Fossil Fuels

Published on May 3rd, 2014 | by Tina Casey


Earthquake Experts: Yes, Fracking Earthquakes Are A Thing

May 3rd, 2014 by  

When the Seismological Society of America says that fracking earthquakes are a real thing, then it’s a good bet that they are. The annual SSA meeting last Thursday featured a daylong session on “Induced Seismicity” that featured new research indicating that oil and gas fracking, and the practice of disposing wastewater underground, can alter the state of an existing fault. The result is to spread the range of seismic hazard farther out from the faultline than previously thought.

While we’re waiting for Fox News to find a seismic denialist to let the public know that this is all just a bunch of hooey, let’s take a closer look at that research.

fracking earthquakes

Earthquake damage (cropped) by Martin Luft.

Fracking Earthquakes: Who’s Minding The Store?

It’s worth noting, first off, that given the thousands of fracking and disposal wells already in operation, and the thousands more that are drilled every year, the number of wells directly linked to seismic activity so far is miniscule.

Part of the reason for that involves a shortfall in research and monitoring resources, absence of a regulatory structure for self-monitoring, and the fact that induced seismic activity is a relatively new field of research.

More to the point, given the potential for significant damage and the fact that manmade earthquakes are virtually 100 percent avoidable, fracking earthquakes are a risk that needs to be defined and managed.

However, currently there is no platform for the US Geological Survey to include fracking earthquakes (or any other induced earthquake, for that matter), into its estimates of seismic hazards.

Seismologists have to come up with a new way to account for changes in seismic activity that covers all earthquakes regardless of whether they are manmade or not. That work is currently under way at USGS.

Let’s also note up front that while fracking (an oil and gas drilling method that requires pumping massive amounts of chemical brine underground) itself has not been directly linked to many seismic episodes so far, evidence is mounting that the disposal of fracking wastewater into wellbores is causing a significant number of manmade earthquakes.

The Latest Fracking Earthquake Research

Now for the meat of the matter. SSA cites significant increases in seismic activity linked to increased fracking and wastewater operations in Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Ohio among other states.

To give you an idea of how significant, the average rate of earthquakes above 3.0 was 21 from 1967 to 2000 according to the US Geological Survey, but it was about 100 per year between 2010 and 2012.

Those numbers are already jumping up. As of last month, in Oklahoma alone more than 100 3.0-and-up earthquakes have been recorded.

The Induced Seismicity session at the SSA meeting featured case studies in the aforementioned US states as well as locations in Spain and Italy (abstracts are available here).

One new study under discussion at the SSA meeting was conducted by Canada’s Western University in Ontario. It details how fracking wastewater disposal and other new sources of seismicity can create new hazards that are not accounted for in existing building codes and infrastructure planning:

…the hazard from induced seismicity can overwhelm the hazard from pre-existing natural seismicity, increasing the risk to structures that were originally designed for regions of low to moderate seismic activity.

When we say infrastructure planning, that includes dams, nuclear power plants, underground pipelines, and other features of the built environment that become damage multipliers when affected by earthquakes.

A key issue that seismologists are identifying is that the seismic hazard caused by fracking or related activities can have an impact much farther away from the fault line than previously thought.

That’s the finding of a joint study by Cornell University and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, which covered the 2008 earthquake swarm near Oklahoma city. Researchers found that for some wells, seismic activity migrated up to 50 kilometers away.

Perhaps in an attempt to avoid the political spotlight, seismologists with the US Geological Survey are extremely hesitant to link increased seismic activity to a specific well. However, the agency does point out that the recent increase in seismic activity is not in dispute, and that poses an additional risk regardless of the source. As USGS geophysicist Justin Rubinstein puts it:

In some sense, from a hazard perspective, it doesn’t matter whether the earthquakes are natural or induced. An increase in earthquake rate implies that the probability of a larger earthquake has also risen.

Earthquakes In Your Backyard

Although some of the linkage identified so far involves quakes too small to be felt on the surface, a growing number of US communities are not waiting around to feel the earth move under their feet.


