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Fossil Fuels two new studies link fracking to earthquakes

Published on September 5th, 2013 | by Tina Casey

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More Fracking Headaches As Earthquake Evidence Grows

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September 5th, 2013 by
 
It looks like more trouble is looming ahead for communities that host fracking operations. Two new studies have linked fracking-related operations to earthquakes in Texas and Ohio, and a recently settled lawsuit in Arkansas indicates that swarms of tiny earthquakes can damage surface structures. Add earthquakes to a list that already includes water contamination and air pollution risks, and it becomes clear that a more effective regulatory platform is needed to protect existing communities from the impacts of fracking.

The Fracking Explosion

Fracking is short for hydrofracturing, a drilling method that releases oil or gas from shale formations by pumping a chemical brine underground. Somewhat ironically, the method was originally developed by federal researchers to aid the geothermal industry.

As an “unconventional” oil and gas drilling method, fracking was not in widespread use in the US until recent years, and regulatory agencies have been scrambling to play catchup as evidence of water and air impacts piles up.

two new studies link fracking to earthquakes

Earthquake (cropped) by Martin Luff.

Fracking And Earthquakes

Though the drilling operation itself would seem to be the most likely cause of earthquakes, so far the main culprit appears to be the disposal of wastewater from fracking operations, which is commonly injected into existing wells.

The largest earthquake ever recorded in Oklahoma, for example, has been linked to fracking wastewater disposal in an injection well, and last year Columbia University seismologists linked a series of about a dozen strong earthquakes in Youngstown, Ohio to a similar operation.

In one of the two new studies, Columbia seismologists have identified at least 98 more earthquakes in the Youngstown episode, though these were too small to be noticed by people on the surface. Interestingly, as reported by the Columbus Dispatch the epicenters of the quakes drifted up to a mile away from the injection well, indicating that communities some distance away from injection wells could still be at risk.

The other new study reveals a different area of impact, related to the copious amount of water required for the fracking operation. The study covers a swarm of small quakes at the Eagle Ford formation in Texas, linking them to the extraction of oil as well water used for fracking.

As reported in Bloomberg News, study co-author Cliff Frohlich of the University of Texas explains:

You’re pulling out large volumes. You remove stuff, and stuff adjusts or slumps around and either above or below the area where you remove it.

As in the Ohio followup study, the Eagle Ford study did not involve earthquakes that could be felt on the surface. Nevertheless, the cumulative impact can result in property damage on the surface.


One example comes via The Atlantic Cities, which recently reported on the outcome of a lawsuit in Arkansas related to hundreds of small earthquakes linked by the US Geological Survey to fracking wastewater disposal.

In one of the affected communities, Greenbrier, five local property owners have already settled for “an undisclosed sum” with Chesapeake Energy and BHP Billiton, with twenty more residents expected to follow in their footsteps.

The fracking boom is certainly continuing apace, but for a growing number of communities it’s becoming a bust.

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About the Author

Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



  • eleanorrubymoon

    MOTHER EARTH

    Poor old lonely mother earth
    Is very, very sad;
    She had a bomb put in her heart
    By people who are mad.
    She held them and she fed them,
    She taught them to be free;
    They put a bomb inside her heart
    And whispered, ‘C’est la vie.’

    Michael Leunig: Poems 1972-2002

  • Peter Gray

    There may be hazards from fracking and/or wastewater disposal, but earthquake risk is a silly basis for opposing those practices. There are other reasons for being skeptical of all this natural gas extraction, esp. methane emissions. Exaggerating or misrepresenting the effects of some tiny earthquakes is not helpful.

    There’s no way that humans pumping water into the ground can produce the kind of stress and mechanical energy storage to create a significant quake. The most it can do is to lubricate an existing fault, or otherwise trigger it to release accumulated stress. When it does that, the quake will occur earlier than if it were left alone, and thus there will be less energy released, and less damage. If fracking causes dozens or hundreds of tiny quakes that humans can’t even feel, who cares?

    Releasing seismic energy in many small quakes causes far less damage than releasing the same energy in one big event Thus, it’s likely that fracking/pumping are beneficial in net seismic effects, and should be subsidized (be careful what you wish for).

    This article is slanted to the point of dishonesty, including the photo of road damage. That’s from a 7.1 2010 quake in New Zealand, and nothing like that kind of damage has occurred from any of the fracking-linked shakes in OK, TX, OH, etc.. Blog posts like this one reduce my confidence in any thing that appears on Cleantechnica.

    For a more informed take, see http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=did-fracking-cause-oklahomas-largest-recorded-earthquake.

