But an extensive examination by The New York Times indicates that the debate has missed a more basic problem — genetic modification in the United States and Canada has not accelerated increases in crop yields or led to an overall reduction in the use of chemical pesticides.
The promise of genetic modification was twofold: By making crops immune to the effects of weedkillers and inherently resistant to many pests, they would grow so robustly that they would become indispensable to feeding the world’s growing population, while also requiring fewer applications of sprayed pesticides.
Twenty years ago, Europe largely rejected genetic modification at the same time the United States and Canada were embracing it. Comparing results on the two continents, using independent data as well as academic and industry research, shows how the technology has fallen short of the promise.
An analysis by The Times using United Nations data showed that the United States and Canada have gained no discernible advantage in yields — food per acre — when measured against Western Europe, a region with comparably modernized agricultural producers like France and Germany. Also, a recent National Academy of Sciences report found that “there was little evidence” that the introduction of genetically modified crops in the United States had led to yield gains beyond those seen in conventional crops.
At the same time, herbicide use has increased in the United States, even as major crops like corn, soybeans and cotton have been converted to modified varieties. And the United States has fallen behind Europe’s biggest producer, France, in reducing the overall use of pesticides, which includes both herbicides and insecticides.
One measure, contained in data from the United States Geological Survey, shows the stark difference in the use of pesticides. Since genetically modified crops were introduced in the United States two decades ago for crops like corn, cotton and soybeans, the use of toxins that kill insects and fungi has fallen by a third, but the spraying of herbicides, which are used in much higher volumes, has risen by 21 percent.
By contrast, in France, use of insecticides and fungicides has fallen by a far greater percentage — 65 percent — and herbicide use has decreased as well, by 36 percent.
Profound differences over genetic engineering have split Americans and Europeans for decades. Although American protesters as far back as 1987 pulled up prototype potato plants, European anger at the idea of fooling with nature has been far more sustained. In the last few years, the March Against Monsanto has drawn thousands of protesters in cities like Paris and Basel, Switzerland, and opposition to G.M. foods is a foundation of the Green political movement. Still, Europeans eat those foods when they buy imports from the United States and elsewhere.
Fears about the harmful effects of eating G.M. foods have proved to be largely without scientific basis. The potential harm from pesticides, however, has drawn researchers’ attention. Pesticides are toxic by design — weaponized versions, like sarin, were developed in Nazi Germany — and have been linked to developmental delays and cancer.
“These chemicals are largely unknown,” said David Bellinger, a professor at the Harvard University School of Public Health, whose research has attributed the loss of nearly 17 million I.Q. points among American children 5 years old and under to one class of insecticides. “We do natural experiments on a population,” he said, referring to exposure to chemicals in agriculture, “and wait until it shows up as bad.”
The industry is winning on both ends — because the same companies make and sell both the genetically modified plants and the poisons. Driven by these sales, the combined market capitalizations of Monsanto, the largest seed company, and Syngenta, the Swiss pesticide giant, have grown more than sixfold in the last decade and a half. The two companies are separately involved in merger agreements that would lift their new combined values to more than $100 billion each.
When presented with the findings, Robert T. Fraley, the chief technology officer at Monsanto, said The Times had cherry-picked its data to reflect poorly on the industry. “Every farmer is a smart businessperson, and a farmer is not going to pay for a technology if they don’t think it provides a major benefit,” he said. “Biotech tools have clearly driven yield increases enormously.”
Regarding the use of herbicides, in a statement, Monsanto said, “While overall herbicide use may be increasing in some areas where farmers are following best practices to manage emerging weed issues, farmers in other areas with different circumstances may have decreased or maintained their herbicide usage.”
Genetically modified crops can sometimes be effective. Monsanto and others often cite the work of Matin Qaim, a researcher at Georg-August-University of Göttingen, Germany, including a meta-analysis of studies that he helped write finding significant yield gains from genetically modified crops. But in an interview and emails, Dr. Qaim said he saw significant effects mostly from insect-resistant varieties in the developing world, particularly in India.
“Currently available G.M. crops would not lead to major yield gains in Europe,” he said. And regarding herbicide-resistant crops in general: “I don’t consider this to be the miracle type of technology that we couldn’t live without.”
A Vow to Curb Chemicals
First came the Flavr Savr tomato in 1994, which was supposed to stay fresh longer. The next year it was a small number of bug-resistant russet potatoes. And by 1996, major genetically modified crops were being planted in the United States.
