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Leber reports: "Scientists presented the latest evidence tying the disposal of wastewater from shale gas hydrofracking to increased earthquakes."

CA Cabot Oil and Gas hydraulic fracturing site in Springville, Pennsylvania, 01/17/12. (photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
A Cabot Oil and Gas hydraulic fracturing site in Springville, Pennsylvania, 01/17/12. (photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Studies Link Earthquakes to Fracking

By Jessica Leber, MIT Technology Review

03 February 13

The link between a recent rise in earthquakes and wastewater disposal from shale gas wells grows stronger, though skeptics remain.

t the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco last week, scientists presented the latest evidence tying the disposal of wastewater from shale gas hydrofracking to increased earthquakes.

Some U.S. states, including Oklahoma, Texas, and Colorado, have experienced a significant rise in seismic activity over the last few years, coinciding with a boom in fracking - a process that forces gas from hard-to-reach underground deposits by injecting water and chemicals into shale rock. Fracking produces huge quantities of wastewater that is typically disposed of in deep wells. But the degree to which the disposal of wastewater from fracking operations has caused the unusual seismic activity is still up for debate among scientists.

The question matters because most states don't consider earthquake risk when allowing gas drilling companies to dispose of large volumes of chemical-laden drilling water.

Hydrofracking produces far more wastewater than conventional oil and gas drilling. So how to dispose of this waste safely is becoming a bigger question as fracking expands.

Scientists believe that wastewater injection wells, which are often the cheapest disposal option for drilling companies, are the main quake culprit. Today, 90 percent of fracking wastewater in the U.S. is disposed of in injection wells, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.

Since 2010, Oklahoma residents have felt more than 250 of them - many more than the one to three reported each year in previous decades.

The largest ever in the state's history, a magnitude 5.7 quake in 2011 that damaged some 200 buildings, was "likely caused by fluid injection," concluded University of Oklahoma, Columbia University, and U.S. Geological Survey scientists in presenting their data at the conference. They used aftershocks to map fault patterns and show how pressure built over time as water from fracking was disposed of as close as 250 meters away from the resulting quakes.

Other USGS scientists looked at a series of earthquakes since 2001 in Colorado and New Mexico's Raton Basin (including a 5.3 earthquake last year). They also presented their results this week, and concluded that these quakes were the result of wastewater injections. The likelihood that the rise in the rate of larger earthquakes, greater than magnitude 3.0, would occur naturally is extremely low, the study said.

The larger picture is complicated, however, because even before hydrofracking became common in the last decade, oil and gas drillers and mining companies have used tens of thousands of injection wells in these regions.

Austin Holland, a seismologist with the Oklahoma Geological Survey, says that clearly some of the recent earthquakes could be caused by wastewater disposal from fracking activities. But his data on Oklahoma suggests that "no changes in oil and gas activities are immediately apparent that could explain the dramatic rise in earthquake rates."

University of Texas at Austin geophysicist Cliff Frohlich said at the meeting that it's difficult to pinpoint the causes of the trend because most studies have looked at individual earthquakes, rather than doing broader surveys. His study of a portion of the Dallas-Forth Worth area, in the Barnett Shale, found that nearly all earthquakes were within two miles of high-volume injection wells. However, many other wells seemed to trigger no quakes at all.

Discerning the reasons for these differences will be important for officials who are considering regulation, Frohlich says. Regulations could reduce the risk of earthquakes by more closely dictating where wells can be located and how they are built and used. Ohio, for example, put in place a moratorium on new wastewater injection permits after a series of earthquakes last year, but recently started approving them again after putting more standards in place.

There are also alternatives for wastewater disposal, such as processing the water at existing or dedicated treatment plants. The U.S. EPA is now evaluating national standards for treating water in this way, and this option may be more often considered if earthquake concerns continue to grow, and if scarcer supplies make water itself a more valuable resource, Frohlich says.

Manmade earthquakes, triggered by underground injections, have been known about for a long time, at least since the 1960s, when an Army waste disposal well triggered an earthquake that caused major damage in Denver.

