Paysandu. In Parana, we kicked-off a national conference about fracking and concluded our tour in San Rafael – a city on the northern fringe of the drilling boom. In total, we addressed more than 650 people, answering their concerns, cultivating their understanding of the perils of extraction, and sharing the opportunities for cleaner energy. Our ultimate reach was even greater, magnified by television and newspaper coverage and connections fostered with other organizations and institutions. The new relationships in South America may achieve unfathomable good.

A Moral Imperative

With his Argentine roots, Pope Francis is a ubiquitous and revered figure across the country. He’s also a gentle global force calling on humanity to confront climate change and care for the earth. One of our unforgettable hosts, Juan Pablo Olsson, had been in Rome the week prior to meet with the pontiff and participate in an environmental conference at the Vatican. Inspired, Juan Pablo and other speakers cited the moral imperative of the issues we were communicating and shared this papal plea: “a humble and simple request to work together to defend the future of the planet.”

The call still resonates. Every day we are confronted by the acute harms of unrestrained extraction – from contamination of air and water to the violation of fundamental human and constitutional rights. The glaciers of Patagonia aren’t melting, they are crying – for a global demonstration of compassion.

Stay tuned for news in the fall from the next leg of this journey – Europe.

Earthquake damage photo from Wikipedia

The Science Behind OK’s Man-made Earthquakes, Part 2

By Ariel Conn, Seismologist and Science Writer with the Virginia Tech Department of Geosciences

Oklahoma has made news recently because its earthquake story is so dramatic. The state that once averaged one to two magnitude 3 earthquakes per year now averages one to two per day. This same state, which never used to be seismically active, is now more seismically active than California. In terms of understanding the connection between wastewater disposal wells and earthquakes, though, it may be more helpful to look at other states first. Let us explore this issue further in Man-made Earthquakes, Part 2.

How other states handle induced seismicity

In 2010 and 2011, Arkansas experienced a swarm of earthquakes near the town of Greenbrier that culminated in a magnitude 4.7 earthquake. Officials in Arkansas ordered a moratorium on all disposal wells in the area, and earthquake activity quickly subsided.

In late 2011, Ohio experienced small earthquakes near a disposal well that culminated in a magnitude 4 earthquake that shook and startled residents. The disposal well was shut down, and the earthquakes subsided. Subsequent research into the earthquake confirmed that the disposal well in question had, in fact, triggered the earthquake. A swarm of earthquakes last year in Ohio shut down another well, and again, after the wastewater injection ceased, the earthquakes subsided.

Similarly in Kansas, after two earthquakes of magnitudes 4.7 and 4.9 shook the state in late 2014, officials ordered wells in two southern counties to decrease the volume of water injected into the ground. Again, earthquake activity quickly subsided.

A seismologist’s toolbox

A favorite saying among scientists is that correlation does not equal causation, and it’s easy to apply that phrase to the correlations seen in Ohio, Arkansas, and Kansas. Yet scientists remain certain that wastewater disposal wells can trigger earthquakes. So what are some of the techniques they use to come to these conclusions? At the Virginia Seismological Observatory (VTSO), two of the tools we used to determine a connection were cross-correlation programs and beach ball diagrams.


The VTSO research, which was funded by the National Energy Technology Laboratory, looked specifically at earthquake swarms that have popped up a couple times near a wastewater disposal well in West Virginia. We used a cross-correlation program to distinguish earthquakes that were likely triggered by the nearby well from events that might be natural or related to mining activity.

A seismic station records all of the vibrations that occur around it as squiggly lines. When an earthquake wave passes through, its squiggly lines take on a specific shape, known as a waveform, that seismologists can easily recognize (as an example, the VTSO logo in Fig. 1 was designed using a waveform from one of West Virginia’s potentially induced earthquakes.)

Virginia Tech Seismological Observatory logo

Figure 1. Virginia Tech Seismological Observatory logo w/waveform

For naturally occurring earthquakes, the waveforms will have some variation in shape because they come from different faults in different locations. When an injection well triggers earthquakes, it typically activates faults that are within close proximity, resulting in greater similarities between waveforms. A cross-correlation program is simply a computer program that can run through days, weeks, or months of data from a seismometer to find those similar waveforms. When matching waveforms indicate that earthquake activity is occurring near an injection well – and especially in regions that don’t have a history of seismic activity – we can conclude the earthquakes are triggered by human activity.