Monsanto, the most prominent champion of these new genetic traits, pitched them as a way to curb the use of its pesticides. “We’re certainly not encouraging farmers to use more chemicals,” a company executive told The Los Angeles Times in 1994. The next year, in a news release, the company said that its new gene for seeds, named Roundup Ready, “can reduce overall herbicide use.”
Originally, the two main types of genetically modified crops were either resistant to herbicides, allowing crops to be sprayed with weedkillers, or resistant to some insects.
Figures from the United States Department of Agriculture show herbicide use skyrocketing in soybeans, a leading G.M. crop, growing by two and a half times in the last two decades, at a time when planted acreage of the crop grew by less than a third. Use in corn was trending downward even before the introduction of G.M. crops, but then nearly doubled from 2002 to 2010, before leveling off. Weed resistance problems in such crops have pushed overall usage up.
To some, this outcome was predictable. The whole point of engineering bug-resistant plants “was to reduce insecticide use, and it did,” said Joseph Kovach, a retired Ohio State University researcher who studied the environmental risks of pesticides. But the goal of herbicide-resistant seeds was to “sell more product,” he said — more herbicide.
Farmers with crops overcome by weeds, or a particular pest or disease, can understandably be G.M. evangelists. “It’s silly bordering on ridiculous to turn our backs on a technology that has so much to offer,” said Duane Grant, the chairman of the Amalgamated Sugar Company, a cooperative of more than 750 sugar beet farmers in the Northwest.
He says crops resistant to Roundup, Monsanto’s most popular weedkiller, saved his cooperative.
But weeds are becoming resistant to Roundup around the world — creating an opening for the industry to sell more seeds and more pesticides. The latest seeds have been engineered for resistance to two weedkillers, with resistance to as many as five planned. That will also make it easier for farmers battling resistant weeds to spray a widening array of poisons sold by the same companies.
Growing resistance to Roundup is also reviving old, and contentious, chemicals. One is 2,4-D, an ingredient in Agent Orange, the infamous Vietnam War defoliant. Its potential risks have long divided scientists and have alarmed advocacy groups.
Another is dicamba. In Louisiana, Monsanto is spending nearly $1 billion to begin production of the chemical there. And even though Monsanto’s version is not yet approved for use, the company is already selling seeds that are resistant to it — leading to reports that some farmers are damaging neighbors’ crops by illegally spraying older versions of the toxin.
Two farmers, 4,000 miles apart, recently showed a visitor their corn seeds. The farmers, Bo Stone and Arnaud Rousseau, are sixth-generation tillers of the land. Both use seeds made by DuPont, the giant chemical company that is merging with Dow Chemical.
To the naked eye, the seeds looked identical. Inside, the differences are profound.
In Rowland, N.C., near the South Carolina border, Mr. Stone’s seeds brim with genetically modified traits. They contain Roundup Ready, a Monsanto-made trait resistant to Roundup, as well as a gene made by Bayer that makes crops impervious to a second herbicide. A trait called Herculex I was developed by Dow and Pioneer, now part of DuPont, and attacks the guts of insect larvae. So does YieldGard, made by Monsanto.
Another big difference: the price tag. Mr. Rousseau’s seeds cost about $85 for a 50,000-seed bag. Mr. Stone spends roughly $153 for the same amount of biotech seeds.
For farmers, doing without genetically modified crops is not a simple choice. Genetic traits are not sold à la carte.
Mr. Stone, 45, has a master’s degree in agriculture and listens to Prime Country radio in his Ford pickup. He has a test field where he tries out new seeds, looking for characteristics that he particularly values — like plants that stand well, without support.
“I’m choosing on yield capabilities and plant characteristics more than I am on G.M.O. traits” like bug and poison resistance, he said, underscoring a crucial point: Yield is still driven by breeding plants to bring out desirable traits, as it has been for thousands of years.
That said, Mr. Stone values genetic modifications to reduce his insecticide use (though he would welcome help with stink bugs, a troublesome pest for many farmers). And Roundup resistance in pigweed has emerged as a problem.
“No G.M. trait for us is a silver bullet,” he said.
By contrast, at Mr. Rousseau’s farm in Trocy-en-Multien, a village outside Paris, his corn has none of this engineering because the European Union bans most crops like these.
