Whaddayaknow, Fracking Really Does Cause Earthquakes (Maybe)

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According to a new report by The Associated Press, seismologists in Ohio have discovered the smoking gun that may link fracking directly to earthquakes. That finding would be significant if confirmed because, although a strong case has been made that a common method for disposing of fracking wastewater causes earthquakes, the Ohio case is the first known instance in which fracking itself has been directly fingered.

ohio fracking earthquake link possible.
Ohio fracking poster (cropped) by Jayson Shenk.

With fracking already cited as a factor in depressed property values in some areas, the AP report piles more bad news on the growing number of communities that are struggling with the impacts of fracking, the unconventional drilling operation that involves pumping millions of gallons of chemical brine underground to jar natural gas and oil loose from shale deposits.

Fracking And Earthquakes

The Ohio case involved a connected series of five small earthquakes near Youngstown last month. Though too small to be felt on the surface, they were large enough to concern state officials, who imposed a moratorium on new drilling in the area.

Let’s emphasize again for the record that the linkage between the Youngstown quakes and the drilling has not been confirmed, but here’s the money quote from a state official cited by AP:

‘While we can never be 100 percent sure that drilling activities are connected to a seismic event, caution dictates that we take these new steps to protect human health, safety and the environment,’ said James Zehringer, director of Ohio’s natural resources department.

Fracking And Earthquakes

On the other hand, let’s also note that the drilling boom combined with inadequate state oversight resources in Ohio and elsewhere (federal oversight is limited by a Bush-era exemption from the Clean Water Act) means that investigators are far behind events. While the first of its kind, the Ohio case could be the tip of the iceberg.

As for fracking wastewater disposal, injection wells have already been cited as the cause of significant seismic activity in the Youngstown area a couple of years ago among other cases, one recent example being a swarm of earthquakes in Oklahoma.

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27 thoughts on “Whaddayaknow, Fracking Really Does Cause Earthquakes (Maybe)

  • I gather that the Llorca quake a few years ago was attributed to human activity in that part of Spain and the Christchurch, New Zealand one similarly. There may be others.

    • NO! The Christchurch one was certainly not connected to human activity, I live there. Makes me very suspicious of your Spain claim also.

    • the Lorica quake was on a known fault in southern spain. The same fault has slipped several times in spanish history. Some geologist are speculating that aquifer depletion may have helped trigger it. Even if Aquifer depletion was not the cause it would have eventually have had a quake.

      from a brief search using google it appears that most of the oil and gas drilling is far to the north of Lorica near france.

  • The articles you referenced fingered waist injection wells as the cause. Not fracking wells. There is a big difference between the two.

    In fracking wells you pressurize the well to crack the rock and then you almost all of the water. Then you pump out the gas or oil which takes at a minimum a couple of years. The pressure in a fracking well goes up for a few hours and then goes down to where it was before.

    Waist injection wells a liquid waist (which may not be from fracking) is pumped into a old well and left there. Then another truckload of waist arrives and you pump that into the well. Overtime the pressure in the well can climb to very high levels. Geologist believe The earthquake is Prague Oklahoma was cause by a waist injection well that had been in use for 17years and records do show that the pressure in the well kept rising. The quake it cause was centered only about 650 away from the well. : http://www.earth.columbia.edu/articles/view/3072

    From the USGS report : http://www.usgs.gov/newsroom/article.asp?ID=3819#.U0lz4FWrpr0

    “Historically, earthquakes in the central United States have been uncommon. Yet in the year 2011 alone, numerous moderate-size earthquakes occurred in Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio and Arkansas. Many of these earthquakes occurred near waste-water injection wells, and some have been shown to be caused by human activities.

    The 2011 Oklahoma earthquake sequence included the November 6, 2011, M5.7 earthquake that ruptured a part of the Wilzetta fault system, a complex fault zone about 200 km (124 mi) in length near Prague, Oklahoma. Less than 24 hours prior to the M5.7 earthquake, a M5.0 foreshock occurred on November 5, 2011. That foreshock occurred near active waste-water disposal wells, and was linked in a previously published study to fluid injection in those wells. The earthquakes have not been directly linked to hydrofracturing.