Beach Balls

Any earthquake fault, whether it’s active or ancient, is stressed to its breaking point. The difference is that, in places like California that are active, the natural forces against the faults often change, which triggers earthquakes. Ancient faults are still highly stressed, but the ground around them has become more stabilized. However at any point in time, if an unexpected force comes along, it can still trigger an earthquake.

Beach ball diagrams of 16 of the largest earthquakes in Oklahoma in 2014, all showing similar focal mechanisms, which is indicative of induced seismicity.

Figure 2. Beach ball diagrams of 16 of the largest earthquakes in Oklahoma in 2014, all showing similar focal mechanisms, which is indicative of induced seismicity.

Earthquake faults don’t all point in the same direction, which means different forces will affect faults differently. Depending on their orientation, some faults might shift in a north-south direction, some might shift in an east-west direction, some might be tilted at an angle, while others are more upright, etc. Seismologists use focal mechanisms to describe the movement of a fault during an earthquake, and these focal mechanisms are depicted by beach ball diagrams (Figure 2). The beach ball diagrams look, literally, like black and white beach balls. Different quadrants of the “beach ball” will be more dominant depending on what type of fault it was and how it moved (See USGS definition of Focal Mechanisms and the “beach ball” symbol).

When an earthquake is triggered by an injection well, it means that the fluid injected into the ground is essentially the straw that broke the camel’s back. Earthquake theory predicts that the forces from an injection well won’t trigger all faults, but only those that are oriented just right. Since we expect that only certain faults with just the right orientation will get triggered, that means we also expect the earthquakes to have similar focal mechanisms, and thus, similar beach ball diagrams. And that’s exactly what we see in Oklahoma.

Cross-correlation programs and beach ball diagrams are only two tools we used at the VTSO to confirm which earthquakes were induced, but seismologists have many means of determining if an earthquake is induced or natural.

Limitations of science?

With so much strong scientific evidence, why can people in industry still claim there isn’t enough science to officially confirm that an injection well triggered an earthquake? In some cases, these claims are simply wrong. In other cases, though, especially in Oklahoma, the problem is that no one was monitoring the disposal wells and the earthquakes from the start. Well operators were not required to publicly track the volumes of water they injected into wells until recently, and no one monitored for nearby earthquake activity. The big problem is not a lack of scientific evidence, but a lack of data from industry to perform sufficient research. Scientists need information about the history, volume, and pressure of fluid injection at a disposal well if they’re to confirm whether or not earthquakes are triggered by it. Often, that information is proprietary and not publically available, or it may not exist at all.

At this point though, two other factors make direct correlations between injection wells and earthquakes in Oklahoma even more difficult:

  1. So many wells have injected signficiant volumes of water in close enough proximity that pointing a finger at a specific well is more challenging.
  2. A large number of wells have injected water for so many years, that the earthquakes are migrating farther and farther from their original source. Again, pointing a finger at a specific well gets harder with time.

What we know

We know what induced seismicity is and why it occurs. We know that if a wastewater injection well disposes of large volumes of fluids deep underground in a region that has existing faults, it will likely trigger earthquakes. We know that if a region previously had few earthquakes, and then sees an uptick in earthquakes after wastewater injection begins, the earthquakes are likely induced. We know that if we want to understand the situation better, we need more seismic stations near disposal wells so we can more accurately monitor the area for seismicity both before and after the well becomes active.

What don’t we know?

We don’t know how big an induced earthquake can get. Oklahoma’s largest earthquake, which was also the largest induced earthquake ever recorded in the United States, was a magnitude 5.6. That’s big enough to cause millions of dollars of damage. Worldwide, the largest earthquake suspected to be induced occurred near the Koyna Dam in India, where a magnitude 6.3 earthquake killed nearly 200 people in 1967.

Can an earthquake that large occur in the central U.S.? The best guess right now: yes.

