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Thanks To Fracking, Earthquake Hazards In Parts Of Oklahoma Now Comparable To California

A magnitude 5.6 earthquake shook Oklahoma on Saturday, tied for the strongest quake ever recorded in the state. Odds are it was triggered by fracking operations, specifically the subsurface injection of fracking wastewater and produced waters in general, even from non-fracking operations.

There is a connection between fracking and earthquakes in the central and eastern United States (Figure 1). But the earthquakes are not a result of fracking itself. They mostly result from theinjection of fracking wastewater and other waste and production water, even from non-fracking wells, at depths well-below the fracking horizon. The larger the volumes of water injected into the subsurface, the larger the earthquakes can be.

The United States Geological Survey just produced a seismic hazard forecast for 2016 for the central and eastern United States that includes both induced and natural earthquakes. While almost all of the fracking-induced or triggered earthquakes are small — less than magnitude 3, which can’t be felt by most people — enough are above 3 that the USGS predicted a 5% to 17% chance of significant damage to homes and structures in just the year 2016 for areas of north-central Oklahoma and southern Kansas where fracking occurs. Presumably, this will continue each year as long as fracking continues close to the present rate.

In cases when injection of water induces earthquakes of larger magnitudes, the earthquakes are most likely the result of reactivation of nearby pre-existing faults by upsetting the subsurface pressure regimes that keep the fault closed.

Figure 1. Earthquakes greater than magnitude 3 in the central and eastern United States from 1973 to April 2015. Two abrupt increases in the earthquake rate occurred in 2009 and 2013, coinciding with dramatic increases in fracking for gas and oil. Blue dots represent earthquakes that occurred between 1973 and 2008, and red dots represent earthquakes that occurred between 2009 and April 2015. Prior to 2009, earthquakes were spread across the United States. Beginning in 2009 the earthquakes are tightly clustered in a few areas including central Oklahoma, southern Kansas, central Arkansas, southeastern Colorado and northeastern New Mexico, and multiple parts of Texas. Source: USGS

Figure 1. Earthquakes greater than magnitude 3 in the central and eastern United States from 1973 to April 2015. Two abrupt increases in the earthquake rate occurred in 2009 and 2013, coinciding with dramatic increases in fracking for gas and oil. Blue dots represent earthquakes that occurred between 1973 and 2008, and red dots represent earthquakes that occurred between 2009 and April 2015. Prior to 2009, earthquakes were spread across the United States. Beginning in 2009 the earthquakes are tightly clustered in a few areas including central Oklahoma, southern Kansas, central Arkansas, southeastern Colorado and northeastern New Mexico, and multiple parts of Texas. Source: USGS

Figure 1. Earthquakes greater than magnitude 3 in the central and eastern United States from 1973 to April 2015. Two abrupt increases in the earthquake rate occurred in 2009 and 2013, coinciding with dramatic increases in fracking for gas and oil. Blue dots represent earthquakes that occurred between 1973 and 2008, and red dots represent earthquakes that occurred between 2009 and April 2015. Prior to 2009, earthquakes were spread across the United States. Beginning in 2009 the earthquakes are tightly clustered in a few areas including central Oklahoma, southern Kansas, central Arkansas, southeastern Colorado and northeastern New Mexico, and multiple parts of Texas. Source: USGS

A magnitude 5.6 earthquake shook Oklahoma on Saturday, tied for the strongest quake ever recorded in the state. Odds are it was triggered by fracking operations, specifically the subsurface injection of fracking wastewater and produced waters in general, even from non-fracking operations.

There is a connection between fracking and earthquakes in the central and eastern United States (Figure 1). But the earthquakes are not a result of fracking itself. They mostly result from theinjection of fracking wastewater and other waste and production water, even from non-fracking wells, at depths well-below the fracking horizon. The larger the volumes of water injected into the subsurface, the larger the earthquakes can be.

The United States Geological Survey just produced a seismic hazard forecast for 2016 for the central and eastern United States that includes both induced and natural earthquakes. While almost all of the fracking-induced or triggered earthquakes are small — less than magnitude 3, which can’t be felt by most people — enough are above 3 that the USGS predicted a 5% to 17% chance of significant damage to homes and structures in just the year 2016 for areas of north-central Oklahoma and southern Kansas where fracking occurs. Presumably, this will continue each year as long as fracking continues close to the present rate.

In cases when injection of water induces earthquakes of larger magnitudes, the earthquakes are most likely the result of reactivation of nearby pre-existing faults by upsetting the subsurface pressure regimes that keep the fault closed.

Figure 2. Natural gas production has growing rapidly across America over the last decade as a result of fracking tight gas and oil shales, with a concomitant rise in fracking-associated earthquakes. But it’s not the fracking that is causing the quakes, it’s the injection of wastewater below the fracking zone. Source: Richard Meyer, American Gas Association, Bloomberg New Energy Finance

Figure 2. Natural gas production has growing rapidly across America over the last decade as a result of fracking tight gas and oil shales, with a concomitant rise in fracking-associated earthquakes. But it’s not the fracking that is causing the quakes, it’s the injection of wastewater below the fracking zone. Source: Richard Meyer, American Gas Association, Bloomberg New Energy Finance

Invented in 1947, hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a technique that improves the production of oil and gas from wells by increasing the number of fractures in the formation through which oil and gas can flow, and extending the reach of fluid pathways, i.e., fractures, between the formation and the well. Injecting water, plus some specific chemicals, at high pressure into low-permeability, or tight, rocks, fractures the rocks or stimulates slip across pre-existing faults and fractures, allowing for more oil and gas to be accessed by the well. A propping agent, usually sand particles, is also injected to keep the new fractures open.