“The door is closed,” says Mr. Rousseau, 42, who is vice president of one of France’s many agricultural unions. His 840-acre farm was a site of World War I carnage in the Battle of the Marne.
As with Mr. Stone, Mr. Rousseau’s yields have been increasing, though they go up and down depending on the year. Farm technology has also been transformative. “My grandfather had horses and cattle for cropping,” Mr. Rousseau said. “I’ve got tractors with motors.”
He wants access to the same technologies as his competitors across the Atlantic, and thinks G.M. crops could save time and money.
“Seen from Europe, when you speak with American farmers or Canadian farmers, we’ve got the feeling that it’s easier,” Mr. Rousseau said. “Maybe it’s not right. I don’t know, but it’s our feeling.”
Feeding the World
With the world’s population expected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050, Monsanto has long held out its products as a way “to help meet the food demands of these added billions,” as it said in a 1995 statement. That remains an industry mantra.
“It’s absolutely key that we keep innovating,” said Kurt Boudonck, who manages Bayer’s sprawling North Carolina greenhouses. “With the current production practices, we are not going to be able to feed that amount of people.”
But a broad yield advantage has not emerged. The Times looked at regional data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, comparing main genetically modified crops in the United States and Canada with varieties grown in Western Europe, a grouping used by the agency that comprises seven nations, including the two largest agricultural producers, France and Germany.
For rapeseed, a variant of which is used to produce canola oil, The Times compared Western Europe with Canada, the largest producer, over three decades, including a period well before the introduction of genetically modified crops.
Despite rejecting genetically modified crops, Western Europe maintained a lead over Canada in yields. While that is partly because different varieties are grown in the two regions, the trend lines in the relative yields have not shifted in Canada’s favor since the introduction of G.M. crops, the data shows.
For corn, The Times compared the United States with Western Europe. Over three decades, the trend lines between the two barely deviate. And sugar beets, a major source of sugar, have shown stronger yield growth recently in Western Europe than the United States, despite the dominance of genetically modified varieties over the last decade.
Jack Heinemann, a professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, did a pioneering 2013 study comparing trans-Atlantic yield trends, using United Nations data. Western Europe, he said, “hasn’t been penalized in any way for not making genetic engineering one of its biotechnology choices.”
Biotech executives suggested making narrower comparisons. Dr. Fraley of Monsanto highlighted data comparing yield growth in Nebraska and France, while an official at Bayer suggested Ohio and France. These comparisons can be favorable to the industry, while comparing other individual American states can be unfavorable.
Michael Owen, a weed scientist at Iowa State University, said that while the industry had long said G.M.O.s would “save the world,” they still “haven’t found the mythical yield gene.”
The deals are aimed at creating giants even more adept at selling both seeds and chemicals. Already, a new generation of seeds is coming to market or in development. And they have grand titles. There is the Bayer Balance GT Soybean Performance System. Monsanto’s Genuity SmartStax RIB Complete corn. Dow’s PhytoGen with Enlist and WideStrike 3 Insect Protection.
In industry jargon, they are “stacked” with many different genetically modified traits. And there are more to come. Monsanto has said that the corn seed of 2025 will have 14 traits and allow farmers to spray five different kinds of herbicide.
Newer genetically modified crops claim to do many things, such as protecting against crop diseases and making food more nutritious. Some may be effective, some not. To the industry, shifting crucial crops like corn, soybeans, cotton and rapeseed almost entirely to genetically modified varieties in many parts of the world fulfills a genuine need. To critics, it is a marketing opportunity.
“G.M.O. acceptance is exceptionally low in Europe,” said Liam Condon, the head of Bayer’s crop science division, in an interview the day the Monsanto deal was announced. He added: “But there are many geographies around the world where the need is much higher and where G.M.O. is accepted. We will go where the market and the customers demand our technology.”
Correction: November 2, 2016
A chart on Sunday with the continuation of an article about the unmet promises of genetically modified crops misstated the mode of action of Herculex I, a genetic trait developed by Dow AgroSciences and Pioneer. It breaks down the gut wall of insect larvae; it does not create a bacterium that does so.
Excessive supermarket food packaging is undermining householders’ efforts to recycle and adding to council tax bills, according to a new report.
Almost 40 per cent of supermarket food packaging cannot be easily recycled, according to a study by the Local Government Association.
The unnecessary packaging contributes to the estimated £1.8 billion councils will spend on landfill tax between 2008 and 2011, increasing the pressure for increases in council tax.