Seismologists suspect that an induced earthquake could get as big as the size of the fault. If a fault is big enough to trigger a magnitude 7 or 8 earthquake, then that is potentially how large an induced earthquake could be. In the early 1800s, three earthquakes between magnitudes 7 and 8 struck along the New Madrid Fault Zone near St. Louis, Missouri. Toward the end of the 1800s, a magnitude 7 earthquake shook Charleston, South Carolina. In those two areas, injection wells could potentially trigger very large earthquakes.

We have no historic record of earthquakes that large in Oklahoma, so right now, the best guess is that the largest an earthquake could get there would be between a magnitude 6 and 6.5. That would be big enough to cause significant damage, injuries, and possibly death.

The solution

What’s the take-home message from all of this?

  • First, the science exists to back up the conclusion that wastewater injection wells trigger earthquakes.
  • Second, if we want to get a better feel for which wells are more problematic, we need funding, seismic stations, and staff to monitor seismic activity around all high-volume injection wells, along with a history of injection times, volumes and pressures at the well.
  • Third, this is a problem that, if left unchecked, has the potential to result in major damage, incredible expense, and possibly loss of life.

Induced earthquakes are a real phenomenon. While more research is necessary to help us better understand the intricacies of these events and to identify correlations in complex cases, the general cause of the earthquake swarms in Oklahoma and other states is not a mystery. They are man-made problems, backed up by decades of scientific research. They have the potential to create significant damage, but we have the wherewithal to prevent them. We don’t need to go to the extreme of shutting down all wells, but rather, we just need to be able to monitor the wells and ensure that they don’t trigger earthquakes. If a well does trigger an earthquake, then at that point, the well operators can either experiment with significantly decreasing the volume of water that’s injected, or the well can be shut down completely. Understanding and acknowledging the connection between injection wells and earthquakes will make induced seismicity a much easier problem to solve.

Pipelines vs Oil Trains

By Juliana Henao, Communications Intern

Media outlets have been very focused recently on reporting oil train derailments and explosions. Additionally, the Keystone XL pipeline has hastened political debates and arguments for years by both political parties since its initial proposal in 2008 – and the May 19th pipeline oil spill in California isn’t helping matters. In the midst of all of this commotion, a million questions are being asked, yet no one can seem to reach a conclusion about what method of transporting oil is truly safest and economically feasible – or if we are just stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Some say the solution to this problem is transporting the volatile crude via pipelines, while others believe it is a matter of increasing regulations, standards, and compliance for transport by train. The answer is simply not simple.

In light of this, a few of the folks at FracTracker gathered some facts on pipelines vs oil trains to lay out this issue in a clearer fashion.

Let’s start with trains.


Due to the increasing demand of crude oil supply, there has been increasing activity in the transportation of crude oil by rail, which provides flexibility and quick transportation throughout the U.S. and its 115 refineries. Railroads are also willing to offer shippers shorter contracts than pipelines and other transportation methods, making them a more favorable method of crude oil transportation.

In 2008, U.S. freight trains were delivering somewhere from 9-10,000 carloads of crude oil. In 2013, they delivered roughly 435,560 carloads of crude oil, showing a 20-fold increase in crude oil shipments.


Oil trains, as well as pipelines, can pose a detrimental risk to communities and public health in the case of an explosion and/or spill. Danger Around the Bend describes in detail the dangers of transporting Bakken Formation crude oil from North Dakota to parts all over the country.

Some of the risks of transporting volatile crude via train have been clearly depicted in the news with announcements of spills, derailments, and explosions in urban and suburban areas, putting many people in harm’s way. Despite the decrease in spills between 1996 and 2007, devastating train accidents like the one on July 6, 2013 have raised questions about the safety of transportation by train.


Learn more about this trend and the increasing risk of exploding oil trains in a post by Randy Sargent of CMU.

Trains and train tracks in general can be very dangerous, as demonstrated by the deadly Amtrak train derailment in Philadelphia this May. The total number of incidents in 2014, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, sum up to 11,793 – with 818 of those being fatal. These fatalities have been linked to a range of possible causes, but the numbers depict the gravity of safety issues within the railroad regulations.