Overall, however, experts seem to believe the "seismic hazard" in many shale gas states is growing: "The future probably holds a lot more in induced earthquakes as the gas boom expands," says USGS Earthquake Science Center researcher Art McGarr. your social media marketing partner


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+21 # Uranus 2013-02-03 19:49
I live in central Oklahoma. The real number of seismic events is around 1,400, not 250.

The events seem abnormal to everyone who reports them—like detonations, not quakes.

And, it's the biggest "shut your mouth!" issue I've ever seen. Fracking is a distraction theory. Earthquakes aren't visually observable, so any theory is as good as another.

The geological survey people and the media curtail discussion of it to such an extent, I'm surprised any theory other than natural causes is allowed.

Of the events, I experienced only two. One sounded and felt like a extremely energetic explosion. The other was the 5.7 event in fall of 2011, a steady, uniform wave of what seemed about 100 Hz for 40 seconds. It was felt for hundreds of miles.

I theorized ways these could happen on a local TV online bulletin board three years ago. The post was removed and replaced by the offer to upload a virus. I reported this on another station's website in comments without positing a theory. The comments were removed, and my account was deactivated.

I'm not the only person trying to speak up. I'm very sure most of the people working for the geological surveys and media know the events are unusual.

Still, this puzzling silence. Fracking might cause seismic events, but I don't blame fracking for what we've seen. Studying seismic events linked to fracking is in its infancy in a politicized environment.
+11 # grandma lynn 2013-02-04 04:24
..."for what we've seen." Do you mean the silence, as if officially ordered? That that you've seen from your vantage point in Oklahoma? Big Oil really is Big Oil, a political force that will not be stopped, that pays off decision-makers and makes them quake in their boots. Or, alternatively, makes them rich in their pockets.
0 # Uranus 2013-02-04 19:12
You got that right! The epicenter of most of the events has been Jones, a town east of Oklahoma City, a little over 20 miles from my house. Yet, I've only sensed one of the usual events.

The big 5.7 event was a gentle, quick shake, unlike the quakes California gets.

There are some very exotic alternate theories suggested for what happened. The events came to a grinding halt several months ago.
+15 # Glen 2013-02-04 09:48
Also, Uranus, the tremors in your area might have also been exacerbated by the fracking in Arkansas at the same time. Both states are much too close to the New Madrid to be fracking, not that they care.

Protecting the underground water system is not possible when these methods are being used. All of us should be fighting like hell against it.
+2 # Uranus 2013-02-04 19:17
Indeed, the water contains all kinds of pollution, and fracking constitutes poor stewardship of the planet.

Fracking's invention is attributed to Chesapeake Energy, said to be the world's biggest natural gas producer.

Today, Governor Mary promoted CNG vehicles in her state of the state address. I'm so sick of this primitive technology I can hardly stand it.
+1 # Glen 2013-02-05 07:42
Throughout the Ozarks there is an extensive cave and water system underground. Most states drain south and east toward the Mississippi River ("the alimentary canal of the U.S.") so there fore fracking in one state is going to travel through those systems to another. That is often overlooked when discussing fracking pollution.

I was in Arkansas during many of those tremors, which I found alarming because the town I was visiting is within the first earthquake zone of the New Madrid Fault and about 150 miles from one location of fracking. Numerous waves came through that town many noticeably from the south, and many times the furniture creaked and glass clinked. If that would not be a concern for all citizens in the area, then they could be considered brain dead or totally insensitive.
+16 # Street Level 2013-02-04 00:35
I used to check the USGS earthquake map daily before they went to their new format. Their geologists used to post whether the earthquake was fracking induced or a natural occurrence but stopped probably from industry pressure.

