Fossil Fuels Oklahoma earthquakes USGS fracking

Published on January 4th, 2016 | by Tina Casey


California Natural Gas Leak Piles On To Gas Industry Troubles

January 4th, 2016 by  

The ongoing California natural gas leak finally made big headlines this week, crowding out the latest news from Oklahoma, which has been dealing with its own natural gas issues in the form of unprecedented swarms of earthquakes. Just last Tuesday a big one hit the town of Edmund, measuring 4.3 on the Richter scale. Magnitude 4.3 isn’t exactly catastrophic but according to a federal seismologist  it reactivated a new fault, and the likely result will be a whole new series of earthquakes in populated areas.

So, how clean, really, is natural gas?

Oklahoma earthquakes USGS fracking

Natural Gas, From Clean To Cleaner

Natural gas has long been described a “clean” fuel, but that may be changing. Take a look at the language that the world’s leading natural gas producer — ExxonMobil — currently uses to describe natural gas. ExxonMobil has been doubling down on its natural gas assets, but perhaps because of the pileup of natural gas fracking episodes linked to water contamination and air pollution as well as earthquakes primarily related to fracking wastewater disposal, the company’s website does not describe natural gas broadly as “clean.”

Instead, there’s language like this:

As the world’s largest public natural gas producer, ExxonMobil brings supplies of this cleaner-burning energy source to global markets in a safe, reliable, and responsible manner.

Here it is again:

ExxonMobil’s application of advanced technology in the Piceance Basin is securing a source of clean-burning energy for the United States’ future, but in a way that is mindful of the history, land and culture of western Colorado.

The California Natural Gas Leak

The “-burning” hedge is the key. While natural gas is known to emit less carbon than other combustible fuels when burned, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the problems that can occur between the wellhead and the burn point, and the California natural gas leak provides a particularly dramatic example.

For those of you new to the issue, the California situation involves a leaking natural gas storage facility, first detected last October, by the well-to-do gated community of Porter Ranch. Thousands have been evacuated from their homes, schools are closed, and the facility’s owner predicts that it will take another two months to shut it down.

The powerful greenhouse gas methane is the main component of natural gas, so on top of the human impact there is also a significant climate impact involved, so there’s that.

The Oklahoma Earthquake Swarms

The California natural gas leak didn’t catch much national attention until the past couple of weeks, when the Environmental Defense Fund released the first aerial view of the leak as a gigantic black plume on infrared camera, and further aided by the media-friendly story of well-to-do Californians forced out of their exclusive communities.

Meanwhile, over in Oklahoma another drama has been unspooling. The state’s newly won status as the leading hotspot for earthquakes in the entire world has been linked to the injection of gas and oil fracking wastewater into disposal wells, and while there have been some attempts to rein in the practice, apparently more action is needed (earthquakes directly caused by fracking are rare, but that linkage has also been made).

Tuesday’s 4.3 earthquake in Edmunds was just one in a group of four to hit that day, but this episode is already old news. Just as predicted by the seismologists, another quake hit the area barely three days later on Friday (that’s today, as of this writing), briefly knocking out power to about 4,400 customers in an area north of Oklahoma City.

The LNG Export Angle

Damage was light, but considering the natural disasters piling on to the US midwest in recent years — including out-of-season tornadoes and floods — avoiding human-caused earthquakes will most likely become a more critical priority for state policymakers in the future.

If Oklahoma closes its doors to fracking wastewater disposal, that could bump right up against the US gas industry’s push for enabling more liquid natural gas (LNG) exports from the US.

Now that the crude oil export ban has lifted, the gas export lobbying effort is intensifying, but all bets are off if producers can’t find cheap ways to dispose of their fracking wastewater.

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Image: via US Geological Survey.

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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+.

  • Dragon has the best details I’ve seen about what’s going on at Porter Ranch. In a nutshell, it’s a former oil well now used to store natural gas for use by socalgas customers in the area. It had been filled with gas to its max pressure before the winter. The well has a metal pipe down most of its length rather than the more robust concrete walls that are supposed to be used on modern wells. The metal pipe developed a hole 432 feet down and even when closed at the top, gas has pushed its way out through cracks in the rock around the pipe.

    There was a safety valve 8,451 feet underground that was removed in 1979 because it was leaking. Apparently regulations are so weak that the well was not considered a “critical” well and thus no safety valve was required so they didn’t bother to pay to replace it.

    Ironically, socalgas was trying to get permission from regulators to add a 5.5% surcharge to customer bills to pay for a multimillion dollar inspection and retrofit of all their gas storage to prevent disasters like the broken pipe at porter ranch.

    Socalgas has tried repeatedly to plug the well but the pressure is so high that everything shoots back out again. Remind anyone of Deepwater Horizon? Like with Deepwater, socal gas had no relief well in place and is now drilling one but does not expect to be done for at least two months. Experts suggest it shouldn’t take them that long. I also suspect they could find a faster solution if they were willing to pay more, but since they technically didn’t do anything wrong based on the weak regulations and they have insurance to cover civil suits, they’re taking their time and “being careful”.

    Now we just need the whole area to go up in a firestorm because they took too long to see just how dangerous the situation really is. At minimum, this gas gusher continues to increase our state’s methane emissions by 21 percent and have unknown health consequences for all living things in its path.

  • CriticalThinker

    Why has it taken four months to declare a State of Emergency? Gov. Jerry Brown’s sister in law is on the parent company of SoCal’ board of directors making 200k a year. They are a greedy organization with their fingers in State Government. That is why they have a monopoly. No surprise that there was no functioning safety valve.

    I live about 5 miles from the leak. The various infra red video I have seen shows that the methane is rolling down the hills into the San Fernando valley a natural basin. My children have been complaining of headaches and vomiting for the last month. I suspect the health effects of this gas leak are not just confined to Porter Ranch but are and will affect the long term health of everyone living in the valley all the way up to Pasadena perhaps 25 miles away.

    The State government and Socalgas are pretending that this is only affecting an area a few miles around the leak. There is no natural barrier that confines the damage being caused only to the city of Porter Ranch. It may be settling in layers like smog across the valley. Someone needs to independently measure the parts per million all around the valley to understand what is happening and not just believe SocalGas or its cosy friend the Californian State Government…

  • NRG4All

    I hope Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe (aka Senator Snowball) is proud of himself.

  • Adrian

    They’re about one lightning strike away from having a real mess.

    • Calamity_Jean

      Yeah, one bolt of lightning near that leak in California and the whole neighborhood is toast.

  • Martin

    So much for “cleaner FF” and the practice of fracking is a whole other story.
    I wonder what people say in 30 to 50 years will think of our current generation and outlook for the future?

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