Strong Earthquakes Spell Trouble For America’s Oil Heartland

Yves here. Fracking may become a self-limiting activity because earthquakes. You’d think polluting aquifers would be reason enough, with potable water set to be the resource where we run into widespread scarcity first. But drinkable water is a health matter, which Covid has shown is secondary to preserving the economy, while earthquakes have this nasty way of damaging property and infrastructure.

By Irina Slav, a writer for with over a decade of experience writing on the oil and gas industry. Originally published at OilPrice

  • Strongest earthquake in 10-years stirs up debate in Texas
  • The Texas Railroad Commission banned injection of wastewater from well drilling into deep wells just before the big quake
  • Shutting down disposal wells cannot be a permanent decision

A week ago, an earthquake with a 4.5 magnitude struck Texas in the most prolific shale play in the country—the Permian. Days later, another quake shook America’s oil heartland. And seismic activity might eventually force drillers to curb production.

The December 27 quake was the strongest in Texas for the last ten years, the Midland Reporter-Telegram reported at the time. It happened at a depth of 4.3 miles near Stanton. And it followed a series of earlier quakes in December.

In the middle of December, the U.S. Geological Survey reported four earthquakes in the vicinity of Midland that occurred within 24 hours. The magnitude of these quakes ranged from 2.9 to 3.7, which is not a whole lot, but the number was concerning, especially since it came after more tremors were detected by the University of Texas at Austin’s Bureau of Economic Geology earlier in the year. And after the stronger quake, regulators have stepped in.

The Texas Railroad Commission banned the injection of wastewater from well drilling into deep wells just before the big quake. After the big quake, the commission sent out inspectors to the field as the quake had occurred in an area already under investigation for wastewater disposal in deep wells.

According to Reuters, if the inspection results in a halt of wastewater disposal in the area, this could lead to the shutdown of some 18 disposal wells that pump a combined 9,600 barrels of wastewater. And if drillers cannot dispose of wastewater, then they cannot really drill.

That hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, causes increased seismic activity has been one of the main weapons in the arsenal of anti-fracking activists. Indeed, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, the practice of splitting shale rock formation to extract the oil contained in it does cause increased seismic activity. Only it’s not the fracking itself. It’s the wastewater.

Fracking requires enormous amounts of liquid, and this liquid, called wastewater but in fact, a mixture of water and chemicals, needs to be disposed of. Disposal usually takes place in disposal wells, some of them quite deep to hold more wastewater. It is these underground wastewater reservoirs that have been linked to increased seismic activity in some oil regions.

Five years ago, for instance, Oklahoma drew media attention because of the significantly increased frequency of earthquakes since the start of the shale boom. The state, one of the big oil producers in the U.S., had negligible seismic activity before 2009 when fracking really took off. By 2016, Oklahoma was recording an average of two quakes a day—what was earlier the average for a year. To date, quakes are just as frequent.

According to website Earthquake Tracker, there have been 10 earthquakes in Oklahoma in the last seven days, 68 quakes in the past 30 days, and 2,063 quakes in the past year. Of course, most of these are minor, but due to their increased frequency, they can still cause—and have caused—material damage. The issue even led to litigation seeking insurance coverage against the effects of wastewater disposal from oil wells. Unfortunately for the plaintiffs in this case, the Supreme Court of Oklahoma this month ruled that no insurance coverage exists for bodily injury or property damage caused by wastewater disposal-related seismic activity.

Interestingly enough, there used to be insurance coverage for such damages until a few years ago. As seismic activity grew, Oklahoma insurers started getting increasingly aware of the fact that upping the premiums for earthquake coverage (by 200% in some cases) was not sufficient to avoid substantial losses at this rate of seismic activity. So they began removing this coverage from their service offering and rejecting claims for quake-caused damage, attributing it instead to houses settling or just being plain too old.

