Bonnie 'Prince' Billy's Earthquake Ballad Natural gas extraction in an Arkansas town has bolstered its economy but may be literally shaking its foundations. Since drilling began, residents have contended with a wave of earthquakes. Hear the story — then check out a new Bonnie "Prince" Billy song inspired by the events.
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Bonnie 'Prince' Billy's Earthquake Ballad

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Bonnie 'Prince' Billy's Earthquake Ballad

Bonnie 'Prince' Billy's Earthquake Ballad

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Producers Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister traveled to Arkansas to talk to people about what's going on under their feet. And they shared what they heard with the musician Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, who contributed an original song inspired by these voices.

SCOTT AUSBROOKS: Unidentified Woman #3: Good evening. Since September, there have been 843 earthquakes in the Greenbrier-Guy Swarm. This fault was previously unknown until earthquakes began.

(SOUNDBITE OF A 911 CALL)

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CLIPS)

AUSBROOKS: My name is Scott Ausbrooks. I'm the geohazard supervisor with the Arkansas Geological Survey. That's one thing that's very disconcerting, is to have the ground move under your feet. When it starts moving, you start getting concerned.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOTHER NATURE KNEELS")

BONNIE PRINCE BILLY: Unidentified Woman #2: Four fifty-two A.M., about a two-point.

AUSBROOKS: Unidentified Man #2: Seven A.M., boom.

AUSBROOKS: Unidentified Man #3: It's really stressful.

(SOUNDBITE OF "MOTHER NATURE KNEELS")

PRINCE BILLY: Unidentified Man #4: Dozens of earthquakes in central Arkansas have gained national attention. And tonight, they can still be felt. But why are they happening?

(SOUNDBITE OF A NEWS CLIP)

STEVE HORTON: Back in 1982, there was a swarm of earthquakes very close to where these earthquakes are happening in the town of Enola.

MARIE WILSON: I'm Marie Wilson. There have been tiny shakes over in the Enola area for years and years and years. And I think that it's just getting bigger and bigger underground.

HORTON: That could just be a natural cycle in the seismic activity rate in the area. If the injection wells weren't there, it would not have surprised me to have this seismic activity. But the injection wells are there.

(SOUNDBITE OF "MOTHER NATURE KNEELS")

PRINCE BILLY: (Singing) Earth makes me tremble and I return the favor.

AUSBROOKS: We're on Highway 25. We're just east of Guy and we're directly across from the SRE injection well.

(SOUNDBITE OF "MOTHER NATURE KNEELS")

PRINCE BILLY: (Singing) I am man, Earth. And you may know my walk will never waiver.

AUSBROOKS: What we do see are these clusters of earthquakes, like here, here, here and here. What is proximal to these clusters of earthquakes is injection well, injection well, injection well.

HORTON: Ninety-eight percent of those earthquakes that have happened since 2009 have been within five kilometers of three specific injection wells.

AUSBROOKS: Unidentified Man #5: In those injection wells, they place water that's used in the fracking process.

AUSBROOKS: Unidentified Man #5: You know, it's all going in a hole in the ground, not very big. I'm going to say it's probably 12, 14-inch diameter.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLES)

AUSBROOKS: And then the well goes down over a mile. Of course, they've done over 100 million gallon, from July to February. That's equivalent to a 30-acre lake, 10-feet deep. The weight of that water's probably in excess of a billion pounds.

(SOUNDBITE OF "MOTHER NATURE KNEELS")

PRINCE BILLY: Unidentified Man #6: Then they had a meeting at the Guy school.

SHEILA MAXWELL: Unidentified Man #4: If the earthquakes continue to get stronger and stronger and stronger, it's going to be people's homes ruined and possibly people's lives.

DAVE MARTINI: My name's Dave Martini. I'm the chief of police, Guy Police Department. I don't know if they're manmade or I don't know if they're act of God. But I'd like to know.

DIRK DETURK: So how are they not related?

SHELBY WILCOX: I'm Shelby Wilcox, and I'm with the Roadrunners Extension Homemakers Club. I would hope that the gas and oil industry would not be blamed because it has been a tremendous economic boon to this area.

MARK LEDBETTER: I'm Mark Ledbetter. I'm the liaison for Faulkner County to the gas industry. There's a lot of people up here that have had this land for a lot of years that didn't have anything, you know. And now these people finally are getting something out of their land.

WILCOX: Unidentified Man #9: These folks here were living in a mobile home. They got a gas well right across from them. They built them a new house.

WILCOX: My son has found employment.

JIMMY HART: My name is Jimmy Hart and I'm the Conway County judge. You know, I'm a red-blooded American. That's the great thing about this whole thing - we're all capitalists. You know, you can go talk to the local John Deere dealer or you can go talk to a local car dealer, and this money rolls over six or seven times.

ZONDRA SHARP: My name is Zondra Sharp, and I'm the owner of Gimme Some Sugar Bakeshoppe and cakery in Greenbrier/Spring Hill, Arkansas. If I say something negative towards the gas companies, well, then they might say, oh, well she's against us, I'm not going to do business with her.

(SOUNDBITE OF "MOTHER NATURE KNEELS")

PRINCE BILLY: (Singing) Some cower, intimidated. And cowering, they call this action love.

NORRIS: Unidentified Man #10: It's just every day. We're getting bombarded over here.

NORRIS: I thought, good grief, how bad is this going to get?

AUSBROOKS: Unidentified Woman #5: We were nervous, because practically our life savings is in a new home that we just finished in December.

DETURK: Unidentified Man #7: Hey, guys. The magnitude 4.7 earthquake hit just after 11:00 last night and was felt for hundreds of miles...

(SOUNDBITE OF A NEWS CLIP)

SHARP: The 4.7 scared the goodness out of me. I was at my house and I could actually see my floor making waves.

DETURK: Usually they're a snap of the finger - boom, shake, done. But this one was a boom, shake, shake, shake, shake.

SHARP: It just shook, shook, shook, shook, shook.

NORRIS: And I was going I need to put seatbelts on my bed and my recliner. I'm going to be bouncing out of here.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

AUSBROOKS: That's the largest earthquake we've had in Arkansas in 35 years.

DETURK: And it was shortly after that they shut the injection wells down.

(SOUNDBITE OF A NEWS CLIP)

AUSBROOKS: Unidentified Man #13: Or maybe there is a connection. We'll find out. All right, Dustin. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF A NEWS CLIP)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOTHER NATURE KNEELS")

PRINCE BILLY: Unidentified Man #15: We've seen about a 50 percent reduction in the number of events. Could be simply part of the natural ebb and flow, or it could be in relation to the fact that they actually shut the wells down.

NORRIS: I'm a country girl and this is how I look at things, but you just dig you a little trench and you blast water at high pressures, what's it do? It makes it bigger. It erodes it, you know. And of course, I look at a fault that way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOTHER NATURE KNEELS")

PRINCE BILLY: Unidentified Man #16: The question for the oil and gas commission is going to be: Is it wise or is it prudent to inject millions of gallons of water in the vicinity of an active fault? That's the question that's going to have to be answered by someone other than me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOTHER NATURE KNEELS")

PRINCE BILLY: (Singing) Even Mother Nature kneels. Even Mother Nature kneels.

NORRIS: The extraction of natural gas continues in the area. Our story, "The Natural State," was produced by Elizabeth Meister and Dan Collison for Long Haul Production. The song "Mother Nature Kneels" was written and performed by Bonnie 'Prince' Billy. That song is streaming at npr.org.

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