Frackin’ Earthquakes

More evidence is in that we can make earthquakes now. Earlier this week researchers tied wastewater disposal in oil and gas production to the largest earthquake in Oklahoma’s history. Bloomberg reports:

The earthquake near Prague, Oklahoma, on Nov. 6, 2011, was the state’s biggest and may be the largest linked to the injection of water from drilling process, the researchers reported. […]

The 5.7-magnitude quake in 2011 followed an 11-fold bump in seismic activity across the central U.S. in recent years as disposal wells are created to handle increases in wastewater from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Researchers at the University of Oklahoma, Columbia University and the U.S. Geological Survey, who published their findings yesterday in the journal Geology, said the results point to the long-term risks the thousands of wells pose and shows a need for better monitoring and government oversight.

The researchers linked Oklahoma’s record-breaking earthquake to wastewater disposal from oil drilling, but their findings apply to fracking as well. Fracking uses a large amount of water to help extract resources. This water comes out of the process as a toxic slurry, often disposed of in abandoned wells. The researchers tied this method of disposal to increased seismic activity. This is a problem that needs to be taken seriously.

In fact companies are already looking into alternatives to well disposal. Many are treating the wastewater so it can be recycled, either back into drilling operations or back into the environment. This saves firms money and cuts down on seismic risks. And some firms are finding ways to frack without using water at all. Companies like GasFrac are blasting rock apart with high-pressure propane. The technology is still in its infancy, but it can actually increase yields for wells, possibly offsetting its higher up-front cost. And most of the propane pumped into the well can be recycled.

The science isn’t “settled” yet. Oklahoma’s state geological office disagrees with the report, saying that the 2011 earthquake was born of natural causes. But while we hope for the best (another clean bill of health for the technology), we should plan for the worst. That doesn’t mean shutting down fracking and the US shale boom; it means encouraging the innovative alternatives to underground disposal already underway.

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  • Mark Michael

    Actually, more small earthquakes might be a good thing: release tectonic tension built up over time that explodes into a deadly massive earthquake. I think that’s what happens in California along their famous fault lines. In states currently doing lots of shale gas and oil fracking, they don’t have many earthquakes, so I suspect the small ones that might be caused by fracking matter little. Northern Ohio has had a series of very small quakes since they started fracking. They then declared a moratorium and tried to analyze why. They’ve resumed recently. I really don’t know the straight skinny on the matter – just what I see in the papers. The environmentalists pressed hard to get them to stop, and they acceded to their requests.

    Truth be told, I know little about the matter, but given that we’ve been fracking since the 1940s with little or no public attention or concern being expressed, I tend to chalk it up to just another thing that environmentalists are using to slow down the use of carbon-based fuels.

  • Clayton Holbrook

    In regards to State offices disagreeing with reports that make nat gas extraction seem less safe, or issuing reports that find no undue ill effects of fracking, I can’t ignore the politics. Just as Greens have an agenda that tends to be over alarmist, State offices certainly don’t want to put the economic benefits in danger; and all this behind a thin veil of “science”. Not that either side is completely corrupted, but what’s a concerned citizen to do in their efforts to stay informed?

    Both sides have some points it seems to me. There are inherent dangers in nat gas extraction that need to be kept in check by responsible gov’ts and companies. And we can’t over react to the point that we don’t use what’s been a saving grace in nat gas. But why can’t we be honest with ourselves? It doesn’t have to be so contentious.

  • rheddles

    I wonder how much of the 11-fold bump in seismic activity across the central U.S. in recent years is due to the drainage of the Ogallala aquifer by farm irrigation. We should plan for the worst and stop all irrigation in the Great Plains.

  • Mark Michael

    “It is a myth that small quakes release tension on California’s faults.” I understood that large quakes in CA are preceded by a bunch of small quakes simply based on reading the papers. Here in Ohio the frackers INDUCED the small quakes with their pressurized water/sand/chemicals they forced into the cracks underground. In CA, those smaller initial quakes were just part of the release of trapped energy. So they did (presumably) release some trapped energy, just not enough to make much difference in the magnitude of the large quake that came later. (Yeah, the magnitude of a quake is measured logarithmically.)

    I don’t think your post refutes (or supports) the proposition that fracking might diffuse (reduce its size) a larger coming quake – or perhaps spark a larger quake that might not have come until later on. Or maybe never; who knows for sure. Actually, I assume geologists, seismologists, simulation model experts can tackle each situation on a case-by-case basis and make some risk assessment for a given shale natural gas (or oil) area via adequate study and simulation.

    Ohio does have occasional earthquakes, but seldom of a very large magnitude. California is a different situation, at least in certain areas.

    • rheddles

      I was trying to refute nothing except the idea that small quakes release tension and reduce the chance of large quakes.

      Experience has led me to believe the experts know far less than they advertise about specific natural phenomenon. Certainly much of the Bay Area did not react to the Loma Prieta quake as the experts had predicted. In retrospect they learned a lot about how much difference the exact location of the epicenter made to the propagation of the released energy and its effect on the surface. Reality is far more complex than the models of academicians, whether they be economists, geologists or climatologists. That is why my default position is skeptical.

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