Way back in April we reported that seismologists were hot on the trail of a “smoking gun” that would link fracking to earthquakes on Ohio. At the time the experts were a bit cautious, but earlier this week the Seismological Society of America came out with a definitive statement: yes, fracking earthquakes are a thing.
That’s a huge deal because until now, the only confirmed linkage between fracking and earthquakes has been due to the common practice of forcing spent fracking brine (wastewater from the drilling operation) into abandoned wells. We’re already seeing a lot of pushback from local communities against drilling and now that fracking earthquakes are a known known, you’re going to see a lot more of that stuff.
Natural gas fracking is already fingered as the cause of depressed property values due to risks for water contamination, air pollution, and other disruptions related to introducing new industrial operations into formerly bucolic settings, and now the Environmental Protection Agency is coming down with new rules to keep closer tabs on fugitive methane emissions from fracking, so the earthquake thing is really piling on an industry that’s already feeling the pinch of downwardly spiraling prices.
Another reason why the new fracking earthquake study is such a big deal is that according to the Seismological Society, the drilling operation activated a previously undocumented fault.
In other words, in addition to the known risks posed by documented faults and other geological features, you’re opening up a whole new can of worms for local communities to deal with.
For those of you new to the topic, here’s a rundown on natural gas and oil fracking from the Seismological Society:
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a method for extracting gas and oil from shale rock by injecting a high-pressure water mixture directed at the rock to release the oil and gas trapped inside. The process of fracturing the rocks normally results in micro-earthquakes much smaller than humans can feel. It remains rare for hydraulic fracturing to cause larger earthquakes that are felt by humans.
However, due to seismic monitoring advances and the increasing popularity of hydraulic fracturing to recover hydrocarbons, the number of earthquakes – felt and unfelt – associated with hydraulic fracturing has increased in the past decade.
Ohio Earthquakes And Fracking
The new fracking earthquake study is available in full from the Seismological Society of America (just ask for “Earthquakes Induced by Hydraulic fracturing in Poland Township, Ohio”), but for those of you on the go here’s the lowdown from their press materials.
The study covers a series of earthquakes that occurred in Poland Township, Ohio back in March of this year.
According to the study, fracking operations induced a “seismic sequence” of five recorded earthquakes ranging from magnitude 2.1 and up, topping out with a rare 3.0 magnitude quake, meaning that it was strong enough to be felt on the surface.
The quakes occurred about half a mile from an active drilling operation being carried out by the firm Hilcorp Energy. Btw if that name rings a bell, check back to August when the company aggressively sought to force property owners in Pennsylvania into a “forced pooling” fracking deal.
Where were we? Oh, right. Since the earthquakes occurred so close to the drilling operation, state officials stepped in and ordered a halt to the operation.
A team of seismologists from Miami University in Ohio undertook the job of tracing the trail back to the drilling operation, using a method called template matching.
Specifically, the team looked for “seismic fingerprints” that would could link recorded earthquakes in Poland Township to reported well stimulation (that’s fancyspeak for drilling activity), whether or not they could be felt on the surface.
So, although local residents reported feeling only one earthquake (the 3.0 on March 10), the team was able to nail a total of 77 earthquakes during the week around that date, from March 4 to March 12.
In addition, the data collected from recording stations outlined the location of the previously unknown fault, less than one kilometer from the well in question.
Further indicting that particular well, additional data showed that other, nearby wells were not creating seismicity. That’s probably the good news as far as the community is concerned, since it indicates that the fault is rather small and self-contained.
Here’s study co-author Robert Skoumal’s explanation:
Because earthquakes were identified at only the northeastern extent of the operation, it appears that a relatively small portion of the operation is responsible for the event. We just don’t know where all the faults are located. It makes sense to have close cooperation among government, industry and the scientific community as hydraulic fracturing operations expand in areas where there’s the potential for unknown pre-existing faults.
Cooperation? Dream on, Klingon. The drilling industry has been fighting tooth and nail to get to that gas, regardless of local sentiments.
Communities that ban fracking are facing lawsuits, so let’s wait and see what the industry has to say about the new report before we look forward to a new era of cooperation.