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Fossil Fuels Oklahoma earthquakes

Published on April 9th, 2014 | by Tina Casey

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Fracking Fingered: 100 Earthquakes In Oklahoma

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April 9th, 2014 by
 
The jury is still out on this one, but when Oklahoma gets more than 100 earthquakes in less than three months, attention naturally turns to fracking, the natural gas and oil drilling method that involves pumping a vast amounts of chemical brine underground, with the resulting wastewater often disposed by injecting that underground, too.

It all makes for a messy, water-intensive operation, but a Bush/Cheney-era exemption from the Clean Water Act has enabled the fracking industry to largely evade the grasp of federal regulators. That leaves states like Oklahoma struggling to deploy scant oversight resources in the middle of a drilling boom.

Oklahoma earthquakes

Central Oklahoma earthquakes by kelleymcd.

Oklahoma Earthquake Investigators “Swamped”

The Oklahoma earthquake numbers are impressive. According to a report yesterday in Bloomberg, as the first week of April came to a close the state experienced had already experienced 109 earthquakes at or above magnitude 3.0, with more to follow.

That’s more 3.0-and-greater earthquakes than in all of last year, overwhelming the capacity of the Oklahoma Geological Survey to investigate the causes. Bloomberg’s Jim Efstathiou, Jr., cites OGS seismologist Austin Holland:

We certainly likely have cases of earthquakes being caused by different oil and gas activity. Evaluating those carefully can take significant amounts of time, especially when we’re swamped.

That’s the problem in a nutshell: lack of oversight capacity, leading to a significant knowledge gap. Without establishing a clear connection to fracking and/or fracking wastewater disposal, state officials cannot justify shutting down drilling or disposal operations.

In Oklahoma, the problem is compounded by weak data reporting regulations. Currently, injection well operators (injection wells are for fracking wastewater disposal) are required to report well pressure monthly. Regulators have proposed a daily reporting requirement but the supporting legislation has yet to be approved.

Earthquakes And Fracking: What We Know

On November 6, 2011 near the city of Prague, Oklahoma was hit by a 5.7 earthquake, the biggest ever recorded in the state.

A state investigation proved inconclusive, but seismologists from Columbia University and the US Geological Survey later released a report providing conclusive evidence linking injection wells to the earthquake.

Aside from providing the missing link, the Prague earthquake study revealed an area of concern regarding the long term use of injection wells, which are typically existing, abandoned or played-out wells.

The injection wells linked to the Prague quake had been in use for 17 years without incident, but apparently a relatively small amount of wastewater was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Wellhead records confirmed that as the wells filled over the years, the operator kept applying more pressure to add more fluid.

According to Columbia researchers, the link between wastewater injection and earthquakes is not a new thing. In the 1960′s, a 4.8 quake near Denver was attributed to wastewater injection. More recently, in 2010 a University of Memphis seismologist documented the link to increased seismic activity in central Arkansas.

The pace has been picking up since then. In 2012 a University of Texas study confirmed a connection between increased seismic activity and a group of injection wells in Texas.

Also in 2012, a preliminary Ohio Department of Natural Resources report on the Youngstown earthquake documented a link to an injection well.

A major USGS report on earthquakes and fracking released in 2012 reached no conclusion regarding the connection between earthquakes and fracking itself, but here’s some snippets from a summary of preliminary findings, in which USGS did have this to say about fracking wastewater disposal:

USGS’s scientists have found, however, that at some locations the increase in seismicity coincides with the injection of wastewater in deep disposal wells…

The fact that the disposal (injection) of wastewater produced while extracting resources has the potential to cause earthquakes has long been known…

We also have previously reported that the production of oil and gas (extraction) can potentially cause earthquakes when changes in the underground stresses created by the removal of large volumes of oil, gas or water are large enough.

…The injected wastewater in deep wells can counteract the frictional forces on faults, causing an earthquake.

With earthquake evidence piling up and little action by state regulators, scores of local governments have more justification at hand to ban fracking and wastewater disposal operations within their borders, one notable example being Los Angeles.