    • exdent11

      Thank You. You nailed the false arguments and smear tactics being spread by anti-drilling people. Fracking can be improved in many ways. Methane leakage is my biggest concern but is fixable with tighter regulations in the works from the EPA for well completion and more vigilant inspection of pipeline leaks with new sniffer technologies.
      One thing that bothers me is I never hear discussion of what can be done to remove the lower but still significant CO2 released from nat gas combustion. The plume from burning nat gas is much cleaner and is more manageable than coal. It could be isolated for other uses. Or discussion on ways to use smaller amounts of natural gas as a catalyst to produce larger amounts of hydrogen.

      • Bob_Wallace

        As we tighten down on methane leaks and if we were to put carbon capture on NG burners, well price rises.

        That helps make storage more affordable.

        • Peter Gray

          As noted above, CCS is sure to cause really BIG price increases. I’m not against doing it if someone wants to, but I don’t see subsidizing the effort. Far better would be to tax fossil carbon content, rebate the tax for verifiable and permanent (1,000-year half-life?) storage, and let people respond to those incentives. My bet is that the CCS response would be minimal if it occurs at all.
          I agree with your point about storage, but it’s not quite right to say that it would become “more affordable.” Higher gas prices won’t make batteries cheaper, except in relative terms.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Higher gas/carbon prices increase potential profits for storage.

            Money attracts a lot of activity.

            There’s a tremendous amount of research and development happening right now with EV batteries. It’s very clear than the companies that can market a higher capacity battery at a decent price are going to make fortunes.

            If someone releases an EV battery that stored 400Wh/kg for $160/kW they would be the new Microsoft in terms of wealth. That would give us a ~200 mile range EV for the cost of an ICEV. (Envia says they have that battery and GM is testing it on their tracks.)

            There’s also a lot of research and development happening with grid storage. Ambri claims to have a “dirt cheap” liquid metal battery that will go into manufacturing in a few months.

            If that’s the case then higher NG prices will drive implementation (along with wind and solar installation).

            More activity in an industry generally means lower costs due to increased efficiency, more innovation and economies of scale.

            (Nuclear is dead. Just not everyone realizes that yet. The corpse is still twitching.)

          • Peter Gray

            Yes, I agree about all that, at least to a great extent. Higher potential profits surely accelerate tech development, etc.. However, I’m still skeptical about the current claims for cheap batteries, and to some extent for cheaper PV as well. A much cheaper battery has always meant big profits, not just now. Yet for decades we’ve been hearing these sorts of claims, seemingly on a weekly basis. There’s always an incentive to inflate performance claims, in the hope of attracting investment. But has anyone kept track of all those breakthroughs that didn’t go anywhere? We’ll see, and I hope for the best.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Clearly solar will drop in the US. Europe is installing for less than 75% of what we’re spending for utility scale solar and for less than 50% of what we’re spending for rooftop. We should be at that level in a couple of years.

            I wouldn’t say that we’ve been hearing about better EV batteries for decades. We clearly produced much better and much cheaper batteries for portable devices (laptops, digital cameras, etc.), but I don’t think we’ve been pushing hard on EV batteries for all that many years.

            I’m not predicting that we’ll see major announcements in the next 12 months, but I will not be at all surprised.

      • Peter Gray

        Thanks, exdent11! I agree that methane leaks are likely the most serious worry – by some measures, possibly enough to balance the climate benefits of gas compared to coal (but not other CO2 damages such as ocean acidification).

        From what I understand, removal and use of CO2 is a non-starter because the market price of CO2 doesn’t cover (or even approach) the recovery cost. If it did, industry would already be doing it. At the quantities needed (and not re-emitted!) to make a noticeable dent in emissions, the price of CO2 would be indistinguishable from zero.

        As an aside, let’s not be conned by fantasies about CO2 sequestration. That’s a myth promoted by the “clean coal” lobby, and I doubt it will turn into anything more than that. A few years ago I was in a seminar by a leading DOE researcher into CCS, where they’re test-injecting into deep basalt formations. I asked her how much of the net energy from a coal plant would be needed for cleaning, compressing, piping the CO2. She said, “Optimistically, 35%.” That translates into at least a 54% increase in coal consumption to generate the same amount of power (not to mention the cost of compressors, drills, pipelines). A great deal for the coal industry, along with $Bs in clean coal subsidies, but not for the rest of us. Even though gas makes cleaner exhaust, and the loss might be smaller, similar calculations would apply.

        Not sure what you mean by using gas as a catalyst to produce larger amounts of hydrogen. We’re not going to get energy for nothing, and if we somehow only extract the energy from the hydrogen part of CH4, we give up a huge fraction of the energy in gas. If there were some non-magical way to react the C or CO2 and store it as a solid, someone would have figured it out long ago. The high energy density of hydrocarbons is directly related to the low energy and thus low reactivity of the reaction products, CO2 and H2O. You can’t burn either of them, and to react them into some other compound usually consumes energy.