Researchers assessed the packaging in a typical shopping basket at eight supermarkets.
Waitrose had the heaviest packaging (802.5 grams) and Tesco the lightest (645.5 grams).
Lidl had the lowest level of packaging that could be easily recycled and Sainsbury’s had the highest.
Council leaders said that whilst people are recycling more rubbish their efforts are being held back by supermarkets.
They said supermarkets should pay towards recycling services so that more packaging can be recycled and council tax kept down.
Landfill tax costs councils £32 for every ton of rubbish they throw away, a figure that will rise to £48 a ton by 2010.
At current rates of landfill that will mean councils paying an extra £360 million in landfill taxes over the next two years.
Since the LGA first assessed the weight of food packaging in October 2007 it has been reduced overall, but the proportion that can be recycled has changed little.
Marks & Spencer is now the second best supermarket in terms of the weight of its packaging, having been second to last in the previous survey.
Cllr Margaret Eaton, Chairman of the Local Government Association, said: “At a time when we’re in recession and shoppers are feeling the pinch we have to move on from a world that tolerates cling filmed coconuts and shrink wrapped tins of baked beans.
“Britain is the dustbin of Europe with more rubbish being thrown into landfill than almost any other country in Europe. “Taxpayers don’t want to see their money going towards paying landfill taxes and EU fines when council tax could be reduced instead.
“If we had less unnecessary packaging it would cut costs and lead to lower prices at the tills.”
Some other European countries already have a system under which companies contribute towards recycling services and household collections of food packaging.
The National Federation of Women’s Institutes has called for shoppers to boycott stores that wrap goods in too much plastic and paper.
However, the British Retail Consortium maintains that councils do not provide good enough recycling facilities.
The food and drink industry cut food packaging by an estimated 70,000 tonnes last year.
Examples included Britvic saving 1,670 tons of plastic a year by redesigning Robinsons squash bottles and Cadbury, Mars and Nestle cutting packaging on Easter eggs by a quarter.
Most of us enjoy a clean home, but not all of us manage to maintain one every day. Clean freaks, however, put the quest for cleanliness above other, more trivial ways of spending time. For them, a spotless home is the zenith of achievement. Read on for some clean freak wisdom.
1. Clean freaks are fit. Clean freaks are not interested in workout DVDs. Surely vacuuming the living room and dusting the curtain rods act as a decent workout with plenty of stretches?
As for jumping up to do some fat-burning lunges while the TV commercials are on, isn’t that the time when any self-respecting clean obsessive dusts under the sofa?
2. Some jobs can’t wait until morning — actually, all jobs. Going to bed without having done the dishes or run the dishwasher will lead to a very restless night’s sleep. No clean freak can relax knowing all that mess is lurking in the kitchen. Disturbing!
3. Cleaning products are compelling. Whether you love to try the latest deep-cleaning, germ-busting spray or are a devotee of delicious-sounding eco-friendly cleaning products, you are certainly not immune to the siren call of a quality cleaning product.
All those sprays, powders and liquids attract you with their promise of a shinier object, a more hygienic surface and a home that smells insanely fresh. You may even arrange your cleaning products on a shelf, much as a non-clean freak might arrange ornaments or books.
4. Open shelves are dangerous! All those containers, jars and plates sit open to the elements, getting dusty or, worse, greasy! If you, as a clean freak, do agree to have open shelves in your home, a thorough washing down of everything lined up on them should be scheduled frequently. You can’t be too careful.
5. Hiring a house cleaner is not an option. Some people treat themselves to a house cleaner during busy or stressful times. Others employ one year-round to make life easier. Clean freaks find this concept odd. What’s easier about having to go around each room to check for missed spots once the cleaner has left?
6. Cleaning trumps refreshment. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. That’s the saying, but clean freaks disagree. They say, when life gives you lemons, slice one in half and use it to disinfect your chopping board. Alternatively, mix lemon juice with white vinegar to make a natural, eco-friendly cleaner.
7. Spring is the best time of year. Each winter, clean freaks count the days until spring will start. Not because they hate the dark, cold months, but because spring means that they can dry-clean the curtains and pressure-wash the patio again. Whoopee!
8. There’s cleaning, and then there’s deep cleaning. Non-clean freaks are usually content to simply wipe down the stuff you can see in your house, such as the kitchen counters or the floor. But true clean freaks go deeper. Much deeper. To them, unclogging a drain, washing the freezer and vacuuming the chimney are vital and highly rewarding tasks.
