mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Shake Rattle and Oil
Fracking’s Earthquake Problem, and How to Tackle It

Oklahoma is shaking and scientists are pointing the finger at the oil and gas industry. Four years ago the state endured its biggest-ever earthquake near a town called Prague, an event that drew attention to the potential effect the shale boom was having on the startling rise in seismic activity in the region. Studies bore out the initial hypothesis: the storage of wastewater from fracking in abandoned wells was putting new stress on underground fault lines and causing earthquakes. The New York Times reports:

The mechanics of wastewater-induced earthquakes are straightforward: Soaked with enough fluid, a layer of rock expands and gets heavier. Earthquakes can occur when the pressure from the fluid reaches a fault, either through direct contact with the soaked rock or indirectly, from the expanding rock. Seismologists have documented such quakes in Colorado, New Mexico, Arkansas, Kansas and elsewhere since the 1960s.

But nowhere have they approached the number and scope of Oklahoma’s quakes, which have rocked a fifth of the state. One reason, scientists suspect, is that Oklahoma’s main waste disposal site, a bed of porous limestone thousands of feet underground, lies close to the hard, highly stressed rock containing the faults that cause quakes.

This won’t take any of regular readers by surprise (you can read parts one, two, three, four, and five of our coverage of this issue) as the link between fracking and earthquakes in Oklahoma has drawn our attention a number of times in recent years. But this NYT report details the regulatory fight that has sprung up in the wake of the causal link demonstrated by researchers, and that’s an important story for the shale boom writ large.

As with so many issues facing America today, we desperately need to find a sensible middle way here. Too much regulation and the fracking industry could choke and sputter out under the weight of onerous rules. But regulate too little and companies could start cutting corners, not only degrading the local environment and affecting communities (both negative outcomes in their own right), but also stoking virulent anti-shale feelings among the public that could lead to calls for banning the practice completely. It’s this kind of popular sentiment that has been behind the strong moves against fracking in Germany last week.

Firms are already working on changing their operations in ways that would decrease these earthquakes, as they look at ways to recycle the water used to frack, and even pioneer waterless fracking techniques. In both cases, water would be kept out of wells, literally helping ease the tension underground.

But while scientists continue to study the effects of these new drilling techniques and the companies themselves work to refine their processes, policymakers need to do their part in crafting the kinds of smart regulations needed to frack responsibly.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Clayton Holbrook

    But regulate too little…also stoking virulent anti-shale feelings among the public that could lead to calls for banning the practice completely.

    An excellent point about regulation that is not stated enough and missed by unreasonable proponents of onerous regs and opponents regs alike. Good and effective regulation (I hesitate to use the word “smart”, too much hubris) builds trust between industry and a public that can’t be expected to be experts of all things regulated. This is good for industry as it validates their products and actions. Good regulation issues clean bills of health when the scientific facts show it to be so, and puts restraints and checks in areas that facts bear out ill-effects.

  • Josephbleau

    I am sure the EPA is drooling about regulating water as a pollutant that causes global earthquake change. Having many small earthquakes to regularly reduce stress is a good thing, this does not happen in California as faults are sticky. But there is some risk in anything, so water should be cleaned up and properly disposed of, put it in existing fresh or saltwater aquifers where added water can do no harm, or send it out west in a new pipe.

  • PaulG

    But this article doesn’t really look at the issue. The problem with quakes is not fracking of oil or gas wells, which is typically accomplished in a short period, ranging from a few hours to a couple of days. The quake problem problem arises because deep wells often produce not only oil and gas, but they also produce water from underground formations, water full of minerals, salts, etc., and that nasty produced water must be disposed of.

    A well may easily produce hundreds of barrels of produced water per day, and that water is most economically disposed of – in many instances – by re-injecting it deep into underground formations, often a mile or two below the surface. Produced water is pumped into injection wells under significant pressure, where the pressure is used to force the water to flow quickly into the underground formations where it will be “stored”. Some injection wells use very high pressure, in order to dispose of a lot of water in a short period of time.

    Injection wells are the likely culprits that sometimes lead to small local earthquakes, depending on the presence of faults, the pressure used to force the water, etc.

    But injection wells are needed to dispose of produced water from oil and gas wells, regardless of whether fracking was used in completing the oil or gas well. The solution to quakes is easy: determine what the underground formations can handle in terms of pumping produced water under pressure. Don’t use injection wells in areas of sensitive underground areas. Limit the pressure used to what does not result in quakes. These are easy engineering problems to solve, and don’t require draconian intervention from state or federal regulators. They just require responsible operators.

    The problem isn’t fracking, it is the produced water. The solution isn’t banning or limiting fracking, it is developing intelligent strategies for disposing of produced water in injection wells. When oil and gas is drawn from deep formations, produced water often comes with it, water which must be disposed of. That’s just part of the price of recovering the oil and gas. A very manageable price, when handled responsibly.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service