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Fracking Earthquakes Part IV: Shakes Down

Man-made earthquakes, caused by the storage of wastewater in wells, are weaker than naturally occurring quakes of similar magnitude, according to a new study from the U.S. Geological Survey. Fracking has transformed the American energy landscape virtually overnight, but scientists have found a troubling correlation between the storage of wastewater from the controversial drilling practice in underground wells and a growing number of small-magnitude earthquakes.

Scientists have hypothesized that the weight of this water puts stress on faults, causing micro-quakes by the dozens. These earthquakes are of a much smaller magnitude than the kinds that make headline news, typically somewhere in the 3–4 magnitude range. According to new research, they actually seem to shake less than their natural counterparts. The AP reports:

The way artificial quakes felt was equivalent on average to a natural quake that had a magnitude 0.8 smaller. So a 4.8 induced quake felt like a 4.0 quake, [study author and U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist Susan Hough] said. The magnitude scale used by USGS and others is mathematically complex, but a drop in 0.8 magnitude translates to about 16 times less strength or energy released. […]

The artificial quakes may have less energy — only after 6 miles away — because the fault is lubricated by the injected wastewater, making it easier to slip and do so more smoothly in less of a herky-jerky motion, Hough theorized. Also these faults can be slipping with less pent-up energy than they would have if they slipped naturally years later. […]

“The hazard of these earthquakes is lower than what you’d expect,” Hough said. “It’s not that there’s no hazard, it’s just that it’s a little better than you might think.”

We’ve covered this issue in the past (if you’re interested, read more in parts one, two, and three of this series), and understand the gravity of this side effect of fracking. That these earthquakes might be less serious than feared—possibly because, as the study’s author posited, the stored wastewater lubricates the faults, and relieves tension before it can build up to something more serious—should be seen as very good news, if still preliminary at this point.

But just because these earthquakes might be less serious than previously thought doesn’t mean they should be written off entirely. Storing wastewater in wells isn’t the best solution for the drilling industry. Recycling it would cut down on the strain fracking puts on water resources, get rid of these earthquakes (however small they might be), and eventually might help drillers’ bottom line, opening up more reserves for further exploration. Companies are already making headway on that front, and as much as we like seeing studies like this most recent one from the USGS, we’d like the industry to continue to make strides of its own.

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  • Duperray

    Many artificial but unintentionnal earth quakes are rather a fun than a pain:( We have to be honest, we are not “anti-everything-greens”). They have also a good advantage by releasing the natural rocks strains earlier. Such a technique has been considered decades ago, many small artificial quakes in order to reduce the intensity of the expected “Big One” in San Andrea’s Fault area.

    So the only change (Physics does not change) in decades has been the political mediatisation and exploitation by unsincere persons, inclusive of politicians.

  • Andrew Allison

    Color me confused. The Richter scale assigns a magnitude number to quantify the energy released by an earthquake. If a well-induced earthquake releases energy with a magnitude of 4.8, it’s 4.8. Is what is being suggested that a given amount of slip produces less energy when lubricated? I’m also confused by “. . . the weight of this water puts stress on faults”. Don’t rocks sink in, i.e. are heavier than, water? Education welcomed.

    • JollyGreenChemist

      I think that by being lubricated the the quake is smoother and less jerky. The same amount of energy is released, but the acceleration and thereby the force is less, causing less damage.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    So fracking is really a way of reducing the damage natural earthquakes cause by both triggering them earlier and more frequently, as well as lubricating the slip to dampen the shock. Fracking is the technology that just keeps giving and giving.

    • JollyGreenChemist

      Yes. The stress is already there in the crust. Relieving it in a series of small quakes is far safer than relieving it in a few big ones. For example, people in LA are worrying about “the Big One” because stress is continually building up in the San Andreas fault and there have not been enough small quakes in the last decade or so to relieve it,

  • EH

    I’m not sure the author fully understands fracking. I’ve never heard that the weight of the water on the faults causes earthquakes (water has about the same density as dirt anyway, and lower density than rock). Rather the high pressure it is injected at and the lubrication it provides at the fault interface cause slipping. Since the water partly fills the vacuum created by the removal of oil/gas, not using wastewater injection means you’d have pockets of empty space which could collapse and possibly cause more problems. Furthermore, you can’t “get rid of earthquakes” unless you stop the movement of tectonic plates – the energy caused by this movement will be released sooner or later, either with frequent smaller earthquakes caused by fracking or larger infrequent naturally occurring earthquakes.

    For a good overview, I’d highly recommend:

  • Corlyss

    As Radar O’Reilly used to say, “Wait for it . . . ” Before you can say “evil conspiracy” the envirothugs will find some hack to write a report saying fracking increases the risks of The Big One exponentially.

  • Boritz

    Good News Everyone non-greens.

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