9. Homemade tools are often best. A clean freak will have all the mops and cloths that a regular homeowner has, but is also adept at improvising. Cotton balls don’t just belong in the bathroom! They are brilliant for cleaning a computer keyboard or around a kitchen drain. Sticky notes will happily pick up crumbs or hairs, and the sharp end of a safety pin can be used for scraping out gunk from tiny crevices.
10. Clean freaks love a party. Now you might think that clean freaks would hate to host a party in their home. All those spilled drinks and chips crushed into the carpet. Yuck! But in fact, clean freaks love a party. Well, they love a party that’s just finished so they can snap on their rubber gloves, whip out their mop and really get to work putting the house back in order. Some people watch TV to calm down after a party. Clean freaks clean!
It’s not just a combination of property rights and market demand — environmental factors are the impetus behind the deal.
A week after the announcement that Shuanghui International, China’s largest pork producer, has struck a deal to purchase Smithfield, the largest U.S. pork producer, for $7.1 billion (including debt), the development is still being digested. Many theories have been advanced to explain the deal — which is so far the largest acquisition of an American firm by a Chinese company. Some people see this move by Shuanghui, a private firm based in Henan, as a masterstroke to expand its ability to supply a fast-growing market with premium-brand pork at higher prices. Some view the purchase as a means to acquire valuable hog-farming and processing technology. Others worry that Shuanghui might use Smithfield as a channel to sell its products in the U.S.
As with other Chinese purchases of American assets, this particular deal can be seen from several perspectives. Except for the understandable, but unfounded, fear that this transaction could open the door for unsafe Chinese food to find its way into American supermarkets, most interpretations manage to tell part of the real story. Yes, Shuanghui’s acquisition will help increase its ability to supply China’s market. But here we need to have some perspective. Per capita consumption of pork in China last year was 85.3 pounds, compared with 59.3 pounds in the U.S. When you factor in the difference in the size of each country’s population — 1.344 billion vs. 314 million — the Chinese demand for pork is still about six times larger than in the United States.
In 2012, the number of hogs slaughtered by Smithfield, which has about a quarter of the U.S. slaughter capacity, would account for only 3% of China’s slaughtered hogs. In other words, Shuanghui may be able to source more of its pork from Smithfield’s modern, efficient, and safe pig farms and processing facilities, but the quantity that can be exported to China in the foreseeable future will be miniscule relative to the size of the Chinese market.
What about taking advantage of Smithfield’s technology and management? On paper, this is an attractive proposition. American pork farming is a consolidated modern industry with economies of scale. Eighty-seven percent of the pork sold in the U.S. is produced on big pig farms with more than 2,000 hogs. Such farms are climate-controlled and self-contained to minimize the spread of disease. By contrast, the Chinese pork industry is fragmented,small-scale, and low-tech. Seventy percent of the pork in China is produced by pig farms with 500 hogs or less. Hygienic conditions are often primitive.
However, transforming a Chinese pork producer like Shuanghui into a Smithfield faces two difficult hurdles. The first one is property rights. Land is owned by the state, and private property rights are insecure in China. Consolidating the hog industry in China, while technologically feasible, can be a legal and bureaucratic nightmare, even for an entrepreneurial company such as Shuanghui.
The second hurdle is practically insurmountable. Whatever technology one might want to use to make the Chinese pork industry more efficient, ensuring the safety of the feed will be almost impossible because of widespread pollution in China.
This touches upon perhaps the real driver behind Shuanghui’s acquisition of an iconic American food producer. It may be about all of the things mentioned in the intensive media coverage of the deal. But there is more.
When we exhaust our analysis, we should find that the most strategic explanation for this acquisition is China’s environmental degradation. For years, observers have been trying to figure out the real-world consequences of the extensive pollution of air, water, and farmland in China as a result of its rapid economic growth. Various estimates have been used to calculate the economic costs and human toll of pollution (estimates of the costs of pollution range from 5 to 8% of GDP, depending on the value of a statistical life used for the exercise). Such numbers are shocking but abstract.
With Shuanghui’s purchase of Smithfield, these numbers are less abstract. The real story behind this transaction is that far-sighted Chinese entrepreneurs fully understand that, because pollution has contaminated major parts of China’s food chain, their future profit opportunities lie in buying the entire food-production process abroad. Bagging Smithfield, in this sense, is not about getting its hogs, pork-processing technology, or even premium brand. It is really about owning access to America’s safe farmland and clean water supplies.