Tick…Tick…Tick…

In the 2012 report, USGS was careful to note that only a small faction of the 150,000 Class II injection wells in the US (there are probably more now btw) induced large earthquakes.

But, take that last snippet about fault stress and go back to the Prague earthquake. It was particularly concerning to researchers because it was so unpredictable, following a long period of uneventful operation.

Here’s what USGS has to say about that (break added):

Currently, there are no methods available to anticipate whether a planned wastewater disposal activity will trigger earthquakes that are large enough to be of concern. Evidence from some case histories suggests that the magnitude of the largest earthquake tends to increase as the total volume of injected wastewater increases.

Injection pressure and rate of injection may also be factors. More research is needed to determine answers to these important questions.

Ticking time bomb, much?

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What appears to concern the study authors the most is that the Prague earthquake involved a relatively small amount of wastewater, and this particular set of abandoned wells had been in use for wastewater disposal without incident, for 17 years. The theory is that as the wells gradually filled, more pressure was required to keep injecting more fluid in.
Read more at http://cleantechnica.com/2013/03/27/oklahoma-earthquakes-linked-to-wastewater-disposal-from-oil-wells/#9SDbEW1m1IV7OY7t

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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+.



  • Randy Cornell

    Fracing is a blessing, both financially and geologically. Fracing helps pore space and pressure relief so that imminent earthquakes are less powerful.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Sorry, science does not back you up.

      • Randy Cornell

        If by “science” you mean politically motivated collegiate staff that define their own studies to qualify for government grants, then yes, “science” doesn’t agree with me. But if you mean facts, well those are on my side.

        • Bob_Wallace

          By “science” I mean research done by qualified specialists and published in reputable journals.

          I don’t mean “facts” you pull from your nether regions.

  • Albert Costello

    the scientist that destroyed mars were sent to earth to destroy it

  • http://www.facebook.com/RichardEnglishMusic Richard

    Waaay too many earthquakes. Time to look at the real cost of fracking. http://tiny.cc/d3q4dx

  • Get Real

    Fracking causes minor earthquakes. Sooo why should I care? Nothing bad is going to happen as a result.

    • Peter Gray

      Exactly. If anything, something good, but more difficult to pin down, is more likely. It’s very well documented that an inevitable release of the same seismic energy in several small quakes always causes less damage than in one stronger event.

  • https://www.blogger.com/profile/15681812432224138582 rjs0

    it seems certain that the recent poland ohio quakes were caused by a fracked well with multiple laterals, not just one or two like most well in the Utica shale…someone ought to investigate that angle in Oklahoma…
    it only makes sense that if you pulverize one layer of bedrock over a wide area, something is going to give eventually…

    • Peter Gray

      The USGS has already investigated extensively, and produced conclusions like this:

      Bill Ellsworth, a geoscientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, has said, however: “We don’t see any connection between hydraulic fracturing and earthquakes of any concern to society.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Environmental_impact_of_hydraulic_fracturing#Seismology)

      But of course, when that happens, the hair-on-fire opponents are sure to dismiss the scientists as bought out by the oil and gas industry. Like anti-vaxxers, 911 Truthers, and anti-GMO activists, those who oppose fracking on seismic grounds are simply the climate denialists of the Left. Impervious to evidence.

      • https://www.blogger.com/profile/15681812432224138582 rjs0

        the Poland Ohio quakes were just over 3 weeks ago and no one has completed an investigation on them…

        those quakes occurred in an area of Ohio with no history of seismic activity before fracking and related injection well disposal of wastes began….within 12 hours after the first quake, the industry friendly Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) ordered Hilcorp Energy, which had fracked wells just above the epicenter, to halt all drilling operations in the area, and also released a statement that there were no injection wells in the area…this is the same ODNR who partnered with the oil & gas industry to run psych-ops against environmental groups, including the Ohio Sierra Club and similar groups on its enemies list, so their moving against that particular fracking operation so quickly after the quakes means they knew what had happened…

        most of those quakes were at a depth oif 6000-7000 feet in the area encompassed by the laterals in the Utica shale from the Hilcorp fracked wells at the Carbon Limestone Landfill…while i wrote about this incident myself, these two articles i found later are much more comprehensive, with better pictures and major contributions from a prof in the Youngstown State geology dept:

