More Scientific Evidence Linking Fracking and Earthquakes

Yves here. Although the study referenced in this article has gotten some media attention, the implications are so important that more amplification is warranted. This is a layperson-friendly summary that I hope you’ll see fit to circulate.

By John C.K. Daly, the chief analyst for Cross posted from OilPrice

As the practice of hydraulic fracturing to produce natural gas continues to spread not only in the U.S. but worldwide, the scientific community has increasingly focused on the environmental consequences of the technique. The most worrisome side effect of “fracking” is the rise of earthquakes in areas where the practice is extensive.

The latest evidence comes in the form of an article in the 26 March issue of “Geology,” a publication of the Geological Society of America.

Entitled “Potentially induced earthquakes in Oklahoma, USA: Links between wastewater injection and the 2011 Mw 5.7 earthquake sequence,” the study was coauthored by University of Oklahoma Geophysics Professor Katie Keranen, U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist Dr. Elizabeth Cochran and Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory’s seismologist Dr. Heather Savage and Dr. Geoffrey Abers.

The study focused its research on seismic activity in Oklahoma over the past two years and concluded that a 4.8-magnitude earthquake centered near Prague on 5 November 2011, was “induced” by the injection wells. Two subsequent earthquakes, including a 5.7-magnitude “event” the following day, was the biggest in contemporary state history, were caused by the first earthquake and existing tectonic stresses in the earth.

Oklahoma’s 6 November 2011 earthquake was the state’s largest recorded with modern instrumentation. Two people were injured in the quake, which destroyed 14 homes, buckled pavement and was felt in 17 states, as far north as Wisconsin.

Professor Keranen said during an interview that there is excellent seismic data to back up the paper’s conclusions, stating, “The evidence that we collected supports this interpretation. We can say several things with certainty: That the earthquakes begin within hundreds of meters of the injection wells in the units they inject into, so spatially we don’t have much doubt, there is a direct spatial link.”

The credentials of Keranen’s coauthors are impressive. Dr. Abers is Associate Director of Seismology, Geology and Tectonophysics of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Dr. Savage Lamont Assistant Research Director, while in October 2011 President Barack Obama named Dr. Cochran a recipient of a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers for her contributions to the understanding of earthquake physics and earthquake triggering, the physical properties and geometry of earthquake fault zones and their evolution after earthquakes, and to the development of a new method of earthquake monitoring using low-cost earthquake sensors, the “Quake-Catcher Network (QCN).”

The pair’s methodology was thorough. The paper reported that within 24 hours of the first earthquake Dr. Keranen and Oklahoma Geological Survey research seismologist Austin Holland set up seismic recorders in the area. The “Geology” study reports that 1,183 aftershocks were recorded by the seismic network and subsequently examined, of which 798 were studied closely.

Oklahoma’s official seismologist, the Geological Survey’s Austin Holland is skeptical of the link between injection wells and earthquakes, stating that more research is needed, with the OGS stating, “The interpretation that best fits current data is that the Prague Earthquake Sequence was the result of natural causes.” Holland’s view is, not surprisingly, shared by the Corporation Commission and the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association, a trade group that lobbies for the interests of oil and gas producers.

Farther afield, seismologists suspect that oil and gas activity may have triggered earthquakes in Texas, Arkansas, Colorado and Ohio. States have adopted differing approaches to the issue, but there is now no doubt that the seismic issue is beginning to impact state legislatures considering fracking activities. Regulators in Arkansas voted to ban injection wells from one particular region after a series of earthquakes rattled the state two years ago. Oil and gas regulators in Colorado now require a review by a state seismologist before injection well permits are issued, and Illinois has passed legislation requiring injection wells to stop operating if related earthquakes cause a public safety risk. But as yet earthquake risk has not impacted state fracking regulations in California, Texas, New York or Oklahoma.

In any case, it would appear that Holland and his fellow skeptics will not have long to wait to comment yet again on local earthquakes, as on 4 March the U.S. Geological Survey reported that a 3.5-magnitude earthquake struck southern Oklahoma, also centered around Prague.

In the last four years, the number of quakes in the middle of the United States surged 11-fold from the three decades prior.

Something to ponder when you read the hydrocarbon industry rubbishes the latest scientific research on fracking as “fuzzy science.”

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  1. mw

    I bet the burden of proof will fall on the victims when their houses, roads, bridges will be damaged in the future. Ditto for the water supply and air contamination… Vive le Corpoilgarch!

  2. roots

    Don’t know if there are gas shales in California, but if there are, let’s hope they use a little common sense and not allow fracking within a hundred miles of any known active earthquake fault.