Seismic hazard featured in a recent decision, for example, by the City of Los Angeles to prohibit fracking and related activity within city limits (there are actually quite a few wells in LA, who knew?).

Other fracking issues, including the toxicity of the wastewater and significant health impacts related to air quality, are also coming into play for hundreds of other local bans on fracking.

Although local communities do not normally have the authority to regulate oil and gas activities specifically, they can deploy their zoning authority to prevent new industrial activity, including fracking. Communities in New York State have been taking the lead to ban fracking through local zoning, and Pennsylvania communities have just had their zoning rights reaffirmed by the state’s Supreme Court after challenging a new state law that would have overridden them.

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About the Author

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+.

  • herbys

    Here’s the part I don’t understand. The amount of energy in the earth’s crust and mantle is not changed by fracking. Fracking does not cause continental drift, plaque displacement or magma flows. It just helps release the accumulated tension in the form of an earthquake.
    So wouldn’t it be expected that fracking increases the number of small earthquakes but at the same time preventing the occurrence of fewer, larger ones?
    In the Saint Andreas fault they’ve been injecting water for decades precisely for this purpose, by helping the fault to release stress sooner (in the form of mild seismic activity) they expect to avoid it to reaching the point where the accumulated energy triggers a major earthquake.
    I am not saying this is what is happening, I have no evidence of that and I tend not to claim things without evidence, but given my somewhat limited knowledge of plaque tectonics I can’t understand a process by which fracking would introduce enough energy into the earth’s crust to actually create an earthquake (the energy in even a mild earthquake is more than all of human activity combined) so these quakes MUST be the result of tension already there.
    Is this a valid theory? Is fracking actually causing damage or is it just making minor damage more frequent but avoiding devastating damage?

  • Rick Goddard

    I would get worried if the quakes reached serious levels (5.0 or greater). Until then, my belief is that a lot of little quakes are better than one big quake.

    • Bob_Wallace

      *Here’s what the USGS has to say on their Fact or Fiction page…*

      *You can prevent large earthquakes by making lots of small ones, or by “lubricating” the fault with water*
      *FICTION:* Seismologists have observed that for every magnitude 6 earthquake there are about 10 of magnitude 5, 100 of magnitude 4, 1,000 of magnitude 3, and so forth as the events get smaller and smaller. This sounds like a lot of small earthquakes, but there are never enough small ones to eliminate the occasional large event. It would take 32 magnitude 5’s, 1000 magnitude 4’s, OR 32,000 magnitude 3’s to equal the energy of one magnitude 6 event. So, even though we always record many more small events than large ones, there are far too few to eliminate the need for the occasional large earthquake. As for “lubricating” faults with water or some other substance, if anything, this would have the opposite effect. Injecting high- pressure fluids deep into the ground is known to be able to trigger earthquakes—to cause them to occur sooner than would have been the case without the injection. This would be a dangerous pursuit in any populated area, as one might trigger a damaging earthquake.

      • Peter Gray

        That gives some good perspective on magnitude and stored energy. It seems quite likely that even hundreds of M3s won’t make much difference – or cause any damage. However, what’s the logic in the following?

        >> As for “lubricating” faults with water or some other substance, if
        anything, this would have the opposite effect. Injecting high- pressure fluids deep into the ground is known to be able to trigger
        earthquakes—to cause them to occur sooner than would have been the case without the injection. This would be a dangerous pursuit in any populated area, as one might trigger a damaging earthquake. <<

        What opposite effect? Gluing the fault together? I think we can all agree that no matter how much humans pump into or out of the ground, they can't materially affect the amount of seismic energy stored in strained rock. As far as I know, the only way we can affect anything is by separating or lubricating the strained elements, triggering a quake earlier than it would have occurred naturally. Since strain accumulates over time, that would mean a human-triggered quake must be at least a little weaker than one that happened later naturally.

        Yes, it might be "dangerous" to trigger a quake in a populated area, but only if we ignore the more powerful one that would have happened anyway. Either quite a bit later and much more powerful, or a little later and slightly more powerful.