        http://www.nofrackingway.us/2014/03/10/ohios-first-frackquake/

        http://www.nofrackingway.us/2014/03/12/fracking-induced-seismic-events-frackquakes/

        read these with an open mind and you’ll come to the same conclusion

        • Peter Gray

          I read those articles, but I’m not sure which conclusion you want me to reach. If it’s “fracking can frequently trigger small quakes,” I have no problem with that, as stated several times in this thread. My only quibble is with using the word “caused,” suggesting that fracking contributes to the energy released, which simply isn’t possible to any meaningful extent. “Triggered” the release of natural stresses is more accurate.
          If your desired conclusion is “fracking increases seismic damage,” I do not agree, and I see nothing in these articles or elsewhere to support such a claim.
          I share a lot of your skepticism about fracking, and about captured regulatory agencies, and I’m all for putting the brakes on fossil fuels by any legitimate means. But unless you can show that M3 quakes cause real harm, not even counting the possible benefits of delaying or preventing larger events, what’s legit about this complaint?
          As a long-time west coast resident, the idea of caring about an M3-4 is a total joke. If it’s less than M5.5, we don’t even bother reading about it later. Worrying about < M5 would be like getting all excited about a heavy truck or train passing by. Yeah, it might be annoying for a moment, but who really cares?
          Years ago I worked with enviro groups to end U.S. nuclear weapons testing. Some of them wanted to raise fears about bomb-triggered quakes. I advised them not to, for the same reasons I would pass on to you:
          1) It's a waste of scarce resources and effort.
          2) It squanders even more precious credibility. When people figure out how trivial these frackquakes are, they're likely to suspect that the water issues are overblown, too. Exaggeration needlessly hands weapons to your opponents.
          3) Any serious analysis of the long-term effects is likely to conclude that triggering small quakes is beneficial at worst. That would provide an opening for the industry to claim that it should be subsidized for providing those benefits. Is that what you want?

          • https://www.blogger.com/profile/15681812432224138582 rjs0

            USGS tied the 5.7 quake which did significant damage in OK to injection wells: http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/03/11/energy-earthquake-oklahoma-idUSL2N0M80SP20140311
            the 5.0 quake that stuck the Perry Nuclear Plant was also tied to an injection well…
            http://bssa.geoscienceworld.org/content/78/1/188.abstract
            http://geology.geoscienceworld.org/content/16/8/739.abstract

            the Perry plant was not built to withstand earthquakes, nor is any other construction in this part of the country…we’re not talking about releasing tensions as you might be in California, because except for a few known lineaments, this area has never had quakes before..

          • Peter Gray

            So what was the “significant damage”?

            If “we’re not talking about releasing tensions as you might be in California,” how in the world did these quakes happen? I hope you’re not suggesting that fracking itself contributed more than a microscopic fraction of the energy released. Please explain why it’s a bad thing to release whatever seismic stress is building up, however slowly, earlier and weaker rather than later and stronger.

            “This area has never had quakes before”? Please review the map of shock effects from the 1895 M6.8, which covers all of Ohio in the moderate damage range, and a big chunk with severe damage.

            We can each make our own judgements about how smart it is to “not build to withstand earthquakes” in an area that’s gone for 200 years since the last devastating one. The annual risk of an event may be much lower, but the damage when it does happen covers many times more area than when it occurs on the west coast.

          • https://www.blogger.com/profile/15681812432224138582 rjs0

            the damage from the Prague quake included something like 17 homes with damaged foundations; i recall a picture of one house shifted into the guy’s driveway, but cant cite it…
            the large quakes were in Anna Ohio, near the western border, thought to be an extension of the New Madrid fault…all the fracking related quakes are near the eastern border…our geology is different than out west; the 5.0 quake at Perry was felt from Washington DC to Wisconsin…

          • Peter Gray

            I’m well aware that the geology is different – and much more dangerous, for a given magnitude – than out west. Did you miss the point of the map I posted 3 days ago?

