The internet has been buzzing with news that several oil and gas producing US states are finally responding to the issue of fracking earthquakes — but don’t hold your breath for any significant regulatory shift. These particular states are organized under the banner of the appropriately named States First Initiative, which launched in 2013 to lobby against tighter federal regulation of oil and gas operations.
Don’t Hold Your Breath For Tough Action On Fracking Earthquakes
Before we take a closer look at the news from States First, let’s clarify that when we say “fracking earthquakes” we’re doing shorthand for earthquakes caused by the disposal of fracking wastewater underground. Earthquakes that have been directly linked to the fracking operation itself are a rarity (fracking is short for hydrofracturing, an oil and gas drilling method that involves shooting large quantities of chemical brine into shale formations).
The States First “response” consists of a newly released manual for regulators titled “Potential Injection-Induced Seismicity Associated with Oil & Gas Development: A Primer on Technical and Regulatory Considerations Informing Risk Management and Mitigation.” Basically that’s fancyspeak for what we just said — the immediate concern is oil and gas wastewater injected into disposal wells.
To be clear, States First does not offer any specific guidance aimed at improved regulation. In its Fact Sheet for the Induced Seismicity Primer, States First offers this description:
“The Induced Seismicity Primer will be an informational document, and is not intended to offer recommended rules or regulations.”
Okay, so that’s pretty clear. The fact sheet also makes it clear that States First is not entirely convinced by the definitive findings by seismologists (these guys, too) that the practice of injecting fluid underground has caused earthquakes. The impetus for creating the Primer is described with a large “appear” hedge in the middle:
“Recently, the frequency of seismic events that appear linked to underground injection of fluids has increased.”
It’s not just us. Our friends over at Reuters also picked up on the hedge. The news agency reported on the release of the Primer earlier this week with the headline, “More research needed on U.S. earthquakes possibly tied to oil and gas work: report.”
Take a look at the introduction to the full Primer and you’ll catch a reference to the States First aversion to federal regulation, which the group portrays as a “one size fits all” solution:
“Management and mitigation of the risks associated with induced seismicity are best considered at the state level, with specific considerations at local or regional levels. A one-size-fits-all approach is infeasible, due to significant variability in local geology and surface conditions, including such factors as population, building conditions, infrastructure, critical facilities, and seismic monitoring capabilities.”
On the other hand, keep reading and you’ll find a somewhat more accurate presentation of the state of the evidence for fracking earthquakes related to wastewater disposal, though still with a couple of hedges thrown in:
“The majority of disposal wells in the United States do not pose a hazard for induced seismicity, but under some geologic and reservoir conditions a limited number of injection wells have been determined to be responsible for induced earthquakes with felt levels of ground shaking.”
As a side note, the Fact Sheet begins with a statement that undercuts a point that the oil and gas industry has raised in the past to assure the public that fracking is safe, namely, that this method of drilling has been conducted for decades without much notice. CleanTechnica has regularly pointed out that was because for decades, fracking was conducted in thinly populated areas where its impacts were less conspicuous. States First agrees:
“…Recently, the frequency of seismic events that appear linked to underground inject ion of fluids has increased. Some of these events are occurring in more populated areas that have not previously experienced noticeable seismic activity. Consequently, these events have led to an increased level of public concern…”
The Scoop On Fracking Earthquakes
If you’re looking for a more measured rundown on the relationship between fracking, fracking wastewater disposal, and induced earthquakes, the US Geological Survey produced a six-point fact sheet last June that lays the main question to rest right off the bat in Fact 1:
“In the United States, fracking is not causing most of the induced earthquakes. Wastewater disposal is the primary cause of the recent increase in earthquakes in the central United States.”
USGS goes on to list the risk factors involved, including the siting of the disposal well (not a good idea to do it near a large fault), the injection rate and pressure, and the existence of pathways through which wastewater could travel to nearby faults. The agency also notes that disposal operations that don’t involve added pressure at the surface can still touch off earthquakes, if pressure builds within the formation hosting the injection well.
For those of us who have been focusing narrowly on natural gas fracking, the USGS fact sheet provides a good reminder that wastewater from fracking operations is only one kind of wastewater disposed in injection wells:
“Most wastewater currently disposed of across the nation is saltwater that is a byproduct of the oil and gas extraction process. Saltwater is found in nearly every oil and gas production well, regardless of whether the well has been hydraulically fractured.”
If States First really is serious about helping to the risk and occurrence of earthquakes related to wastewater disposal from any type of drilling operation, the organization might want to pay particular attention to USGS Fact 5:
“Earthquakes can be induced at distances of 10 miles or more away from the injection point and at significantly greater depths than the injection point.”
The USGS fact sheet is a quick read so do check out the whole thing. After the list of six facts comes a few pages of analysis, concluding that in order for hazard mitigation to be more effective, the industry needs to be more forthcoming with data, particularly regarding flow rates and injection pressure.
So… don’t hold your breath.
Image: via US Geological Survey.