On Saturday night, a 3.4 magnitude earthquake rumbled out from its epicenter 4.8 miles north east of Greeley, the city at the heart of the northern Front Range gas patch in Colorado, shaking homes and baffling residents and raising more questions about the safety of the intense drilling activity that has covered Weld County with tens of thousands of wells.
“Felt like someone was on the roof pounding it with a very big sledge hammer and the windows also shaked,” wrote one of the more than hundred area residents who filed brief accounts at Earthquake Report. “Went outside to see if someone was on the roof. Found myself in the company of my neighbors who also experienced their houses shaking.”
The temblor hit the city at 9:35 p.m. Emergency teams in Greeley reported numerous calls coming in initially but have reported no real damage in the hours since. The Greeley Tribune reported the quake knocked a trailer home off its blocks. Residents in Front Range cities Fort Collins and Longmont reported feeling the rumble.
The natural gas extraction practice known as hydraulic fracturing has made the Niobrara rock formation stretched out under Weld County a bonanza for drillers over the last decade. Drillers poke wells vertically and horizontally into the earth and then blast millions of gallons of a water-sand-chemical mixture down into them to break up rock and bring oil and gas to the surface. Fracking fluid comes back too, laden with toxins and low-level radiation. Drillers partly dispose of that fluid by shooting it into injection wells drilled miles below the surface.
Quake trackers have long noted that injection wells generate temblors. There are more than 150,000 injection wells that hold hundreds of billions of fracking wastewater in the United States. The location of the wells in states like Texas and Oklahoma and Ohio correspond to earthquake activity.
The Tribune reported on Sunday that the epicenter of the Greeley quake is located a mile and a half from “two oil and gas wastewater injection wells that have not been inspected by the state since August 2012.” The Tribune reported that the wells are operated by Denver-based High Sierra Water Services.
The quake comes as a political battle over drilling heats to a boil in Colorado.
Residents of five Front Range towns in the last few elections have voted for bans and moratoriums on fracking. Residents in conservative Greeley have pushed back, too, attending city and county commission hearings, demanding better zoning protections against drillers who have set up well pads in backyards and next to schools and city parks.
The state now sets the rules on drilling but, as boom-time industry trucks stream through neighborhoods and leaks and spills and tank explosions make headlines, the legislature in Denver has repeatedly failed to act to tighten regulations and bolster inspections. In response, citizens this election year have introduced a dozen ballot initiatives seeking greater local control.
Governor John Hickenlooper is holding negotiations in Denver to try and come to a legislative solution. The drilling industry is reportedly split on whether to back any new law or to take its chances at the ballot box. Industry representatives have already set aside millions of dollars to fight the initiatives in the coming months with media campaigns.