        There are plenty of legitimate reasons for opposing more fossil fuel extraction. I don't believe seismic concerns are among them. Activists (I worked with) tried the same thing with nuclear weapons tests in the '70s and '80s, and the science simply didn't fly. It was a wasteful distraction.

        After all, if we're going to claim that pumping into the ground triggers quakes (and I don't doubt that it does), why couldn't we say that pumping oil out of the ground does the opposite? That might actually be slightly harmful in the long run, but the bottom line is that if we sensationalize the numerous but tiny quakes associated with fracking or injection, we look silly. These little tremors can't do any significant damage, and people will
        figure that out soon enough.

        • Bob_Wallace

          How about we take a look at the 592 earthquakes that happened in the last 7 days in California and western Nevada? 592 earthquakes in one week.

          Bunch of 3s. We don’t even feel those puppies.

          If fracking, drilling for oil, or geothermal plants were causing 4.0 and higher stuff then we should be concerned. But that doesn’t seem to be happening. (There were some stronger tremors in OK?)

          • Peter Gray

            Yes, exactly. Some years back in the part of CA where I grew up, activity in the Long Valley Caldera caused more than 1,000 quakes of > M5 in one year. A bit annoying to have to secure cupboard doors every time you open and close them, but no serious damage. M3s have been described as something like when a truck drives by on a nearby road. But for a connection with fracking/injecting, not worth mentioning, even in unprepared parts of the world.

            I take minor issue with saying “If _____ were causing 4.0 and higher stuff then we should be concerned.” The word should be “triggering,” which has an entirely different meaning in terms of risk, as we’ve argued about so many times on this site. I still say that triggering a release of naturally created strain is _most_likely_, if not certain, to reduce total damage, if it has even a small measurable effect.

          • morgainele


            It opens with:
            “Fracking-triggered earthquakes could become stronger over time as more wastewater is injected deep underground, new research suggests. It follows the release of several studies linking hydraulic fracturing directly to increased seismic activity.”

          • Bob_Wallace

            If we see tremor strength increasing then we’ll need to add that to our decision process.

          • morgainele

            I think the point is it’s not “if.”. The scientists reported seeing tremor strength increase- the trend is already there. In that piece-yes, they say there needs to be more data collection – but they are referring to understanding the mechanisms well enough to be able to get a handle on what can (and cannot) be controlled for. But bigger quakes are expected as we ramp up in more oil and gas development

            In addition they mention ” several studies linking hydraulic fracturing directly to increased seismic activity.”

            Given what we do know, that triggering from a distance is one of the mechanisms ( ie USGS concluded as cause of the 5.6 in OK)- given that there are faults we miss, given the upward trend in numbers of quakes over 3.0 in the midwest that correlates to the uptick in development of oil and gas wells and the associated increase in waste water disposal, given the emerging evidence re a direct link between fracking itself -(cyclic steam too)and more seismic activity-in places not known for seismic activity otherwise… it seems prudent not to ramp up with tens of thousand of more wells in earthquake land, at least till more is known. (esp since its only one of the associated risks) The scientists here are predicting that we will have more activity that could very well hasten the advent of a larger quake. And given we already face around an 85% chance of a devastating quake in CA in next 50 yrs, it seems foolhardy not to abide by precautionary principal in this case, otherwise we are playing russian roullette

      • herbys

        Thank you for your answer, but doesn’t disprove the point, it actually seems to confirm it. You are assuming that small earthquakes are only beneficial if they eliminate the probability of a large one, but it could be perfectly possible that they just reduce the probability. And if there’s one Magnitude 6 earthquake in Oklahoma every century, the 10,000 Magnitude 3 that are being attributed to fracking are not something to dismiss compared to the 32,000 that would be needed to offset the energy of a magnitude 6. So this seems to be proving the point you are trying to refute. Causing them sooner than without the injection is the whole point, since the energy on a quake cannot possibly come from the injection itself (it is ten orders of magnitude too little). On a densely populated area a hundred mag 3 earthquakes per year is a minor annoyance. A single Mag 6 earthquake is exactly the thing you would want to avoid. And since the tectonic plate energy will accumulate whether you inject water or not, the idea seems to be attractive.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Not my answer. I just copied it over from the USGS ;o)