    1. Jefemt

      Roots, here is a link to a WSJ article from january 2013. California may be the next hot frac’ing tight shale play, for oil, possibly related gas: I work in Mondak/Williston Basin, and the problem I see, as Pogo put it, is US. Until we start to turn off the demand tap on oil and gas, until we start to starve the transnational banking, consumer, and military/industrial complex, the chemical agribusinesses… until WE start to conserve energy, walk more, bike, drive less, retrofit and get our dwellings in energy conservation shape, eat local organic, until we ACT, expect and plan for the worst. Do you own any stocks? Are the company’s ethics, objectives, and global impacts negative of center? Sell em and buy a roof top solar system, for yuourself, your community, and ‘the children’. Its a start, and every green electron is one less carbon based. We can make the change we want to see. If we wait for the government and oil companies to do it, that is true folly.

    2. diptherio

      What are you some kind of Communist?!? This is ‘Merica dagnabit, where every man, woman and child has the God-given right to shoot as many chemically-laced high-pressure water jets into the earth as they want, wherever they want! You’ll pry my fracking rig from my cold, dead hands!

      Seriously though, I can’t wait until California is replaced with Arizona Bay. It’ll make those trans-Pacific flights to Asia a little longer, but it’ll be worth it.

      1. Lambert Strether

        I’m behind on the updating, but it shows an amazing range of activity. When I get “Son of Campaign Countdown” rolling again I’ll start the live updates again.

    3. KeninSD

      CA has had some form of fracking going on for about 40 years. Notably, a geothermal site in NorCal was abandoned after it caused local quakes. Sorry, I don’t remember the name of the site, but it did wake up the state government to the dangers of this technique, regardless of purpose.

      1. AbyNormal

        In November 2011, the Los Angeles Times reported that Gov. Brown fired Derek Chernow, then head of the Department of Conservation, as well as Chernow’s deputy, Elena Miller, after they generated a memo highly critical of an oil extraction method called underground injection, referring primarily to steam injection. The process was put under a microscope in 2011 after an oil company worker died in Kern county from falling into a boiling cesspool of fracking discharge. Brown pushed Chernow to relax the regulations in 2011, but instead Chernow generated the memo concluding that relaxing regulations would violate federal laws. Shortly thereafter, Brown fired Chernow and his deputy, and installed Mark Nechodom, who sided with Brown and reduced the heightened scrutiny that had been placed on underground injection. In January 2012, The Times reported that Occidental Petroleum made a $250,00 contribution to Brown, which will be used to fund Brown’s effort to win voter approval for a ballot measure to raise taxes. With regard to fracking, the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources said it did not plan to monitor or manage use of the technology unless the legislature requires it or the agency is handed “evidence of manifest damage and harm.
        Some companies have called the Monterey Shale “arguably the largest shale play in the US.”[18] Others note that the estimate of technically recoverable oil is determined by multiplying the total amount of oil that the USGS estimates is under the Monterey Shale by the “recovery factor” — the percentage of the oil that can be recovered with today’s technology — and is therefore speculative by nature. (Fifteen billion barrels is based upon an estimated 500 billion barrels of original oil in place in the Monterey Shale multiplied by a recovery factor of 2.8 percent.)[19]

  3. AbyNormal

    Tokyo Gas Co entered into a sale and purchase contract with Quicksilver Resources Inc. (QRI) to acquire its working interests in the shale gas development joint venture in US Barnett basin, Texas and forma joint vent.

    This is the first time for Tokyo Gas to participate in the shale gas development in the US. These assets, operated by QRI, currently produce approximately 275 mmcfed of shale gas and natural gas liquids marketed in the US market.

    Tokyo Gas obtains 25% working interests of the business for US $ 485 million through TG Barnett Resources LP (TGBR), a wholly‐owned subsidiary of TokyoGas America Ltd. TGBR’s share of gas production will be marketed in the US market, and is forecasted to be some 0.35 to 0.5 million tons per annum in terms of LNG volume.

    “Tokyo Gas will continue to work intensively for participation in the overseas business with a view to diversification and expansion of its upstream business as well as establishment of LNG value chain, as targeted in the “Challenge 2020 Vision”.” the company said in a statement.

  4. john

    Boy, wouldn’t it be something if one of these earthquakes set off a chain that ended up launching that Yosemite supervolcano explosion that’s supposed to wipe out half of the country?

  5. JustAnObserver

    We await the ultimate confirmation: A WSJ OpEd “move along, nothing to see here” dissing spree.

  6. Zachary Smith

    I’m surprised at how few comments there have been on this one, and also at the absence of the trolls.