        Back to your idea of extracting and using CO2, it’s not going to happen on more than a microscopic scale because CO2 is an energy dead end and thus a waste product. You have to pay for a bottle of it, but only because of the cost of compressing, containing, and transporting it. The fact that there’s little discussion about isolating more of it is a sign that people are rational, not that they’re missing an opportunity.

        • Bob_Wallace

          “I agree that methane leaks are likely the most serious worry – by some
          measures, possibly enough to balance the climate benefits of gas
          compared to coal (but not other CO2 damages such as ocean
          acidification).”

          Yes, if we’re considering a 1:1 exchange of NG for coal.

          But NG, being dispatchable, allows us to use wind and solar in large amounts and then NG as a fill-in. If, for example, we replace a coal plant with 50% wind, 20% solar and supply the last 30% with NG then we’ve cut the CO2/methane damage to 30% of what coal would have produced.

          • Peter Gray

            Good point, Bob. I am aware of the many other benefits of NG compared to coal.

            In an ideal world I’d like to see a very stiff tax on methane emissions, corresponding to its damages relative to CO2. But monitoring emissions is another matter (not necessary for carbon), so regulations and heavy fines for violations is probably the best we can hope for.

            Oh, by the way, ‘nother topic… Since you’re a moderator here, have you seen this item? (http://grist.org/climate-energy/solar-panels-could-destroy-u-s-utilities-according-to-u-s-utilities/?utm_source=outbrain&utm_medium=web&utm_campaign=outbrain-gristiest) That might be an interesting one to link to in the solar section. And it’s a fun read.

          • Bob_Wallace

            It’s a topic that’s been widely discussed on other sites. David goes a bit over the top, grids are not going to get “destroyed”. Their economic model is getting destroyed.

            Thermal plants are heading toward bankruptcy. Someone is going to have to eat those losses. In some cases it will be shareholders and in some cases rate payers/taxpayers.

            But the grid will abide. (Second time I got to use that today. ;o)

            End-user solar will largely kill the previously profitable midday demand peak as it is doing in Germany. But utilities are going to be able to supply storage and backup generation at a better price than most end-users can.

            Furthermore, most people aren’t going to be willing to run their own utility company. (I’ve been running one for over 20 years, trust me. Off-grid electricity is much more expensive than on-grid electricity. And a good deal more effort than automating your monthly payment with your credit union.)

            We’ve got some tricky work to do during the transition away from fossil fuels. We’re probably going to have to pay some coal plants for capacity. That is, we’ll have to pay them something so that they can sit around most of the time idle, but be available during times of highest demand or if we have a big supply disruption.

            Before it dies completely away, coal will be the third string bench warmer who gets paid just enough to keep him dressing out for the game. May never see any play time, but provides a level of security.

            I can see NG plants being deep backup many years from now. Cheap to build. Cheap to maintain when not used. Eventually we might run them on biogas, but the small amount we would probably use them wouldn’t release significant amounts of CO2.

          • Peter Gray

            Thanks for all that, Bob. I thought the article was rather over the top, too, but entertainingly written.
            The idea has its attractions, but I haven’t tried living off-grid or essentially running my own utility, but I know people who have, and I agree that I’d just as soon pay the utilities to do what they do best, and more efficiently.
            I see the off-grid movement as analogous to the locavore thing – at least somewhat educational for the rest of us, but ultimately silly in many cases, and often counterproductive. Kind of like insisting on eating NY-grown tomatoes instead of shipping them from CA or Mexico – worse on balance for the environment. Uncompensated externalities complicate the picture, but if you’re paying a whole lot more for off-grid power, are you sure you’re really doing the environment a favor? It’s not always clear…

          • Bob_Wallace

            I know a lot of people who are off-grid. They, like me, want to live with some space around them and one way to find affordable land is to purchase land too far from the grid to make hooking up reasonable. ($300,000 in my case.)

            We all pay more for our electricity (which makes us use conscious).

            I don’t know anyone who has gone off-grid as a way to lower their carbon footprint. It would be hard to do. One would need to live someplace with a lot of sunshine, wind, or micro-hydro potential.

  • Ivor O’Connor

    Every repair due to earth quakes should be charged back, in double, to the facking industry. Given that they will be long gone very quickly and most problems will not be noticed for years into the future paying double for the current damage is letting them off lightly.

  • exdent11

    This article like many others on the subject intentionally confuse the operation of fracking with the disposal of waste water from fracking. There are other ways to deal with waste water from fracking other than injecting it into disposal wells; it is only the cheapest. There is no empirical evidence that fracking itself causes earthquakes.