When it comes to train safety and regulations, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is in charge. Some of the current efforts to increase the safety of oil trains include safer tank car design, adding breaking power, reducing the train speed limits through urban areas and increasing crew size. One of the most important improvements, however, includes an increase in oil spill response, which is managed through the National Oil and Hazardous Substance Contingency Plan.

Now, let’s talk pipelines.

As we all know, finishing the Keystone XL pipeline has stirred years of controversy, since this project was initially proposed back in 2008. On January 31, 2014, the U.S. Department of State released the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) of the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would transport up to 830,000 barrels of tar sand oil per day through an 875-mile long pipeline running from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf Coast area. Below we have mapped the current and proposed tracks of the Keystone, along with the numerous ports, refineries, and rail lines:

The Keystone XL, Alberta oil sands, North American oil refineries and associated ports. View fullscreen and click Details for the metadata behind this map.

The SEIS discussed the impacts that the proposed pipeline would have on the environment and public health based on research, modeling, and analysis. One of the many purposes of the SEIS is to focus on whether the proposed project serves the national interest by comparing the risks to the benefits – discussed in more detail below.


The current risks associated with pipelines are similar to the risks associated with other modes of transporting oil across the United States. Oil spills are among the highest risks, but with the XL pipeline, it’s a more profound risk due to the type of oil being carried: tar sand oil. Tar sand oil, also known as heavy oil, is known for its tedious processing and its many environmental implications. Burning one single barrel of oil produced from Canadian tar sands generally emits 170 pounds of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It also requires large amounts of energy and water, much of which cannot be recycled, to separate the oil from the tar sands and transform the oil into a form of petroleum that can be processed by refineries.

According to the final SEIS:

The proposed project would emit approximately 24 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year during the construction period (up to three times as much than producing conventional crude), which would be directly emitted through fuel use in construction vehicles and equipment as well as land clearing activities including open burning, and indirectly from electricity usage.

Additional risks associated with the XL pipeline include potential groundwater contamination of major aquifers – particularly the Ogallala Aquifer – as well as deforestation, habitat destruction, and fragmentation.

In the event of an oil spill from the Keystone XL or other pipelines crossing the U.S., the responsibility for who cleans it up does not fall on TransCanada. According to a report from the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC), tar sand oils are exempt from paying into the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. Amendments that would require TransCanada to pay the 8-cent-per-barrel fee to the fund have not been passed.

Devastating oil spills such as the one in Santa Barbara in mid May reflect the impact it not only has on wildlife, but on the local culture, especially on those who depend on fisheries and whose lives revolves around surfing in the brisk waters of the Pacific Ocean. 21,000 gallons of crude oil covers roughly 4 miles of Santa Barbara’s coast now, extending about 50 yards into the water.


Jobs, jobs, jobs. The economic stimulus is one purported advantage to the XL pipeline. During construction, proposed project spending would support approximately 42,100 jobs, directly and indirectly and around $2 billion in earnings throughout the US, according to the final SEIS. Despite different job creation estimates, any number will contribute significantly to the US gross domestic product, associating a huge economic growth with the construction of the proposed XL pipeline. (TransCanada estimates around 13,000 construction jobs and 7,000 manufacturing jobs, which is about 3 times higher than the State Department’s estimate.) In addition, the cost of paying for the Keystone XL project ($3.3 billion) would not be placed on the U.S. but on Keystone.

According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHSMA), the industry and their operators have reduced the risk of hazardous materials transportation incidents with death or major injury by 4% every 3 years, and since 2002, they have reduced the risk of a pipeline spill with environmental consequences by an average of 5% per year.1

Still, there is more work to be done. Safety issues that the pipeline industry is aiming to fix include:

  • Infrastructure: Repair obsolete pipeline infrastructure through a pipeline integrity management program and investigate new technologies that can detect pipeline risks.
  • Improving human error and safety culture: Increase the focus on safety beyond compliance standards and evaluate the potential value of safety management systems.
  • Adding secondary containment: Limit the spread of HAZMAT in the event of a failure in the primary container, and improve leak detection.
  • Transparency: Increasing transparency for companies and their accountability

Check out the infographic below for a summary of all of these pros and cons:

Moving Forward

All methods of transporting oil present various risks and benefits based on the available data. Explaining both sides of this coin allows us to assess each method’s impacts on our economy, environment, and public health. Through these assessments, we can make more informed decisions on what truly serves the nation’s interests. Oil and gas transport is a dangerous business, but all transportation industries are improving their management programs and increasing their regulations to provide citizens peace of mind and the safety they deserve. In light of ongoing issues, however, some would ask if these risks are even necessary.