    The research published this week suggests that the foreshock, by increasing stresses where M5.7 mainshock ruptured, may have triggered the mainshock, which in turn, triggered thousands of aftershocks along the Wilzetta fault system, including a M5.0 aftershock on November 8, 2011. If this hypothesis is correct, the M5.7 earthquake would be the largest and most powerful earthquake ever associated with wastewater injection. All three earthquakes of magnitude 5.0 and greater along the Wilzetta fault exhibited strike-slip motion at three independent locations along the fault, suggesting that three separate portions of the Wilzetta fault system were activated.”

    • Oil and gas exploitation is a process that includes many units of operation. From soup to nuts. Blowback water disposal is an essential unit. Maybe if this was 19th century exploitation, oil and gas could just let the formation water flow onto the ground. We live in the 21st century. There’s no more feasible disposal method at the moment than deep well injection. Therefore deepwell injection of blowback water IS fracking. The amount of water from drilling and production is huge. Like a lot. If deep well injection is causing more earthquakes statistically after horizontal slick water fracking began in earnest 10 years ago, than fracking IS causing earthquakes. If not, then its by chance.

      • Many of the toxic chemicals can be perminitly destroyed by burng it. Take the fluid mix ,saturate it with oxygen and heat it to high temperature. What your are left with, is harmless salt, water, anb CO2. Salt and water can safetly be disposed in the ocean.

        the only reason waist injection wells are used is because it is cheap and for the most part unregulated.

        • Steven,
          I believe you’re using “burning” to define evaporation/crystallization. Like many water treatment technologies it is doable until you look at the three components of feasibility: efficacy, implementability and cost. Deep well injection will continue to be used until something becomes cheaper, the price of oil/gas rises, and/or the government picks up the tab. Private sector isn’t going to pay if there is a legal and cheap option available. And if nobody tells them to do otherwise.

          Evaporation/crystallization is expensive. It usually has applicability for chemical plants producing a high value (high price) product. For water treatment it becomes feasible when the aqueous stream is contaminated with really nasty stuff. Dense radionuclides dissolved in water is one example. The remaining solid phase is much more manageable. Fracking blowback contains many radionuclides that may end up in the solid phase (salts et al). Again, it has to be managed properly.

          On the other hand, there are less dense radionuclides like radon. Radon may end up being vented when “burning” water. If a mobile water treatment system is set up in and around a populated area, the idea of “burning” water is not smart. Kind of dumb, really. Unless of course there is vapor treatment on the water works, which traps things like radon. And again, the waste from vapor treatment is managed properly. However, the cost may go up. Then we’re back to where we started from.

          Again, produced waste management and treatment IS fracking.

    • A lot of the confusion here may have been triggered by the word “cause” in the blog headline.
      This is more than a semantic distinction. Even if huge amounts of water are injected during all sorts of oil and gas extraction and disposal, there’s no physical way that those operations can increase the amount of seismic energy stored in a fault system. It’s entirely plausible that water injection could lubricate a fault and _trigger_ an earthquake. Not _cause_ it. The cause is the strain accumulation from plate movements.
      By definition, triggering means the event occurs earlier than it would have naturally, not later (unless we pervert the word “trigger,” and inject epoxy instead of water).
      What’s the result? A frack-triggered quake _must_ be weaker and less damaging than one that happens later on its own, when more seismic potential energy has built up.
      Fracking opponents, listen up and be careful what you wish for!
      This quake campaign is a distraction that will waste your resources and tend to discredit any valid arguments you might have about water contamination, etc.. Worse yet from your point of view, a thorough and honest investigation is likely to find either no significant effect of fracking on seismic risk, or a reduction.
      For a purely hypothetical example, if it could be shown that fracking converts an M7 New Madrid quake into a series of essentially harmless M5-5.5s, the avoided damage could be worth tens of $billions. That would mean we should encourage and subsidize lots of fracking in the area.