    • Matt

      So it is only a problem because of bad disposal practices in the industry. They don’t have to cause earth quakes. They choose to because it is cheaper than doing the right thing and cleaning up the waste water. But since the whole industry does it I would say it is part of the fracking industry. Yes could solve this easy:
      1) Closed all disposal wells today
      2) Require holding the water on site until it is return to drinkable level. At which point it could be placed in local stream.
      3) Have a large fine for any spill $10k/gallon.
      I’m sure that the problem would stop. Sorry but disposal of your waste products is part of “the operation of fracking”.

      The operation of burning coal doesn’t cause pollution, it is the disposal of the ash and gas up the smoke stake. And the mining doesn’t count either that is a different company.

      • exdent11

        Matt, I don’t disagree . All industries need regulations and standards set or abuses happen. However, there are many services companies moving into the niche of decontaminating frack water on site. Also some companies are taking the approach of developing nontoxic fracking chemicals. Most interesting to me is a company using hydrocarbons [ propane/butane/pentane as a liquid or gel to frack and then getting back all the fracking hydrocarbons as a gas with the harvested oil or gas. No water is used at all and therefore no water is brought back to the surface . Also the hydrocarbon fracks don't react with the minerals [ as water does ] so no heavy metals or radioactive isotopes are brought to the surface. This company is called Gasfrac Energy Services if you want to look it up.
        I love renewable technologies but gas will be necessary for a couple of decades ; the key is to regulate rigorously to remove the environmental issues.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Those are encouraging developments, but let’s hope we don’t need NG for 20 more years.

          With better storage we could start cutting back on NG usage. Hopefully we’ll have more affordable storage in five years or less.

          • exdent11

            Amen to that. Liquid batteries without need of a separating membrane look promising. But I’m intrigued with new cheaper ways to store energy by using catalysts such as iron oxide or new solid state artificial photosynthesis to produce hydrogen from excess renewable electricity.

          • Bob_Wallace

            I’m unaware of the iron oxide technology. Links?

            Artificial photosynthesis doesn’t make use of excess renewable, I don’t think. What I’ve seen is a direct use of sunlight to gen hydrogen.

            Storing energy via renewable electricity to crack water is an option, but probably won’t be cost effective.

            We should know soon, or it’s possible we will know in a few months, if liquid metal batteries will be ‘for real’. Ambri is talking about beginning manufacturing in 2014. They have apparently moved to a better combination of materials from their original antimony and magnesium choices. Whether that means lower cost, more efficiency or both has not been stated.

          • exdent11

            You are right ; I’m mixing a different article with the one on producing hydrogen from artificial photosynthesis. The iron oxide [rust ] was from a company in Calgary ,Canada I believe. I don’t remember the name.

        • Kathy

          A couple of decades? So the gas industry will roll over when asked? By the looks of the money poured into their panacea ads it will be here for many decades and that monkey will be hard to get off our backs just like oil and coal. The coal corporations here in Wyoming are selling over seas now. So natural gas will follow the same game plan and extend the damage even longer into the next several generations, by that time the damage will be done. It is already done here in Wyoming in the drilling regions where mule dear populations are down by 60% and the ozone can equal the ozone levels on a bad ozone day in Los Angeles. When the proposed wells are built around the Colorado and Wyoming boarder the size of the problem will more than double. Who is going to want to come to the greater Yellowstone region that includes Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park on bad ozone warning days. What the oil and gas industry don’t do well is share the land responsibly with the two other industries and that is tourism and recreation. We rely on those also. If those two legs of the stool collapse the oil and gas industry has won as they have in North Dakota where all you can see is flaring oil pads right up to Teddy Roosevelt National Park. And that is only 7% of the wells that will be built. 7% of 40,000 wells!

    • http://MrEnergyCzar.com/ MrEnergyCzar

      Burning coal isn’t related to children’s asthma near coal plants either… how silly to relate the two..

      • exdent11

        Your logic escapes me. If there was a completely clean way to burn coal [ there isn't ] and without CO2 emission , wouldn’t you find that acceptable? There are acceptable ways to avoid using injection wells.
        Even renewables which I strongly support have some negative aspects which are out weighed by their benefits. The same is true for nat gas if one is willing to mitigate its weaknesses .

        • http://MrEnergyCzar.com/ MrEnergyCzar

          If clean coal existed at the plant, it wouldn’t be acceptable because you’d have to burn much more coal to generate the same amount of power. That means outside the plant you’d have even more mining of coal with diesel power, diesel transport etc… If you could do it without decreasing the EROEI and without increasing the coal mining externalized costs then it would be great.

  • Dimitar Mirchev

    To be fare this is a temporary phenomenon.

    During the drilling of the first 10-20 million frack-wells there will be some earthquakes and than the earth will settle.

    No problems. Just wait the first 10-20 million wells to be drilled:)

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