For example, the growth of safer energy resources such as solar energy would significantly cut down the risks mentioned above in addition to providing jobs and stimulating the overall economy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Solar Foundation, the growth in direct industry jobs for solar has outweighed oil and gas for the past 3 years. In 2014, new jobs created for the solar industry were more than twice the jobs created for the oil and gas industry. Based on 2014’s economics, Kepler Cheuvreux stated that all renewables are already more competitive than oil priced at $100 per barrel — This is because renewables have a higher net energy return on capital invested (EROCI).

As a reader and a citizen, it is important to know the pros and cons of the current activities taking place in our country today. We must be aware of loopholes that may be putting our states, cities, or counties into harm’s way, as well as recognize alternative energy sources and regulatory oversight that lessen the threats that oil extraction and transport pose to our health and environment.


1. These statistics are based from the Census Bureau analysis and Bureau of Transportation Statistics as of July 2012.

The Science Behind OK’s Man-made Earthquakes, Part 1

By Ariel Conn, Seismologist and Science Writer with the Virginia Tech Department of Geosciences

On April 21, the Oklahoma Geological Survey issued a statement claiming that the sharp rise in Oklahoma earthquakes — from only a couple per year to thousands — was most likely caused by wastewater disposal wells associated with major oil and gas plays. This is huge news after years of Oklahoma scientists hesitating to place blame on an industry that provides so many jobs.

Now, seismologists from around the country — including Oklahoma — are convinced that these earthquakes are the result of human activity, also known as induced or triggered seismicity. Yet many people, especially those in the oil industry, still refute such an argument. Just what is the science that has seismologists so convinced that the earthquakes are induced and not natural?

Hidden Faults

Over the last billion years (give or take a couple hundred million), colliding tectonic plates have created earthquake zones, just as we see today in California, Japan, Chile and Nepal. As geologic processes occurred, these zones shifted and moved and were covered up, and the faults that once triggered earthquakes achieved a state of equilibrium deep in the basement rocks of the earth’s crust. But the faults still exist. If the delicate balance that keeps these fault systems stable ever shifts, the ancient faults can still move, resulting in earthquakes. Because these inactive faults are so deep, and because they can theoretically exist just about anywhere, they’re incredibly difficult to map or predict – until an earthquake occurs.

Thanks to historic reports of earthquakes in the central and eastern United States, we know there are some regions, far away from tectonic plate boundaries, that occasionally experience large earthquakes. Missouri and South Carolina, for example, suffered significant and damaging earthquakes in the last 200 hundred years, yet these states lie nowhere near a plate boundary. We know that fault zones exist in these locations, but we have no way of knowing about dormant faults in regions of the country that haven’t experienced earthquakes in the last couple hundred years.

What is induced seismicity?

As early as the 1930s, seismologists began to suspect that extremely large volumes of water could impact seismic activity, even in those regions where earthquakes weren’t thought to occur. Scientists found that after certain reservoirs were built and filled with water, earthquake swarms often followed. This didn’t happen everywhere, and when it did, the earthquakes were rarely large enough to be damaging. These quakes were large enough to be felt, however, and they represented early instances of human activity triggering earthquakes.[1]

Research into induced seismicity really picked up in the 1960s. The most famous example of man-made earthquakes occurred as a result of injection well activity at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal. The arsenal began injecting wastewater into a disposal well 12,000 feet deep in March of 1962, and by April of that year, people were feeling earthquakes. Researchers at the arsenal tracked the injections and the earthquakes. They found that each time the arsenal injected large volumes of water (between 2 and 8 million gallons per month, or 47,000 to 190,000 barrels), earthquakes would start shaking the ground within a matter of weeks (Figure 1).