    If I have a desk drawer which is reluctant to open, I lubricate it with wax. That the same process works with ‘sticky’ faults is pretty freaking obvious. Pump in a lubricant, and the thing is likely to break loose, same as the drawer.

    1. alex

      “It’s not only fracking for shale gas that’s suspected of causing seismic disturbance.”

      Thank you! The headline “More Scientific Evidence Linking Fracking and Earthquakes” is at the very least misleading, and smacks of an attempt to link this problem specifically to fracking because that’s a currently recognizable scare word. Unfortunately this problem can occur with any type of waste water injection. The Oklahoma quakes are linked to enhanced oil recovery and had nothing to do with fracking. The “water” (sand and who knows what chemicals) injection used to frack causes far fewer seismic problems than waste water injection because the volume is much lower. The problem occurs with the waste water that’s disposed of underground, which is a problem not just with fracking but a number of other drilling and extraction techniques.

      Similarly many of the pollution problems caused by fracking can be (and often are) also caused by other drilling and extraction techniques.

  7. MRW

    As far as I’m concerned, there’s a far more immediate, constant, and definable problem than possible earthquakes. (Germany stopped doing geothermal because it produced earthquakes.)

    F. William Engdahl has written extensively about geopolitics and oil. It’s his specialty. This article “The Fracked-up USA Shale Gas Bubble” was published here, where he describes the process. It is not benign. Water is mixed with “company secret” toxic fluids that they can barely control:

    He describes the process:

    To extract the unconventional shale gas, a hydraulic fracture is formed by pumping a fracturing fluid into the wellbore at sufficient pressure causing the porous shale rock strata to crack. The fracture fluid, whose precise contents are usually company secret and extremely toxic, continues further into the rock, extending the crack. The trick is to then prevent the fracture from closing and ending the supply of gas or oil to the well. Because in a typical fracked well fluid volumes number in millions of gallons of water, water mixed with toxic chemicals, fluid leak-off or loss of fracturing fluid from the fracture channel into the surrounding permeable rock takes place. If not controlled properly, that fluid leak-off can exceed 70% of the injected volume resulting in formation matrix damage, adverse formation fluid interactions, or altered fracture geometry and thereby decreased production efficiency.[7]

    But more alarmingly from my point-of-view:

    Why have we just now seen the boom in fracking shale rock to get gas and oil? Thank then-Vice president Dick Cheney and friends. The real reason for the recent explosion of fracking in the United States was passage of legislation in 2005 by the US Congress that exempted the oil industry’s hydraulic fracking, astonishing as it sounds, from any regulatory supervision by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The oil and gas industry is the only industry in America that is allowed by EPA to inject known hazardous materials – unchecked – directly into or adjacent to underground drinking water supplies.[8]

    The 2005 law is known as the “Halliburton Loophole.” That’s because it was introduced on massive lobbying pressure from the company that produces the lion’s share of chemical hydraulic fracking fluids – Dick Cheney’s old company, Halliburton. When he became Vice President under George W. Bush in early 2001, Cheney immediately got Presidential responsibility for a major Energy Task Force to make a comprehensive national energy strategy. Aside from looking at Iraq oil potentials as documents later revealed, the energy task force used Cheney’s considerable political muscle and industry lobbying money to win exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act. [9]

    1. MRW

      Engdahl’s article is worth reading for the un-firm footing the entire shale business is on. He does the calculations for Obama’s assertion that we have ‘100 years of gas’ that we can rely upon and uses government analysis and figures to shred it. He claims, essentially, that Obama is being lied to.

      1. Glenn Condell

        Engdahl’s track record as a seer suggests he is worth listening to and it is surprising he’s not more prominent. The earliest mention of the coming GFC that I recall was a piece of his from July 04 signalling a potential US crash in 05, thanks to the housing bubble, mentioning Fannie and Ginnie by name, but seeing the main threat as dollar collapse and skyrocketing interest rates. That’s something like two years prior to seeing Steve Keen and Peter Schiff interviewed on Aust TV raising the alarm… with Schiff taking the Engdahl inflation position and Keen of course plumping for deflation.

        If Engdahl is worried about something it seems prudent to consider it.

  8. Darwin in action

    Here we go again. Wait till the grease seeps into the New Madrid fault and levels the Confederacy and everybody has to put cheesy American flags on their cars and the dominant-class rednecks will freak out in histrionic outrage when we say We told you, you stupid shits.

  9. Master David Goodmen

    Decades back, there was a radio spot on how to make a big earthquake in California.  the process involved drilling the San Andreas Fault, and pumping in water.  As with too many other bad ideas, this one is far from new!

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