    • morgainele

      They have reached 5.6 ion Oklahoma and USGS tied it to fossil fuel waste water injection. Bob W banswered 2nd statement

  • Oil and Gas Expert Bob

    Where is the data you morons. This is like ‘climate change’. Saying it is, doesn’t make it so. The most significant scientific discussion by the scientific community during the time that Leonardo da Vinci lived was debating how many fairies could stand on the head of pin. (I’m not kidding.) What’s the connection between fairies and this article? It’s the same type of illogical waste of time. I grew up on the oil patch while my father discovered oil and gas in the 1950’s. People have no idea about geology and the amount of under ground brine oceans that currently exist in our earth’s upper crust. The amount of ‘massive’ brine water that is injected in a frack treatment is nothing compared to the trillions upon trillions of gallons of bine oceans that exist in rock layers that makes up our earths crust. Get me some facts linking earth quakes to fracking and then we can have a debate. In the mean time, can’t we think about solving real problems…..

    • Bob_Wallace

      Cut out the name calling. You’ve had your one warning.

      • morgainele

        Thank you Bob.

      • Do as we say, not as we do

        Pretty funny since the article itself essentially has name calling in the 2nd paragraph.

    • herbys

      Really? The data for climate change is accumulating to an extent that it is impossible to deny it with a straight face. 99% of reputable (published or laureate) scientists agree the data confirms climate change.
      Fracking results are open to debate and there’s still not enough data (and much less analysis) to settle it. Not so with climate change.
      And your ignorance is appalling. The “da Vinci” discussion is actually made up, that wasn’t ever a scientific debate.
      You are absolutely ignorant of science (and history, apparently), you likely fumbled it in every class in school, but you still act as if yo knew better than anyone else. I won’t call you a moron like you did to everyone that believes in science (not just when it helps them make a phone call), but it would not be unjustified based on your statements if someone does.
      They say that one thing about being dead is that when you are dead you don’t know you are dead. Apparently it is the same when you are dumb. Consider that.

  • mjhanna

    I wonder…. big damaging earthquakes happen when the faults lock up and the movements along the faults stop. This allows huge stresses to build up over time along the fault, until the stress level is big enough to break through the locked up portion of the fault. That is when the huge build up stress energy is released in one big moment causing a devastating earthquake. What if… lubricating existing faults with injected waters has the effect of encouraging the stresses along faults to be released more frequently, through smaller movements, more forward in time, and in smaller amounts. If that is the case then these small seismic events may be actually protecting us from larger and more devastating seismic events in the future.

    • exdent11

      Bravo! I have been trying to make the same point but anti drilling people don’t want to hear it.

      • morgainele

        USGS said that theory is not true. Rather its the opposite, the more frequent smaller quakes, further destabalize the underground archetecture, making a large event more likely, sooner

        • Peter Gray

          Please show us where the USGS said that. First off, I can’t imagine geologists using the phrase “further destabalize the underground archetecture,” even with proper spelling.

          • morgainele

            No problem.I paraphrased, but the expression” fault architecture” and destabilizing underground chambers” used to in research regarding the effects of blasting i are not mine

            ” what is the impact of the fault architecture on the induced seismicity and on CO2 leakage”

            routine references by USGS re “waste fluids can destabilize and lubricate natural faults beyond their tipping point” and “destabilize underground rock” is also used.

            From Earthquakes fact and fantasy,

            Claim: “You can prevent large earthquakes by making lots of small ones, or by “lubricating” the fault with water

            FICTION: …. It would take 32 magnitude 5’s, 1000 magnitude 4’s, OR 32,000 magnitude 3’s to equal the energy of one magnitude 6 event. So, even though we always record many more small events than large ones, there are far too few to eliminate the need for the occasional large earthquake. as for “lubricating” faults with water or some other substance, if anything, this would have the opposite effect. Injecting high- pressure fluids deep into the ground is known to be able to trigger earthquakes—to cause them to occur SOONER than would have been the case without the injection. This would be a dangerous pursuit in any populated area, as one might trigger a damaging earthquake

            “likelihood of future, damaging earthquakes has increased as a result of the increased number of small and moderate shocks.”