            The only way I can imagine that it would make sense to avoid releasing seismic energy early (assuming we have the means to do it) would be if we’re certain that devastating events are spaced by thousands of years. Then we might say “Well, humans probably won’t even be around by the time the next Big One hits, so lets not even take a chance on a couple of failed house foundations.”

            But the most recent series of powerful NM quakes was 202 years ago. There’s a lot of uncertainty about recent and near-future activity, and about the risk, but:
            “The USGS recently issued a fact sheet reiterating the estimate of a 10% chance of a New Madrid earthquake of magnitude comparable to those of 1811–1812 within the next 50 years, and a greater chance of a magnitude 6.0 earthquake in the same time frame.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Madrid_Fault#Potential_for_future_earthquakes)

            So you’re either in an area where there’s little seismic stress, and fracking cannot trigger anything that would cause measurable damage, or you’re in an area where significant stresses are accumulating; so triggering events early and often will reduce damage. Choose one, go with it, and we reach the same conclusion: fracking cannot increase the overall risk of seismic damage.

      • https://www.blogger.com/profile/15681812432224138582 rjs0

        the State of Ohio has just joined the anti-vaxxers, 911 Truthers, and anti-GMO activists and issued new fracking regulations on seismic grounds…
        http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/04/11/us-ohio-fracking-earthquakes-idUSBREA3A1J620140411
        the US Dept of Interior concurs..

        • Peter Gray

          In a first take on your statement, I’d say yes, Ohio has joined the Birthers, Truthers, and anti-vaxxers. That’s sad and arguably tragic. But I’m guessing, unless you switched sides overnight, that you’re being sarcastic, and citing this as evidence that fracking increases seismic risk.

          But from the article, the new regulations seem to state that there’s a likely connection between fracking and quake frequency, and they require drillers to monitor seismic activity.

          As I mentioned earlier, it wouldn’t surprise me if fracking triggers small or even medium magnitude quakes, although contrary to your assertions, more than 4,000 quakes were recorded in the New Madrid zone between 1974 and 2011 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Madrid_Fault). It’s not entirely clear whether that area includes Ohio.

          The real question is, what benefit in terms of avoided seismic damage, would come from banning or restricting fracking? There’s no way that the energy input from pumping, even if all of it were somehow applied to straining the geological plates, could produce a meaningful amount of seismic energy. On the other hand, triggering a quake necessarily means it occurs earlier than it would have naturally. That means less damage than if the stored energy is allowed to build up and be released later.

          • https://www.blogger.com/profile/15681812432224138582 rjs0

            get a map; eastern Ohio is not in the New Madrid zone; nor is Oklahoma..
            http://showme.net/~fkeller/quake/maps.htm
            i mentioned that some think Anna Ohio, on the Indiana border, may tie into the New Madrid/Wabash Valley fault; that’s theory, it aint certain, no one knows…..
            eastern ohio is in the appalachains; the appalachians were formed 280 to 480 million years ago, and have been quietly eroding since (they were once higher than the Rockies)
            there may be some old dormant faults that slip every 10,000 years or so, but they’ve been quiet since Ohio gained statehood in 1803….there’s no point in aggrevating them right now just to relieve the pressure..

  • dynamo.joe

    Given this bit

    “…The injected wastewater in deep wells can counteract the frictional forces on faults, causing an earthquake.”

    It seems that what fracking may be doing is relieving stress that was already there. Which kind of raises the question; do you prefer many small non-damaging quakes or one really big quake that kills people and causes billions in damage?

    • https://www.blogger.com/profile/15681812432224138582 rjs0

      that doesnt fly, because if you relieve stress on one part of a fault you increase it on another…and it doesnt apply here anyhow, because oklahoma didnt have any real quakes before fracking started…

    • Peter Gray

      Dynamo is right on this one, and rjs10 has it backward. The damage from a quake is all about the energy stored over time. Short of an underground nuclear bomb test, humans cannot significantly add to the energy available, and even bomb-induced shakes have never caused measurable damage. So it really is a choice between many harmless small quakes now and a larger, possibly damaging one later. Anyone who doubts this should take some remedial physics and an intro geology course.