Rocky Mountain Arsenal fluid injection correlated to earthquake frequency

Figure 1. Rocky Mountain Arsenal fluid injection correlated to earthquake frequency

South Carolina experienced induced earthquakes after filling a reservoir

Figure 2. South Carolina experienced induced earthquakes after filling a reservoir

When the injections ended, the earthquakes also ceased, usually after a similar time delay, but some seismicity continued for a while. The well was active for many years, and the largest earthquake thought to be induced by the injection well actually occurred nearly a year and a half after injection officially ended. That earthquake registered as a magnitude 5.3. Scientists also noticed that over time, the earthquakes moved farther and farther away from the well.

Research at a reservoir in South Carolina produced similar results; large volumes of water triggered earthquake swarms that spread farther from the reservoir with time (Figure 2).

When people say we’ve known for decades that human activity can trigger earthquakes, this is the research they’re talking about.

Why now? Why Oklahoma?

Class II Injection Well. Photo by Lea Harper

Injection Well in Ohio. Photo by Ted Auch

Seismologists have known conclusively and for quite a while that wastewater injection wells can trigger earthquakes, yet people have also successfully injected wastewater into tens of thousands of wells across the country for decades without triggering any earthquakes. So why now? And why in Oklahoma?

The short answers are:

  • At no point in history have we injected this much water this deep into the ground, and
  • It’s not just happening in Oklahoma.

One further point to clarify: General consensus among seismologists is that most of these earthquakes are triggered by wastewater disposal wells and not by hydrofracking (or fracking) wells. That may be a point to be contested in a future article, but for now, the largest induced earthquakes we’ve seen have been associated with wastewater disposal wells and not fracking. This distinction is important when considering high-pressure versus high-volume wells. A clear connection between high-pressure wells and earthquakes has not been satisfactorily demonstrated in our research at the Virginia Tech Seismological Observatory (VTSO) (nor have we seen it demonstrated elsewhere, yet). High-volume wastewater disposal wells, on the other hand, have been connected to earthquakes.

At the VTSO, we looked at about 8,000 disposal wells in Oklahoma that we suspected might be connected to induced seismicity. Of those, over 7,200 had maximum allowed injection rates of less than 10,000 barrels per month, which means the volume is low enough that they’re unlikely to trigger earthquakes. Of the remaining 800 wells, only 300 had maximum allowed injection rates of over 40,000 barrels per month — and up to millions of barrels per year for some wells. These maximum rates are on par with the injection rates seen at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, and our own plots indicate a correlation between high-volume injection wells and earthquakes (Figure 3-4).

Triangles represent wastewater injection wells scaled to reflect maximum volume rates. Wells with high volumes are located near earthquakes.

Figure 3. Triangles represent wastewater injection wells scaled to reflect maximum volume rates. Wells with high volumes are located near earthquakes.

Triangles represent wastewater injection wells scaled to reflect maximum pressure. Wells with high pressures are not necessarily near earthquakes.

Figure 4. Triangles represent wastewater injection wells scaled to reflect maximum pressure. Wells with high pressures are not necessarily near earthquakes.

This does not mean that all high-volume wells will trigger earthquakes, or that lower-volume wells are always safe, but rather, it’s an important connection that scientists and well operators should consider.

Starting in 2008 and 2009, with the big oil and gas plays in Oklahoma, a lot more fluid was injected into a lot more wells. As the amount of fluid injected in Oklahoma has increased, so too have the number of earthquakes. But Oklahoma is not the only state to experience this phenomenon. Induced earthquakes have been recorded in Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Ohio, West Virginia and Texas.

In the last four years, Arkansas, Kansas, Ohio and Texas have all had “man-made” earthquakes larger than magnitude 4, which is the magnitude at which damage begins to occur. Meanwhile, in that time period, Colorado experienced its second induced earthquake that registered larger than magnitude 5. Oklahoma may have the most induced and triggered earthquakes, but the problem is one of national concern.


[1] Induced seismicity actually dates back to the late 1800s with mining, but the connection to high volumes of fluid was first recognized in the 1930s. However, the extent to which it was documented is unknown.

Oil train - Photo by Washinton House Democrats

Increasing Risk from Exploding Crude Trains

By Randy Sargent, Carnegie Mellon CREATE Lab and Samantha Malone, FracTracker Alliance

In the past two years, crude oil trains have exploded 10 times, killing 47 people.