Fracking takes a few hours to a few days, followed by a period where the fracking fluid is allowed to flow back to the surface where it is collected for disposal, treatment, or reuse. It is the disposal of this fluid, along with other waste and produced waters, by injection into deep wells that causes the earthquakes.

The dramatic increase in fracking for oil and gas in America since 2006 (Figure 2) has caused some regions to experience frequent earthquakes, regions that have not had many in the past. In fact, some areas in north-central Oklahoma and southern Kansas now have hazards from fracking-related induced earthquakes that are similar to parts of California where earthquakes are caused by natural tectonic forces like plate collisions and volcanism (Figure 3).

 

Figure 3. Earthquake intensity maps showing the chance of damage from an earthquake in 2016 for the Western United States and the Central and Eastern United States based on peak horizontal ground acceleration. Surprisingly, the chances of damage in north-central Oklahoma and southern Kansas from fracking-induced or triggered earthquakes are approaching that of California, where quakes are caused by traditional tectonic forces. Source: USGS

 

On the other hand, the fracking craze is responsible for the dramatic drop in carbon emissions in America because it has provided enough gas at cheap prices for natural gas to replace coal. Our emissions are now at a 27-year low.

Just another human-environmental conundrum that makes policy decisions difficult.

It’s important to understand what fracking does and does not do:

  • Fracking is generally NOT the cause of induced earthquakes. Wastewater and produced water disposal is the primary cause of the recent increase in earthquakes in the central United States associated with fracking

  • Not all wastewater injection wells induce earthquakes

  • Wastewater is produced at all wells, not just fracking sites

  • Induced earthquakes can occur at significant distances from injection wells and at different depths

It’s important to note that less than 5% of the wastewater being disposed of in Oklahoma comes from frack flowback water, and the play that started the increase in seismicity was not generally fracked.

Also, the subsurface geology is key to these effects. Ten thousand fracked wells in the Bakken or the Marcellus, have not increased seismicity and and these formations have produced even more gas than Oklahoma and Kansas.

The injected fluids change the subsurface dynamics of pressure and friction, allowing things to move that wouldn’t ordinarily move or that wouldn’t move so often. The water is injected into a different rock formation than where the oil or gas is, usually below the production zone.

Fracking itself, and subsequent enhanced recovery operations, inject water into rocks where oil or gas is being removed or where they have already been removed, which doesn’t increase the pressure that much.

However, water injection wells usually inject into pristine rocks, so injection increases pressures much more and makes induced earthquakes more likely. Where there are faults, the increased fluid pressure can push back against the pressure holding the fault closed, thereby allowing the fault to move.

Since water disposal wells typically operate for much longer times than the extraction wells, they tend to inject much more fluid than the fracking or drilling operations. Injections responsible for earthquakes above magnitude 3 involve hundreds of thousands of barrels.

Fortunately, most fracking and water injection operations do not induce earthquakes. Either they don’t have high enough injection rates and total water volumes to change the pressures, or they are not close enough, or connected by subsurface fluid pathways, to sufficiently large faults. Because of the complexity of the subsurface geology, earthquakes can be induced 10 miles or more away from the injection point and at greater depths than the injection points.

A similar, but reversed, situation has occurred in southern California. Work by Dr. Kerry Sieh in the 1970s showed that over the last 15,000 years, great earthquakes (M>8) on the southern portion of the San Andreas fault occurred in a regular manner, easily dated to within about ±5 years. The time period varied in a regular and reproducible way. The last great earthquake occurred in 1857, and the work showed that the next “Big One” should have been in 1947.

But we are still waiting for it. Beginning at about 1900, extensive drilling for oil occurred in the Los Angeles Basin and surroundings. At the same time, the population began to rapidly grow and we began extracting groundwater at an amazing rate. We extracted so much oil and water that we completely changed the subsurface dynamics of the San Andreas fault system and rendered useless our knowledge of the previous earthquake frequency. We now have no idea when the “Big One” will occur. Or how big it will be, considering that we have locked it up tighter than it ever was.

There really are consequences to human activities.

And more than just physical consequences. Drilling-induced earthquakes are a real grey area in home insurance. Amy Bach, executive director of United Policyholders, says man-made quakes are “new territory” in insurance coverage, and the home-owner should ask directly whether fracking is covered as a cause. Only 15% of homeowners in Oklahoma carry earthquake insurance, but that’s up 500% from just a five years ago in 2011 when the strongest earthquake in that state’s history damaged over a dozen homes.

With this latest quake, expect that number to jump again.

With respect to fracking, there are other instances where fracking itself has been painted with issues that actually relate to other processes. Fugitive methane emissions come more from a poor cement job during sealing of the wells, than from fracking itself. EPA considers emissions from natural gas systems to be fairly low, even compared to agriculture and organic digesters (Duke University; Forbes Opinion).

And other toxic organics coming from fracking sites, like benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, and xylene, are also not from fracking but from other activities like gas flaring units, condensate tanks, compressor units, and hydrogen sulfide scavengers. Mechanical inefficiencies in these systems, not the fracking process itself, cause the majority of toxic emissions from fracking sites.

So if we want to address the environmental and safety issues surrounding fracking, and all drilling operations, while still benefiting from its lower carbon emissions relative to coal, we have to back up and address these other activities that occur onsite or in association with drilling.

To decrease fracking-induced earthquakes, maybe we need to figure out another way to handle the wastewater.

Post-post note: I have clarified some points in the text to recognize that the re-injected water is from all drilling operations, not just fracking, and that less than 5% of the wastewater being disposed of comes from frack flowback water.

Dr. James Conca is a geochemist, an energy expert, an authority on dirty bombs, a planetary geologist and professional speaker. Follow him on Twitter @jimconca and see his book at Amazon.com

Source: Thanks To Fracking, Earthquake Hazards In Parts Of Oklahoma Now Comparable To California

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