      • While your argument is otherwise correct (Kudo’s for that btw, very few people reason this through that well), it does overlook the fact that releasing forces in one part of a plate means that force is now being supported by another part of the plate (the net force exerted on any one plate is determined by the mantle below and the plates that push against it, but the sum for every plate is essentially 0 – Think statics class if you have a background in engineering).

        This means that when a force is removed from one area (aka a plate moves in an earthquake), the plate will continue to move unless an equal force is applied back to the plate. Some of it will be in the same location as before, but much of it will be in different parts of the plate. Statistically we would expect this redistribution to be around areas of otherwise low pressure. Unfortunately, this is most likely not the case as these areas have low pressure for a reason, they simply cannot support higher loads without allowing motion. This means that the loads are then being concentrated in other areas that can support these higher loads. These points could already have high loads causing large quakes, or could be fairly low loads meaning we are reducing the odds of large future quakes. Which is actually happening, we don’t have enough data to know.

        Sorry if this is jumbled… wrote it a bit quickly.

        • I wrote quickly, too, so no need to apologize. I appreciate your effort to contribute to sound logic, by identifying a possible flaw in what I wrote. Maybe we can simplify this to a few points that I suspect we can agree on:

          1) The ultimate source of _all_ significant energy in any seismic system is nuclear decay in the core and mantle, causing convection and the resulting movements of various plates. Some relatively constant fraction of that energy is released in a near-continuous way through earthquakes.
          2) In general, each earthquake can only reduce the potential energy in a defined seismic system, never add to it.
          3) A given quantity of energy released in the same area by more than one quake, will cause less damage than one quake that releases all the energy at once.
          4) Triggering a quake (by lubricating a fault, say) will release less energy than if strains continued for longer, building up more potential energy. Thus, _in_general_, seismic risks will be reduced when we trigger quakes compared to when we don’t. Maybe so little that we can’t distinguish this contribution from zero, but it’s not negative.
          5) We may be able to find particular exceptions to #3, over time and space, as you describe. To extend what I think you’re getting at, even though there cannot be a greater total release of energy, we might shift the reduced total stress and strain to a location where there would be more damage from a given magnitude, due to higher population density, construction on saturated fill, or something similar.
          6) If so, we should identify those situations, with confidence at least a little greater than 50%, before we ban the quake-triggering activity. Given the likely net benefits of quake triggering in general, this should be on a case-by-case basis.
          I worked closely with geologists, while helping construct the Plate Boundary Observatory (11 to 6 years ago). From that and other discussions and reading, I see little indication that we’re yet capable of 5) and 6). So those possible but unknown exceptions to the general rule don’t make a good argument for restricting fracking _based_on_seismic_risk_. There may be other good reasons for stopping it, but that’s another topic.

        • I do have a pretty good grasp of statics and engineering, and I read your second paragraph a little more carefully. The other kind of case I think you have in mind is that of a fault that produces strong quakes because it has a long extent or ground conditions that allow a large accumulation of strain.
          Then if we relieved strain harmlessly in a nearby small fault in a way that transfered some strain to the big one, we might make a strong quake occur earlier than it would have naturally (not stronger, just earlier). This could be argued as an increase in social cost, esp. if population is stable and construction standards are improving.
          I don’t know how common that kind of situation might be, or whether we can identify it in advance. My gut sense is that the opposite effect (relieving strain on the big fault; delaying the strong quake) is a little more likely.

          • “strong quake occur earlier than it would have naturally (not stronger, just earlier)”

            Very true – and an important point to emphasize. The level of energy needed to cause the next quake is defined by the rock layers, not the source of the energy. (Though by adding lubricant as some of the fracking fluids seem to do, we can set it off early at a lower magnitude).

