01/30/2015 10:20 EST | Updated 04/01/2015 05:59 EDT

Fracking linked to 4.4 magnitude quake in Fox Creek

Alberta's provincial energy regulator says a significant earthquake in northern Alberta was likely caused by hydraulic fracturing.

If fracturing is confirmed as the cause, scientists say, it will have been the largest earthquake ever to result from an industrial operation.

Residents in the town of Fox Creek noticed the earthquake a week ago on Jan. 22. It was of 4.4 magnitude, severe enough to cause minor damage.

"It felt like a big gust of wind hit the house. The door flew open and the couch moved," said Kelli Mcphee, who was at home watching a scary movie in her living room at the time.

“My husband grabbed a bat and started walking around the house because we didn't know what it was.”

Fox Creek, a town of about 2,000 people, is largely sustained by oil and gas development.

That work often uses hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a process that injects a high-pressure mixture of water and chemicals into the earth to break through rock.

In an emailed statement to CBC, the Alberta Energy Regulator said its monitoring system picked up strong evidence that fracking caused this recent earthquake and likely triggered others too, although it is "impossible to definitively state that it was not a naturally occurring event."

The link between fracking and earthquakes is a phenomenon that several scientists are now studying.

“We have been seeing earthquakes for about the last year in that area, starting with events just above magnitude 3,” said David Eaton, a professor of geophysics at the University of Calgary.

“In most cases, those earthquakes have occurred in association with industry activity such as hydraulic fracturing.”

Eaton and Gail Atkinson, a scientist at Western University, said if the quake is proved to be caused by fracking it would be the largest one in the world caused by fracking. 

British Columbia has a policy that requires operations to halt if they trigger an earthquake greater than a 4.0 magnitude.

Alberta does not have a similar rule.