The Permian is a bigger producer of oil than Oklahoma. It is the biggest producing oil region in the United States and the driver of its production growth, seen as substantial this year as prices remain comfortably high. But unless producers can find an alternative to injecting wastewater into deep wells, some of that production growth might never happen in order to avoid turning Texas into the second earthquake capital of the U.S. after Oklahoma.

The alternatives include trucking the wastewater away and disposing of it elsewhere, therefore distributing the burden of tons of water that, if dumped into an underground well, could cause heightened seismic activity. Another alternative is to recycle the water, and it might be worth motivating drillers to consider it as the amounts of water used in shale wells drilling are not going any smaller: according to the Groundwater Protection Council, a single horizontal well requires 45 million liters of water.

The U.S. oil and gas industry generates hundreds of millions of gallons of wastewater every year. This water’s disposal can and does cause increased seismic activity in some places. Shutting down disposal wells cannot be a permanent decision, not for an industry that is just tentatively returning to growth.

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  1. Steve H.

    > Fracking may become a self-limiting activity because earthquakes. You’d think polluting aquifers would be reason enough, with potable water set to be the resource where we run into widespread scarcity first.

    M. Hudson: Herman and I went to the [Carter] White House and it was explained to me, that this was the whole idea of tar sands. The aim is to use so much water that it creates a drought in America. The drought was seen as doubling or quadrupling grain prices. In essence, the idea was for America to pay for higher priced oil with higher priced grain. This would support the balance of payments enough to finance U.S. military power throughout the world. In the process, of course, it would starve as much as a quarter of the population of Africa and Latin America.

    1. Paul Kleinman

      Could you be a little more specific as to who told you this and in what capacity were they speaking? Was this person actually an official in the Carter administration? Was he/she telling you this as their opinion of what the Carter administration aims were? In 1979, the last year of the Carter administration fracking’s contribution to oil/gas extraction was miniscule. And how would the tripling of US grain prices (because of fracking-induced water shortage) support balance of payments? The US has sold immense amounts of grain to the rest of the world because it can be produced so cheaply. When wheat prices rose due to US govt price support for farmers support and drought conditions in the mid 80’s, export dropped drastically, This worsened the balance of payments for the US, not improved it. (Source USDA white paper “Wheat, Background for 1990 Farm Legislation)

      production in the mid-1980’s, which some argue was the
      result of high U.S. support prices, the U.S. share of the
      world market fell to 33 percent, on average, from 1985-87,
      down from an average 44 percent for 1975-79. In 1988, U.S.
      exports were estimated at 42 percent of the world total.
      Because of drought-induced shortfalls, high U.S. prices, and
      increased competitor exports, the U.S. market share is
      expected to drop dramatically in 1989, to 32 percent.

  2. PlutoniumKun

    Just to be clear on this – fracking can cause earthquakes, but most evidence suggests they are relatively minor and localised. Most of the ‘problem’ earthquakes come from deep water injection of wastewater – this isn’t confined to fracking, many US States permit the deepwater injection of contaminated water as an acceptable means of treatment/disposal. But fracking generates enormous quantities of water. This isn’t a problem in those areas where wastewater is disposed of in other ways (the US is almost unique in the world in permitting this type of disposal).

    It can be argued that creating more earthquakes is a good thing – it releases stress and reduces the possibility of very large earthquakes. The danger is that it wakens up dormant earthquake zones. Earthquakes are particularly dangerous if they hit places which are historically seen as free of them, as building codes won’t be up to scratch.

    1. Pate

      Yes. It is the wastewater injection wells and not the actual fracking itself. Have lived in Tulsa (the one-time “oil capital of the world”) since 1955 and never dreamed I would experience an “Oklahoma earthquake”. But that changed in the last ten years. Things have settled down more recently due to reducing the number and volume of wastewater injection wells:

      “Since 2015, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission has been shutting down wastewater disposal wells across the state or cutting wastewater disposal amounts.

      “The Oklahoma Corporation Commission has regulated the wastewater disposal situation, and they require them to decrease the injection volume, so this decline in wastewater injections has led to a decrease in the seismicity rate,” Chen said. “It’s kind of the same reason causing seismicity to increase that is causing the seismicity to decrease.”