      Relieving stress on one part of a fault sometimes does make additional shifts nearby more likely, but it still reduces the total energy available, and cannot increase the damage.

      Oklahoma isn’t considered seismically active compared to the west coast, but it’s not true that it never has earthquakes (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Landkarte_New_Madrid_Erdbeben.jpg). The New Madrid series of quakes 200 years ago was among the strongest ever documented on the continent, and it certainly was felt in OK. The same event with today’s population would likely kill thousands.

      Seismic hazard is a silly and counterproductive case to make against fracking. The industry could justifiably claim some (maybe weak) credit for reducing hazards to the public. If they were injecting glue, it might be a different matter.

      Opponents would be well advised to stick to the real issues of wasted and contaminated water.

      • Sean

        “Short of an underground nuclear bomb test, humans cannot significantly add to the energy available, and even bomb-induced shakes have never caused measurable damage.”

        Sure, humans typically aren’t able to add energy to a fault, but they can reduce the friction on it…and thereby make the naturally present energy sufficient to overcome the (now reduced) current friction on the fault. This can speed up the recurrence time of earthquakes on a fault that was not previously in any hurry to unleash. This is the real issue at stake regarding wastewater injection and earthquakes. The water usage/quality issue you mention is of course also a huge problem.

        “So it really is a choice between many harmless small quakes now and a larger, possibly damaging one later. Anyone who doubts this should take some remedial physics and an intro geology course.”

        Say we establish the threshold of a damaging earthquake at M5.0. It would take > ~1000 M3.0 earthquakes *all on/near the same fault* to release a roughly equivalent amount of energy and prevent a damaging earthquake. While it’s clear some of the injection sites are swinging for the fences, this seems like a tough goal to reach. Applauding these efforts as indirectly humanitarian is, at best, naive. They are simply aimed at maximizing the productivity of wells.

        • Peter Gray

          >> This can speed up the recurrence time of earthquakes on a fault that was not previously in any hurry to unleash. <> This is the real issue at stake regarding wastewater injection and earthquakes. <> The water usage/quality issue you mention is of course also a huge problem. <> Say we establish the threshold of a damaging earthquake at M5.0. It would take > ~1000 M3.0 earthquakes *all on/near the same fault* to release a roughly equivalent amount of energy and prevent a damaging earthquake. <> Applauding these efforts as indirectly humanitarian is, at best, naive. <> They are simply aimed at maximizing the productivity of wells. <<

          Of course. I would never expect them to act in the interest of anything but their own profit, no matter how much they try to claim otherwise. But that's beside the point.

  • Michael Berndtson

    From the post above:

    “A state investigation proved inconclusive, but seismologists from Columbia University and the US Geological Survey later released a report providing conclusive evidence linking injection wells to the earthquake.”

    Here’s a potential problem. A state agency, funded by natural resources exploitation, is tasked to figure stuff out and doesn’t. Inconclusive means two things: not enough supporting data one way or another or they got the “wrong” answer. There’s probably more geological and operational data on oil and gas exploitation, with respect to seismic data, in Oklahoma then all geological data collected, ever. Maybe I am exaggerating just a bit. Geologists can always seem to connect dots, where the casual observer doesn’t even know there were any dots. I’m assuming many with the Oklahoma geological survey are geologists.

    Another problem. When a university department and subdivision of a federal department do environmental research, the results are pretty much non actionable. Essentially the work was done for shoots and giggles. To use an academic term. Meaning the research is interesting, but lends almost no credence to an actual investigation. A state agency, tasked as oversight, usually always takes precedence and its data becomes evidence. That’s why all the environmental work on fracking seems to get done by universities like Duke or enviro nonprofits like EDF. State environmental agencies have punted. So has the USEPA. The data falls under the interesting category. Great for the on going and never ending discussion being had.

  • http://www.orwp.net/ Oklahomans for Responsible Wat

    Informative article, thank you very much. Texas and Arkansas are having the same issues. I’d be interested to know the results of some spacial-statistical analysis using GIS and injection well, fault line, and earthquake epicenter locations at the regional scale.

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