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Shake Rattle and Oil
EPA Acknowledges Fracking’s Earthquake Problem

The Environmental Protection Agency just echoed a disturbing fact that scientists have been studying for some time now: oil and gas operations in North Texas and Oklahoma are linked to a sharp increase in seismic activity. Reuters reports:

EPA officials made the comment in a letter to the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil industry in the top crude-producing state…The Railroad Commission, which was not immediately available for comment, has in the past questioned the causal link found in university studies. But Texas has moved to install more earthquake monitoring stations.

“EPA believes there is a significant possibility that North Texas earthquake activity is associated with disposal wells,” said the Aug. 15 letter reported by the Texas Tribune on Tuesday.

As in all of our coverage of the link between increased seismic activity and the oil industry, we need to get a few caveats out of the way. First, the earthquakes we’re talking about are register between 3 and 4 on the Richter scale, and most of them can only be felt by sophisticated monitoring equipment. In other words, fracking isn’t rending the earth open underneath the drillers’ feet. But mentioning fracking brings us to the second disclaimer: the strongest correlative link scientists (and now the EPA) have drawn between these earthquakes and oil operations has to do with the disposal of wastewater in abandoned wells, not with the actual hydraulic fracturing process.

Of course, clarifying the problem doesn’t diminish its seriousness. Shale drilling may be powering America’s energy renaissance, but it’s a water-intensive process and companies have taken to disposing much of their wastewater in wells that are apparently causing an uptick in seismicity. There is a clear need for some smart regulatory intervention.

And that’s exactly what’s been happening in Oklahoma, where these dangers have been best documented. The rate of earthquakes in the state rose dramatically in recent years, but so far has dropped nearly 20 percent in 2016 after regulators cracked down on wastewater disposal in wells. The key is to manage this oversight so that the industry can continue to improve, without causing undue environmental damages.

Because if there’s one thing that shale companies have proven themselves to be masters of, it’s innovating. That’s how they came into existence out of virtually nothing over the past decade, it’s how they’ve stayed afloat despite crude prices trading at more than $60 below what they were two years ago, and it’s how they’re tackling this wastewater problem: already firms are experimenting with wastewater recycling programs, figuring out how to use less water in the fracking process, and some are even moving away from water as an emulsifying agent altogether.

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  • Jim__L

    Isn’t there also a link between an increased frequency of small, insignificant earthquakes and a *decreased* frequency of large, destructive earthquakes?

    Save the world from killer earthquakes — Frack!

    • LarryD

      One would expect so, as the small earthquakes relieve stress that would otherwise build up until it’s released in a large one.

    • rheddles

      No. The evidence is contrary. Increasing frequency of small quakes is a precursor to a large one. You’ve got to think about these processes on a geological time scale.

      • Tom

        Mmmmmm, maybe. It remains to be seen whether that is only the case for naturally rather than artificially induced quakes.

        • rheddles

          Not maybe, fact for fault related quakes. The distinction you make between natural and artificially induced quakes is true. There’s a lot we don’t know about what is going on geologically in Oklahoma and Texas. And given the price of oil there is no need to frack willy-nilly until we know more.

  • CaliforniaStark

    “already firms are experimenting with wastewater recycling programs, figuring out how to use less water in the fracking process, and some are even moving away from water as an emulsifying agent altogether.”

    Totally agree with the article; it will soon be common practice to recycle and reuse fracking water; and less water will be used in fracking as other agents, such as propane gel and even CO2, are increasingly used. The technology involved is progressing incredibly fast. Water recycling was already being developed prior to the earthquake issue arising, because many places such as Texas and California have limited water resources.

    • Wayne Lusvardi

      Why recycle fracking water at all? It is water from very, very, very deep sources that is unavailable otherwise. So mining deep water has no impact on California’s or Texas’ water resources. And, oh, by the way, California does not have limited water resources. It has abundant water, just not in the right place at the right time. Contra the fictional tale of the book Cadillac Water by Marc Reisner, the California desert has abundant groundwater and coastal, Southern California sparse water for its huge population. And another myth, there was no California drought from 2012 to 2015 — that was a normal dry period, albeit a very hot period that stressed reservoir water supplies only because California has diverted reservoir water to the environment and to run to the sea without backfilling that lost supply. And also, most “fracking” in California may be occurring offshore under the ocean which has no impact on water supplies. The Monterey Shale Formation cannot be “fracked” anyway using conventional fracking methods because the rock formations are folded.

  • Fat_Man

    A 3 is like having a big truck roll by your house. you might notice a 4, but you will go right back to sleep. Remeber each step the scale is a factor of 10 stronger. A 6 is 100 times stronger than a 4.

    • f1b0nacc1

      All true, but the luddite greens will treat this the way that they have treated radiation for decades….

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    What should have been said is that the disposal of wastewater by high pressure injection is MANDATED by EPA.

    A 2013 study by the University of Durham UK (“Induced Seismicity and Hydraulic Fracturing for the Recovery of Hydrocarbons”) reported that only one human-induced earthquake (5.0+) since 1929 was related to oil and gas fracking. The UC Berkeley Seismology Lab reported that there 558,434 earthquakes greater than 1.0 in California from 1990 to 2011. A quake at 5.0 Richter Scale and with an acceleration of 2 g’s is considered at the threshold at which damages to lifeline infrastructure and property can occur. Of the 85,800,000 quakes worldwide since 1947, possibly only 4 were confirmed from fracking.

    The same study found that 34.5% of quakes world wide are related to green energy projects and toxic waste laws. The green activities included: geothermal power plants, clean hydropower, water pressure from large reservoirs, seismic academic research, green water solution salt mining, and mandated disposal of fracking and oil drilling waste water in deep injection wells to comply with toxic waste disposal laws.

    • CaliforniaStark

      Here is abstract from a 1945 article entitled: “Influence of reservoir-loading on earthquake-activity in the Boulder dam area”:

      “Abstract

      Since the reservoir behind Boulder Dam started to fill in 1935, several hundred small earthquakes have been felt in the adjacent area and several thousand have been recorded since the first seismograph was installed at Boulder City early in 1938. Epicenters of several hundred of the latter have been located, in large part along known or suspected faults on the southern margins of the large lower basin in the reservoir. It is believed that the crustal block upon which this section of the reservoir rests has been tilted downward several inches along these faults and that the granitic massif south of the faults has not partaken in the downward movement. It is known that settlement of areas of sedimentary and volcanic rocks near the lake is somewhat greater than similar areas of granitic rock. It is believed that this settlement is the cause of large numbers of the local shocks partly because the peak occurrence-distribution is usually associated with peak seasonal loads in the reservoir.”

      • Wayne Lusvardi

        Yes, reservoirs cause quakes as do geothermal power plants in Lake County and Imperial County, California. But no one mentions those. Selective perception.

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