            “183 earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or greater occurred in Okla. from October 2013 through April 14, 2014. This compares with a long-term average from 1978 to 2008 of only two magnitude 3.0 or larger earthquakes per year. As a result of the increased number of small and moderate shocks, the likelihood of future, damaging earthquakes has increased for central and north-central Oklahoma.”

          • herbys

            What you are quoting is exactly what the OP implied, and instead of refuting the argument seems to confirm it. USGS is not saying that fracking ADDS energy (which is what would be required for net new quakes to be formed) but that it RELEASES it ahead of time. Of course, if the exchange is a hundred small quakes every year instead of a single large one every million years, many will prefer the later scenario so no fracking. But if it is, say, many small quakes per year preventing a single devastating one per century, I would rather nail things to the wall properly and live without fear of annihilation.

  • exdent11

    Your photo and title are very misleading. Although injection wells have caused earthquakes , in some cases large enough to cause minor damage , fracking has not. You are intentionally linking them together even though injection wells are not a necessary consequence of fracking . Your technique of throwing every possible problem of fracking against the wall to see what sticks is beneath you.

    • I thought the term “fracking earthquakes” means earthquakes triggered from injecting fracking waste fluids into wells…..

      • exdent11

        The point is that fracking a well does not require disposal of the frack water only this way [injection well ]. The water can be cleaned on site or at a water cleaning facility . In fact , fracking doesn’t require water at all with some new technologies.

        • sounds like that would be a more expensive way of dealing with it….

  • close call

    Do you think the oil, and gas industry gives a flip about your problems?
    They payed for the lease, and pay royalties. People need to do research
    before anything is done on their land. Earthquakes, and well water going
    bad! When you pulverize shale with fracking, it’s going to happen. You
    do one of three things, make it happen, watch it happen, or wake-up an say
    what happened. The gas frackers made it happen. The other two are on
    the people. Dan Hue, your spot on……………Not even a close call.

  • barry ray

    It reminds me of a joke about masturbation causing blindness, so we just did it till we needed glasses. Maybe we can frack until the quakes hit 3.0. Do the quakes shake any extra oil or gas loose?

  • Dan Hue

    Is this another example of privatizing profits and socializing costs? Who is picking up the tab for damage to longstanding infrastructure, higher cost for new one, or increases in insurance premiums? In the case of fracking, communities have to decide whether positive externalities outweigh the negative ones. I know I personally would hate living in a fracking zone, while I would not mind (and even like) having a wind farm nearby.

    • Peter Gray

      I totally agree with the idea of having every activity pay for any significant external costs they produce. But in this case, even if we blame every possible related quake on fracking, and don’t give any credit for reducing the intensity of quakes that would happen anyway, where’s the damage? One cracked driveway, Another house, maybe, slipped partly off its foundation because it stupidly wasn’t strapped down? Add up the actual damage, and there might be something to talk about. But if the damage adds up to zero…

      I’m glad you brought up the wind farm comparison. I live between two of them. I enjoy seeing the turbines, they don’t have the slightest negative effect on my life, and I feel some pride about them. I wouldn’t be so happy about oil or gas wells, and part of that is because of what I’ve heard about groundwater contamination. But after seeing the exaggerated reaction to a bunch of harmless tremors, I can’t help but wonder whether the water and emissions issues are also on the hysterical side.

      Most of us are quick to recognize the nuttiness of anti-wind energy people claiming all sorts of health problems from turbine noise, infrasound, etc.. Let’s not stoop to the same level.

      • herbys

        Also, if you go that route you open the avenue for the fracking industry to claim that if you make them pay for the indirect cost of their activity they have the right to receive compensation for the indirect benefit to the environment (since it displaces coal, it is not minor, different would it be the story if it was displacing renewables). So it is a dangerous path. IMO this is how EVERYTHING should be, but with an imperfect legal system we would never see oil companies paying for the wars that fund them and we would see the bills for the lives they save by allowing ambulances to operate. It would just not work in the real world.

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