            Everything else you said is spot on. I would also tend to agree that the relieving strain case is more likely in the vast majority of areas, but would tend to advise caution near regions known for larger magnitude quakes. (Simply based on unknown/unquantifiable risk to society)

  • There have been one quake in the UK and most recently one in BC caused by fracking wells.

    I attended a presentation at a local college given by Don Clarke, a geologist, who shared the findings of his team from the National Academy of Sciences. You can find the brief on Seismicity and Energy Technology from 2012 online as well as the full report. It does not include the most recent yet to be published info however.

    He shared yet unpublished info that 15% of wastewater injection wells create quakes and yes fracking wells can and has caused quakes. Also they determined that there have been quakes that are both triggered and induced.

    • Oil drilling has been causing minor tremors for 100 years.

    • The UK fracking quake was a 2.3. the only quakes I could find for BC were in the Horn river basin. The largest there was a 3.1. Earthquakes this size are seldom felt by people, never cause structural damage to buildings, and never kill anyone. Also once the fracking job is done the pressure is the well is removed and the quakes stop.

      So small fracking quakes are nothing to worry about. There is no evidence they create large damaging quakes.

      However a waist injection well the adds fluid to a fault year after year without over reducing the pressure can and has cause the fault to slip causing moderately large quakes.

      I see no reason to ban fracking. Waist injection wells however should be banned. pumping toxic chemicals underground with only the hope that they will never reach an aquifer or reach the surface is not a good idea.

      • California and Western Nevada experienced 624 earthquakes in the last week. Something as low as 3.1 isn’t even felt. (Perhaps if were very shallow and you were standing right over the epicenter.)


        Fracking quakes are likely not a problem. The exception could be if the well were in a highly stressed place, but that should be avoidable.

        Whether the fracking chemicals will stay down where they won’t create a problem is an unknown. We should be very cautious. Cleanup would likely be impossible.

        The real solution is to install renewables faster and reduce our use of NG.

      • Waste.

      • >> There is no evidence they create large damaging quakes. <> can and has cause the fault to slip causing moderately large quakes. <<

        "Cause[d]" is the wrong word. Think carefully about the medium- to long-run effects on seismic risk. As far as I know so far, "moderately large" translates to "harmless."

        The chemical and aquifer issue of waste injection might well be a serious concern, but shouldn't it be kept separate from the seismic topic?

    • Can you explain clearly what “induced” means in this context?

  • Minor Quakes are often caused by withdrawal of oil, gas and water as well. Siesmic events have many causes. They are probably irrelevant unless some noticable damage is the result.

  • Here’s a case where the headline is total FUD, the real story is a nothing-burger, and the comments have the real story.

  • Explain to me how injecting 3 swimming pools of water into
    the ground can cause earthquakes when a 5 megaton underground nuclear bomb
    didn’t cause an earthquake. The United
    States tested around 800 underground nuclear devices. I don’t remember any earthquakes caused by

  • another pant load from the AP. No proofs whatsoever, yet the headline proclaims the holy grail, the smoking gun, and the cure for man’s inhumanity to man in one fell swoop. Only idiots and liars believe idiots and liars.

    • Since the AP is reporting the findings of others your comment scores a fail.

      • “a new report by The Associated Press, seismologists in Ohio have discovered the smoking gun that may link fracking directly to earthquakes”
        The AP declared the definitive smoking gun, the link, then totally ignored the need to prove their point

        BTW fail is a verb, not a noun, so you nonsense is a FAILURE! Moron.

        • No allcaps.

          No name-calling.

          The AP reports the statements from “seismologists in Ohio”. If there is a failure, it would be that the seismologists are wrong.

          Your comment is still a fail.

  • perhaps if their scare tactics had a shred of truth in them, we should immediately outlaw the practice of drawing many billions of gallons of groundwater from the Earth DAILY, and redirecting it to the surface as filthy waste water to our lakes, rivers , and oceans.

    Imagine the hypothetical pressure imbalances that will cause!!! Why its a wonder we all don’t disappear into gaping sinkholes!

Comments are closed.