Planet Gore

Earthquakes, Hurricanes, and Conspiracy Theories

If you’re an environmentalist and a hurricane rips the East Coast and New England, you immediately know the culprit. Mother Nature? Of course not. Big Oil! Global warming did it!

“Irene’s got a middle name, and it’s Global Warming,” wrote prominent green activist Bill McKibben just days before the hurricane hit New York and D.C. McKibben contends that elevated sea surface temperatures are extending the life of hurricanes. That is just the latest in a string of wacky theories used to support a warped environmentalist agenda.


Take the 5.8 magnitude earthquake the rocked the East Coast in August. The green conspiracy theory would have you believe the earthquake was not the result of naturally shifting plates, but of an extraction process called hydraulic fracturing. Last week protestors swarmed a natural gas conference in Philadelphia, holding signs reading “Frack Causes Earthquakes.”


With hydrofracking, pressurized water is used to open up spaces in underground shale formations, allowing rich reserves of oil and gas to escape and be brought to the surface for collection. This extraction technique has already produced seven billion barrels of oil and 600 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, with the potential to supply enough for the next century. According to researchers at Penn State University, fracking in the Marcellus Shale has created more than 57,000 jobs in Pennsylvania and West Virginia alone. Further development could mean almost 300,000 new jobs.


But environmentalists hate it, and hydrofracking has become the subject of ridiculous claims and scare tactics, with the same scientific merit as Noah brought dinosaurs on the ark.


First was a campaign attacking hydrofracking for contaminating the nation’s ground water. Never mind that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency conducted extensive studies and concluded the process posed no significant environmental risks. Never mind that there has not been a single confirmed case of water contamination in the past 50 years. What’s science got to do with it?


Now environmentalists claim hydrofracking causes seismic instability. Scott Zody of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources says: “There were people literally online blogging and blaming hydrofracking for the recent earthquake. That’s ridiculous.” C’mon, Scott. Connect the dots. There is a hydrofracking operation in West Virginia only 90 miles away from the epicenter of the quake. They pump water into the ground there; the ground cracks 90 miles away. What more proof do you need?


In reality, Zody is an expert and absolutely correct: hydrofracking in West Virginia could not possibly be to blame. According to Callan Bentley, a geology professor in Virginia, the change in subsurface formations from frackable rock in West Virginia to deeply-formed crystalline rocks devoid of natural gas as you move east rule out transmission of any kind of pressure: ”the distance and magnitudes involved are implausibly large.”


In fact, the Central Virginia Seismic Zone, where the quake hit, sits in the middle of the North American tectonic plate. Mid-plate quakes occur because faults can be hidden anywhere. And while these are usually weaker than those at plate fault lines, mid-plate quakes top magnitudes of five on a fairly regular basis.


The quake centered in Virginia could have been caused by previously undetected faults, possibly residual stress from 250 million years ago when the region was last geologically active. Or it could have been linked to one of two known faults on either side.


Unusual events often stir up speculation, but enviro-zealots are using acts of nature to push their political agenda to limit domestic energy production. Hydrofracking promises to transform the American energy industry with increased natural gas production, stimulating the economy and, yes, reducing environmental damage due to the lower greenhouse emissions of natural gas. We can’t let outlandish theories and unfounded assumptions diminish its potential.


— Lawrence J. McQuillan, PhD, is director of Business and Economic Studies at the Pacific Research Institute. Contact him at