Hydraulic fracturing has Oklahoman oil production booming anew, but over the past six years the state has also seen a dramatic rise in relatively small magnitude earthquakes—and many scientists think those two phenomena are related. Studies have linked the storage of wastewater used in oil and gas drilling (also a major byproduct of hydraulic fracturing) in unused wells with a rise in localized earthquakes, asserting that the pressure this stored water puts on the surrounding rock can lead to seismic activity. Oklahoma is now moving to force the industry to cut back on this type of storage by 40 percent. The New York Times reports:
On Monday, the state Corporation Commission asked well operators in a Connecticut-size patch of central Oklahoma to reduce by 40 percent the amount of oil and gas wastes they are injecting deep into the earth. The directive covers 411 injection wells in a rough circle that includes Oklahoma City and points northeast. It follows a February request that imposed a 40 percent cutback on injection wells in a similar-size region of northwest Oklahoma.
The actions significantly increase the effort to rein in the quakes, which the commission has long tried to reduce one well or a handful of wells at a time. But they are an equally notable challenge to the industry, which will most likely be able to make the cutbacks only by reducing oil and gas production. The liquid wastes are a byproduct of pumping oil and gas, and the more that is drawn from the ground, the more wastes must be disposed of.
This couldn’t have come at a worse time for the shale industry as companies are already struggling to deal with the collapse of crude prices and the pressure that’s putting on their profit margins. Restrictions in how they can safely store wastewater will probably lead to a reduction in output, at least in the short term.
But innovation has been the hallmark of the U.S. shale boom, and while this is certainly going to have an impact on Oklahoman hydrocarbon production, there’s also reason to expect the industry might find a way to adapt. For years fracking companies have looked for ways to recycle wastewater—water can be a scarce resource, and in some cases reusing it could save money. Yet other firms have experimented with less water intensive fracking, using substances like propane gel or a polyallymaline fluid that expands underground to fracture shale formations and access the oil and gas underneath. If either one of these options becomes cost-effective and commercially scalable, the seismic problems associated with storing wastewater in wells could be bypassed entirely.