Also what's been really hard to find any information on is the use of radioactive material in the process.
We've heard about the sink holes in Ohio emitting radiation and Haliburton losing that 8" nuclear rod in the desert. The latest story is about a guy who's "burned" from hauling the waste water and is too sick to work anymore. Doctors don't know what's wrong with him but I doubt they've thought to measure his geiger output.
We need to demand full disclosure of what's in that stuff and companies like Haliburton should not be allowed to "clean" the water and then sell it back to us at a profit.
+9 # PatG 2013-02-04 00:58
There should be more studies and investigations. These companies and corporations should be made to pay for all the damage they cause - to homeowners, land, water supplies, health, and wildlife.
+6 # Regina 2013-02-04 01:31
The difference between "ordinary" quakes and those postulated as likely attributable to fracking lies in location. There have been recent quakes near injection sites in parts of the country that don't have the faults of (to cite an obvious example) California, and don't have a history of seismic disturbances characteristic of such areas.
+10 # indian weaver 2013-02-04 11:50
Just north of Cortez, CO we have experienced at least one earthquake near a fracking site that toppled a trailer home off its foundation. And in the Four Corners, earthquakes are never experienced, until now with fracking. This damage case has been filed with the Attorney General of Colorado for investigation / lawsuit.
+16 # hoodwinkednomore 2013-02-04 07:10
I disagree, Uranus. Fracking is anything but a distraction 'theory.' Any time we pull something out of space and leave nothing, or something in its place with not the same qualities, there is going to be 'movement.' This is another 'duh' moment. Apart from the incredibly destructive, carcinogenic-po lluting nature of this type of extraction the after effects are at least as detrimental to the health and well-being of not only the Earth, on which we all make our homes, but to all living things as well, precisely b/c the end-result is burning more fossil fuels which is gobbling up the vitality of our living world and replacing it with uninhabitable death and decay. So whether or not fracking can be directly linked to seismic events, however small, will be proven (or not). In the meantime, the destuctiveness of fracking has already been proven again and again.
+10 # pbbrodie 2013-02-04 09:00
The worst thing I see about this is that they just casually mention that they are pumping all of the chemicals and God knows what else directly into the ground, as if it is perfectly okay. What ever happened to pollution controls? This isn't pollution seeping into the ground from retention ponds, they are pumping untreated water directly into the ground and act as if there isn't anything wrong with it at all.
It won't be long before these same companies will be selling us the only water left worth drinking.
+1 # Uranus 2013-02-04 19:26
I never believed rumors I've heard here for more than 40 years that there is a vast network of deep underground tunnels and cities beneath our feet until this started happening. I don't want to believe that there is a war beneath our feet, but it sure sounds like it, and local media doesn't want to go down that path AT ALL. Such talk is ruthlessly silenced.

Remember the event that damaged the Washington Monument? Read this:
+11 # truthrat 2013-02-04 08:41
We can kiss regulation goodbye. Government no longer regulates on important matters because such matters involve huge corporations, such as banks, oil companies, and military contractors. There will only be obfuscation and the "need" for further study so that regulations can be "evaluated." Also, the article doesn't mention that fracking accounts for only a minuscule amount of the waste water that is pumped "away" down wells. Uranium mining and other mining/industri al processes result in massive amounts of water being pumped into deep aquifers that will be polluted, barring their availability for a desperate need of fresh water in the near future.
+4 # Beverly 2013-02-04 12:30
My God!!! Will it NEVER END? The constant so-called "advances" in science are obviously not honestly examined or conscientiously reported, so WE, THE PEOPLE, cab have no TRUE information about what is happening. Where is our government? Why do not ALL of US write to our President in the hopes of a more comprehensive evaluation of these destructive practices resulting in destructive earthly reactions. This also sounds like "Al Gore" time, eh?
Beverly Smith
+6 # Regina 2013-02-04 13:32
Beverly: This isn't "science" -- it's "entrepreneursh ip." The goal isn't knowledge, it's MONEY! The perps aren't scientists, they're racketeers. As for the government, it's also been bought, having been sold by the "representative s" whose election campaigns are paid for by the same entrepreneurs.
+4 # Glen 2013-02-04 13:33
True Beverly, and these corporations never ask our permission. The government would have already stopped all of this if they were of a mind. Oil and gas have much too much power. The warnings were out there a long time ago.
+3 # indian weaver 2013-02-04 14:56
Incredibly enough, the Colorado Gov. Hickenlooper promotes and supports fracking, the usual greed and arrogance of most politicians is rampant in Hickenlooper, famous for his hypocrisy. He also doesn't really support our pot legalization even though he owns a liquor store, pushing one of the most dangerous and destructive drugs on the planet. Gov. Hickenlooper is no good, not only for Colorado, but an enemy of the entire, planet, willing to rape my Mother for his fast bucks. Any Mother F...cker like him needs to drop out of existence and give the rest of us a chance to survive. He is a mortal threat to the planet and everything on / in it.

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