      Jacob Walter, Oklahoma seismologist and head of the Oklahoma Geological Survey, said specifically the shutdown and reduced volume of injections into Arbuckle disposal wells has led to the decline in earthquakes.”

      1. Carolinian

        No offense but the above yet another reason why I’m glad I don’t live in Oklahoma. The state seems to be run by and for vested interests. Then there’s the winds and the tornadoes. Those Cherokee must have found it quite a switch from their Appalachians.

    2. Rick Shapiro

      Major earthquakes are (outside of the ones associated with volcanic activity) are produced by large-scale movement of tectonic plates, like sudden jumps of your hand when you simultaneously push it along a surface, and press it down on the surface. Wastewater injection is much too shallow and localized to affect this process. It will never cause a major earthquake, nor prevent one by gradually easing stress.
      The real scandal of fracking is the fact that companies are allowed to keep secret (for “competitive” reasons) the list of chemicals that they inject, and that they are hardly monitored or regulated for the methane that they leak into the air.

      1. Ira Leifer

        Actually, in a paper (under review at SPE), there is a clear evidence that it does for a producing field in the San Joaquin Valley (not from fracking, though, but from the hydrocarbons in the reservoir which are shallow a few thousand feet at most).

      2. redleg

        Engineering Geologist here: it doesn’t take a major earthquake to cause damage to structures that aren’t designed for any earthquake. Local geology can intensify shaking, or be prone to liquefaction.

        Also, the main chemicals of concern in the wastewater are salt and hydrocarbons. These are enough to be a huge problem by themselves, and the other stuff is essentially insignificant in scope. I would be more concerned about how and where they store the other stuff before they frac with it than after.

  3. Edward Jones

    all you have to do is to evaporate the waste water and you can actually recover the chemicals and the salts. Not really hard technology but it is just easier and cheaper to drill a deep well. You have to pump it down at pressure which makes it all worse

    1. Michael Fiorillo

      Energy return on investment via fracking is already low and the industry has never been profitable, so it’s hard to imagine they would spend the effort/energy/money to treat their wastewater.

    2. Aumua

      Who knows what volatile organic compounds might be in the fracking water that would evaporate along with it into the air? We don’t know because as the article makes clear, frackers are allowed to keep that secret. The bottom line is that no matter how the waste water is disposed of, there probably will be environmental risks. But the article also makes it plain that the real issue here (for the frackers) is not environmental destruction, but potential litigation.

  4. Larry

    We had plenty of evidence that the ruling elite doesn’t care about the proles quality of drinking water. Obama took that glib sip in Flint and solved their water crisis on the spot! Be happy you even have a spigot in your home folks! Why would resource extraction be any different? Mountain topping, hog pharming, the list of industries that threaten water supplies is staggering. In my quaint little Boston suburb we have to let the local power plant store immense amounts of diesel fuel as a back up source for electricity generation in case the gas pipelines run low or the price of gas gets too high. Those massive tanks sit right in the middle of the Charles River Watershed, I’m sure they’ll never leak.

    COVID just drives home the point that the ruling classes will do something to keep the economy going, but it’s the minimum. Free vaccines were the minimum in this case. That’s it, they’ve moved on.

  5. Guy Hooper

    This is a classic case of an externalized cost as is most pollution. The fracking business model relies on not bearing this cost. Fracking has this in common with all fossil fuel production: pollution is externalized.

    Don’t look up.

    1. Susan the other

      Yes. And it is the best evidence we have for advocating that the government step in and “nationalize” oil drilling. Only the government can afford to do it and not pollute the environment. It is very expensive to clean up after the oil industry. Not that we do not want an oil industry – we do – we just need to finance it nationally. That is also a good way to have the control to ration oil when we need to. It will keep the oil industry alive for the long haul too because we will be able to conserve resources. And taking care of all the pollution will be a government effort, thus accountable.

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