This strategic calculation is truly brilliant. Based on official Chinese data, more than two-thirds of its waterways are polluted. A sample study of farmland conducted in the late 1990s showed 10% contaminated with heavy metal. A three-year national survey of soil conditions completed in 2010 must have yielded such alarming data that the Ministry of Environmental Protection declared the data a “state secret.”
Given the fact that cleaning up land and waterways despoiled by heavy metal and other carcinogens requires huge amounts of money and takes a long time, buying food producers that own their land and have access to safe water supplies is a far more attractive proposition.
If this analysis is correct, the Shuanghui purchase of Smithfield is a harbinger of things to come. Pressured by the catastrophic consequences of environmental degradation, Chinese food producers will have no choice but set their sights abroad. No doubt, this will present great business opportunities for many, but a rapid increase in Chinese acquisitions of food companies overseas will almost certainly create tensions between China and the rest of the world. Sadly, there are no good policies in place to address this challenge.
Minxin Pei is the Tom and Margot Pritzker ’72 Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States
TAMPA – The agency in charge of protecting Tampa’s air and water quality has made significant cutbacks to penalties against polluters, the I-Team has uncovered.
We’ve previously reported on a decline in enforcement and cutbacks to staff at Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection (see http://wfts.tv/LBektX ). Now, we’ve uncovered statistics that show a major change in approach at the agency’s Tampa office.
DEP officials say they are protecting the environment more effectively than ever before.
“That’s just utterly ridiculous,” said Kent Bailey, environmentalist and co-chair of the Sierra Club.
“Honestly, I was shocked by those numbers,” Bailey said, in response to the records we obtained.
We found that enforcement actions at the Tampa office have declined 68% since 2010.
We also found fines against polluters have dropped significantly. Penalties issued have declined 78% since 2010, and penalties collected have dropped 91%.
“To me those numbers say that the DEP has lost its willingness and/or ability to enforce environmental regulation,” Bailey said.
DEP Southwest District Director Mary Yeargan spoke to I-Team investigator Michael George to respond to questions raised about the agency’s new approach. We asked if the agency is trying to reduce environmental regulations under Governor Scott, in an effort to be more business-friendly.
“No. Not a single law has been changed and we still have the same responsibility to enforce our statues and our rules,” Yeargan explained.
Yeargan says what has changed is DEP’s approach. She says they now look at enforcement as more of a last resort, and focus on educating and working with businesses to prevent environmental regulations, instead of punishing them after a violation has occurred.
“So really, enforcement is a failure. It means somebody did something they should not have done,” Yeargan said.
“Doesn’t that send a message to polluters that they might be able to get away with it?” asked George.
“No, I don’t think so. If you always have enforcement in your back pocket, it’s like the carrot or the stick,” Yeargan responded.
Yeargan also blamed the bad economy for the drop in penalties. She says they have 40% fewer permitted businesses to oversee compared to four years ago.
In our previous investigations, we’ve spoken with recently terminated DEP employees who alleged the message from the top was to go easy on businesses.
“We were greatly pressured to give our permitees as much leeway as possible,” said fired DEP Tallahassee employee Marilyn Koletzke.
DEP officials say that’s not true.
“We’re still here to protect the environment, and that’s what we do every day,” Yeargan said.
DEP also claims 94% of businesses complied with environmental regulations in 2012, an all-time high. Critics say that’s because DEP isn’t properly enforcing those regulations.
George also asked about the recent terminations at DEP’s Tampa office. Of 25 fired employees, more than half were environmental specialists with more than 10 years of experience. Some fired employees claimed they were let go for questioning the new DEP approach.
However, Yeargan would not answer questions about how it was decided who was and was not fired.
“You know, that’s a very delicate subject. We’re talking about people and their work experience and their personal lives. I would prefer not to discuss individuals. We made the hard decisions that had to be made and it wasn’t a pleasant experience for anyone,” Yeargan said.
The largest recorded earthquake in Oklahoma history was likely triggered by the injection of wastewater from oil production into wells deep beneath the earth, according to a study published Tuesday in the scientific journal Geology.
The magnitude 5.7 earthquake, which struck in 2011 near Prague in central Oklahoma, is the largest and most recent of a number of quakes scientists have tied to wastewater injection from oil and natural gas production, raising new concerns about the practice.