Lac-Mégantic, Quebec: 47 killed


Outside Plaster Rock, New Brunswick


Outside Casselton, ND


Outside Aliceville, AL


Outside Lynchburg, VA


Outside Mt. Carbon, WV


Outside Timmins, Ontario


Outside Galena, IL




Outside Heimdal, ND


Outside Gogama, Ontario

It could have been much worse. Eight of the ten trains exploded in rural areas. The train that flattened half the business district of the small town of Lac-Mégantic might have killed hundreds of people if it had exploded during business hours.[1] Residents in Philadelphia have dodged a bullet several times already; they’ve seen two oil train derailments there that fortunately did not explode. And last week’s Amtrak train derailment in Philadelphia that killed 8 people and injured more than 200 could have been much worse, had it impacted an oil train in that area.

Today we ship 17 times as much oil by rail as we did in 2010. This past year we shipped 14.5 billion gallons of oil — that’s 6,700 oil trains the size that destroyed Lac-Mégantic:

This chart above and the ones that follow are derived from the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s recently provided data tracking crude oil movements by rail.

Why do oil trains explode so easily?

Like a carbonated beverage with dissolved CO2, oil extracted from Bakken wells naturally has lighter hydrocarbons in it, such as methane, ethane, propane, and butane. Methane — natural gas — is the lightest of the gases and boils out quickly at surface pressure. But ethane, propane, and butanes, known as light ends or natural gas liquids in the oil industry, take time and/or heat to boil out.[2]

In the most prolific oilfield in the U.S. today, North Dakota’s Bakken formation, most of light ends are left in the oil before loading on the train, to maximize value of what is sent to the refinery. But much like a soda bottle, the pressure increases with temperature and motion, with pressurized ethane, propane, and butane at the top. With those highly volatile gases under pressure, all it takes to create an explosion is a leak and a spark, and both commonly happen in a derailment or collision.

All ten exploding crude trains carried oil from the Bakken.

In contrast, shale oilfields in Texas do stabilize crude by removing light ends prior to shipment by rail.

Where are the exploding Bakken oil trains going?

Bakken trains travel through much of the US and Canada, heading to refineries on the coasts. Increasingly, they are traveling to East coast refineries, which now handle over half of Bakken crude oil production.

Closer to home for the authors, Pittsburgh is a popular waypoint for Bakken oil trains. Known for its steel industry in the 20th century, Pittsburgh continues to sport a large rail infrastructure. Its rails go through very densely populated areas, a good thing when the rails carried ore and steel and coal for the mills. But it’s a disaster waiting to happen now that the rails are bringing explosive oil trains through the city.


Oil and compressed gasses transit Carnegie Mellon University multiple times daily, Pittsburgh, PA

Oil trains travel across Pittsburgh's North Shore and Downtown multiple times daily, as well

Oil trains travel across Pittsburgh’s North Shore and Downtown multiple times daily, as well


A significant and growing fraction of Bakken oil trains carrying 1 million gallons or more transit Pittsburgh, with ~30 a week based on Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency data released for five days in October 2014. Prior to the disclosure, volunteers spent a day with us in 2014 recording traffic along one of several routes into the city to learn more about whether / how the trains might pose a risk to city residents and workers. Learn more about what we found here.

Why does this matter?

As crude-by-rail traffic continues to increase, it is only a matter of time before an oil train explodes in a populated area again. Imagine any of the 10 explosions so far taking place instead in downtown Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, or flattening a school in suburban Chicago, for example.

Map of Lac-Mégantic destruction from the Toronto Star’s article, “Where they died”

Map of Lac-Mégantic destruction from the Toronto Star’s article, Where they died. Click to explore the interactive map.

Learn more about the Lac-Megantic disaster through the eyes of those who lived through it.

What can be done

One attempt to make these trains safer, by requiring new tanker cars be built to a safer standard, does not appear to have helped; the most recent 5 exploding trains used the newest, “safer” tanker cars.

But there are effective measures that are in our power to take:

Photo and Video Credits


  1. The direction that the ignited oil flowed after the incident also played a significant role in the path of the damage and fatalities.
  2. Light Ends information