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Please Drill Responsibly

While we here at Via Meadia have generally been bullish on the prospects of hydro-fracking, it is important to note that the technology is still in its infancy and comes with real problems in need of solutions. As the Associated Press notes:

Officials said Saturday they believe the latest earthquake activity in northeast Ohio is related to the injection of wastewater into the ground near a fault line, creating enough pressure to cause seismic activity…

A 4.0 magnitude quake Saturday afternoon in McDonald, outside of Youngstown, was the 11th in a series of minor earthquakes in area, many of which have struck near the Youngstown injection well.

Via Meadia has never argued that new technologies are unmitigated goods, and fracking is no exception. Our contention is rather that the technology, properly researched and developed, will make an excellent complement to any sound energy policy. The proper response, then, to the real problems connected with nascent fracking is not to shelve the technique and its incredible potential–as some greens hysterically suggest–but rather to get to work addressing those concerns.

Beneficial science rarely arrives on the scene fully formed–it takes persistent effort and diligence for it to be made safe and effective. When it comes to fracking, Via Meadia continues to advocate optimism coupled with rational caution.

Drill carefully, baby, but drill.

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  • John Alsina

    While general tenor of this post is correct, it’s not true that fracking is “in its infancy.” In use since the late 1940s, fracking produces almost a third of US oil and gas. It is also commonly used in water wells. Thus, fracking is indisputably an old technology. The novel element is deep horizontal drilling for gas, i.e., a new application of an old technology. Caution is warranted, of course, but it is misleading to suggest, albeit unintentionally, that those who use fracking today are sorcerer’s apprentices unwisely tinkering with forces boyond their comprehension.

  • Richard Quigley

    “But Ohio Department of Natural Resources Director Jim Zehringer said during a news teleconference that fracking is not causing the quakes. “The seismic events are not a direct result of fracking,” he said.

  • Andrew Allison

    A rare slip on the part of Via Media:

    “But Ohio Department of Natural Resources Director Jim Zehringer said during a news teleconference that fracking is not causing the quakes.”

    One would think that a blog as (rightly) skeptical about AGW would think twice. Fracking-induced earthquakes are the latest figment of the enviro imagination.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @andrew Allison 7 Richard Quigley: the statement seems very narrowly crafted, drawing a distinction between the process itself and what happens to waste water used in the process afterward. Serious problems aren’t solved by mincing words.

  • John Baines

    If fracking were inducing early earthquakes, this would probably be a good thing–it’s much better to have more small earthquakes sooner, than to have the stress build up and have a large, devastating earthquake.

  • Mrs. Davis

    Over 60,000 wells have been fracked. Some more than once. An earthquake occurred near one. Post hoc ergo propter reasoning tells us the precautionary principle must be invoked.

    People have been drilling carefully. They know the enviro-luddit3es would like nothing more than to kill the goose that is laying the golden egg.

    And as this is a venture involving humans, there will be mistakes. But we, and the Earth will survive them.

  • Andrew Allison

    Re: @wrm 4
    For shame!
    The statement, “fracking is not causing the quakes.” is unambiguous and doesn’t mince words! With the very greatest respect, the mincing is in the response.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      on this, we disagree. sorry.

  • a nissen

    Thanks WRM for bring out the hysteria on the “Drill Baby Drill” side.

    I continue to wonder at the huge divide the joint hysteria indicates, yet again we face the usual choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

    Conclusion: we, even WRM, are no where close to seeing the puppet masters or the strings.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    If the fracking really is causing the earthquakes, we may at last be able to control this disastrous natural process. By relieving geological stress build ups in a controlled fashion, mankind can save huge amounts of blood and treasure that earthquakes cause each year. And look how cheap it is, just drill along the fault line and grease it with the fracking. I lived in California for 18 years, a 4.0 causes no damage, and is surely worth it if prevents a big damaging and deadly quake.