Advanced methods of oil and gas drilling create massive amounts of toxic wastewater. For example, hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, uses high-pressure water to unlock natural gas from shale formations. Drillers also use water to force oil from wells that cannot be captured through traditional methods, part of a practice known as “enhanced oil recovery.” (See related interactive: “Breaking Fuel from the Rock.”)
The use of such methods has exploded in the United States in recent years, contributing to the domestic boom in shale gas and oil production. Much of the wastewater that emerges as a byproduct is pumped into wells beneath the earth’s surface for disposal.
Although the controversial practice of fracking has been directly linked to at least two seismic events (small tremors in Garvin County, Oklahoma and Lancashire, England), the wastewater injection that follows fracking is much more likely to set the earth shaking. That’s because injection wells receive far more water than fracking sites, said Katie Keranen, lead author of the Geology study. And unlike at fracking sites, the water is not removed. As pressure builds in these disposal wells, it pushes up against geological faults, sometimes causing them to rupture, setting off an earthquake. (See related blog post: “Tracing Links Between Fracking and Earthquakes.”)
This is what most likely triggered the 2011 Oklahoma quake, according to the study. At the time of the earthquake, which damaged 14 homes and was felt as far away as Texas, there were three active wastewater injection wells—abandoned oil wells used for storage after oil drilling operations—within 1 mile (1.5 kilometers) of the site.
Keranen, an assistant professor of geology and geophysics at the University of Oklahoma, was at home at the time of the quake. Soon thereafter, she installed seismometers that recorded more than 10,000 aftershocks, which helped scientists estimate the area of the ruptured faults. The data showed that the initial rupture reached incredibly close to an active well—within 660 feet (200 meters)—and the majority of the aftershocks were located within the same level of sedimentary rock as the wastewater injection wells.
The study contends that the proximity of the quake to the active well, combined with rising wellhead pressure before the tremors and the relative lack of seismic activity preceding the event, suggest injection caused the quake. But it also says it is impossible to prove without a doubt. “Without question there is a strong likelihood that [the quake] was induced,” Keranen said.
Luckily, the area is rural, and only two people were injured. “If this happened in a high-population center, we would expect a lot more damage,” Keranen said. “This is something we should take seriously and help mitigate the risk of it happening again.”
In addition to recording the largest quake linked to wastewater injection, the Geology study also shows that it can take decades for an injection well to spark an earthquake. In most documented cases, seismic activity begins within months after workers begin injecting wastewater into a well, and stops when the injection pressure is released, the study says. The 2011 Oklahoma earthquake, however, took place after wastewater injection had been occurring at the wells for more than 17 years.
Large earthquakes are rare in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains. However, the number increased dramatically after 2008, according to the study. The reason is unclear. However, a 2012 report by the National Academies of Science found the energy industry may be increasing the risk of earthquakes by injecting wastewater underground. (See related blog post: “Report Links Energy Activities to Higher Quake Risk.”)
Fracking is one major cause of the increase in energy production wastewater. Although the process may not be the direct cause of the quakes, each drill site requires between 3 to 5 million gallons of water per frack, much of which is later disposed of underground. (See related story: “Water Demand for Energy to Double by 2035“)
John Bredehoeft, a geological expert at the Washington State research firm Hydrodynamics Group, said scientists have long known that wastewater injection cause earthquakes. “There is no question about that anymore,” he said.
But Bredehoeft, who held research and management positions during a 33-year career at the U.S. Geological Survey, said the overwhelming majority wastewater wells in the United States appear to be safe. The problem, he said, is scientists have no way of determining which of the roughly 30,000 wells are likely to trigger earthquakes.
“We don’t know enough about the earth’s crust to know where it will happen,” Bredehoeft said. “Almost nowhere do we have enough data to do that.”
Heather Savage, a research professor of geophysics at Columbia University, and a co-author of the Geology study, said increased data collection about wells could help prevent future earthquakes like the one that shook Oklahoma in 2011. “[The occurrence of human-induced earthquakes is] rare, but it is increasing. It’s something we need to get ahead of,” Savage said.
Despite the study’s findings, some experts remain skeptical that wastewater injection caused the Oklahoma earthquake. A statement released by the Oklahoma Geological Survey in advance of Tuesday’s study said its data show the earthquake was likely “the result of natural causes.”