  • spinoneone

    This is not the first time that pumping waste water willy-nilly into a faulted area may have caused earthquakes. The same thing happened on the north side of Denver, Colorado, in the 1970s when the Army Corps of Engineers pumped waste water from Rocky Mountain Arsenal into multiple wells on the arsenal grounds. When they stopped pumping waste water into the faults the minor earthquakes ceased. I haven’t seen enough information to say whether or not the well in Youngstown is really a “fracking” well, i.e., drilled horizontally from a level several thousand feed below the surface, or not. I suspect it is simply a vertical well drilled 400-1000 feet deep and used to pump waste water into the ground.

  • Kris

    Never mind that evil fracking. I remember how various geothermal schemes were constantly touted as a natural alternative energy source by many Greens. Until they found out it could cause earthquakes, that is. At which point they belligerently demanded to know what kind of idiots would take their policy prescriptions seriously.

    That last sentence was a joke, of course. In fact, they suffered collective amnesia regarding their previous positions and blamed geothermal wells on Haliburton.

  • maulerman

    One of the primary concerns with disposal wells is the amount of pressure necessary to inject the water into the formation. Each geologic formation or “rock” layer has a fracture gradient, i.e., the amount of pressure necessary to break down the formation. It is generally accepted that the fracture gradient of any formation adds up to 1 psi per foot in depth. To determine the maximum surface pressure to apply to the water, one assumes .5 to be the weight of the column of water in the well multiplied by the depth of the formation. The remaining .5 is then multiplied by the total depth of the well to determine the surface injection pressure. In other words, if a disposal well is 1000 feet deep, the maximum surface injection pressure is limited to 500 psi because the weight of the fluid column already adds 500 psi to the total amount. A formation which can accept water, i.e., has pore space or natural fractures for water to flow into like a sandstone, will not require much surface injection pressure. A tight formation will not accept water and will require the rock to be broken down before water flows into created fractures.

    The general rule is not infallible, and there are numerous formations where the fracture gradient of the rock is less than .5. In Texas there are several areas where the state regulatory body, the Railroad Commission, has found that the formation will break down at a lower pressure. In those areas the simple solution is to limit the surface injection pressure to a lower amount.

    Additionally, if the fracture gradient for a formation is known, pressure can be limited to a level below the point where the rock breaks down. Learning the fracture gradient is not difficult, a step rate test can be performed on the well for the injection formation to determine the fracture gradient before any water is injected.

    With that in mind, it would seem to be premature to connect the earthquakes to fracture stimulation. One must first establish the depth of the disposal formation, the volume of water, and finally the total surface injection pressure applied.

    It also appears that in this case, the problem was in the drilling of the disposal well. According to an article from the Christian Science Monitor

    “The disposal well aimed to flush those fluids into a broad, deep sandstone formation, where the fluids could spread in all directions. But drillers reportedly overshot the formation and sank the well some 300 feet into the basement rock, where the faults lurk.”

    With so much demonization being used regarding fracture stimulation, it is very important to be careful about the facts and science surrounding the issue. The suggestion that fracture stimulation caused the earthquakes does not appear to be supported by the facts. Rather it was the improper drilling and operation of a disposal well which may have caused the problem. Yes the disposal well was drilled to service the development of horizontal gas wells in the area, but one cannot conclude that the earthquakes were proximately caused by fracture stimulation of gas wells any more than a gun manufacturer is the proximate cause of murder in which its gun was used.

  • Henry Lyatsky

    A huge problem is the constant failure of the oil industry to address itself clearly to voters and explain what oil development means personally for them. The industry sadly keeps talking to the guy in the mirror, instead of trying to have a conversation with Joe Sixpack.

    The oil industry needs to learn to campaign the way politicians do it. Failure to engage the public means that only one message – the false one of Al Gore, Greenpeace & Co. – is ever getting out.

    I’ve been writing and speaking about how the industry needs to reach the Common Man for some time now. The link above is one of my lectures. (And yes, some of us oilmen really do read Plato and Byron.)

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