Injection-induced earthquakes are upon us
by Marie Baleo
Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, consists in drilling a pipeline as deep as 10,000 feet into the ground before injecting a specific mixture of water, “proppants” such as sand or ceramic, and various chemicals. The injection of this high-pressure fluid fractures shale rocks; in turn, the resulting fissures allow natural gas trapped in the rocks to flow up the pipeline, to the surface. Drilling may be either vertical or horizontal; a single well may thus be used to frack in multiple directions. Each well can be drilled over 15 times, and there are currently half a million active gas wells in the United States only.
Hailed as a game changer and the long-awaited solution to the United States’ energy dependency problem, fracking has boomed in recent years, causing gas prices to decrease, thousands of jobs to be created, and experts to predict enough resources to last a century. Between 2007 and 2012, shale gas and oil development grew eightfold.
Unfortunately, the promise of easy, immediate energetic independence is too good to be true, and specific environmental and sanitary dangers have emerged, linked directly and indirectly to fracking.
The process of fracking itself is extremely wasteful: a single fracturing operation requires anywhere from 1 to 8 million gallons of water, transported to each well by an average of 400 tanker trucks, and 40,000 gallons of chemicals. Speaking of these chemicals: what exactly are the ingredients used in fracking fluids? The industry timidly presents these substances as “additives” and reassures that these additive include many well-known ingredients that may be found in everyday products, such as “guar gum (toothpaste, ice cream and other food products), surfactants (similar to dish soap) and solvents (such as mineral oil)”.” But this version conveniently fails to mention that these additives may also include carcinogenic substances such as methane, lead, benzene, uranium, mercury, radium, or formaldehyde.
A substantial part of the high-pressure, non-biodegradable mixture used to fracture shale rocks remains in the ground. These substances seep into and pollute the area’s aquifers, which residential wells tap into for drinking water, leading to polluted, flammable water and the infamous “tap water fires” reported in many homes located near fracking wells.
Indeed, Dangers Of Fracking reports that “methane concentrations are 17x higher in drinking-water wells near fracturing sites than in normal wells. There have been over 1,000 documented cases of water contamination next to areas of gas drilling as well as cases of sensory, respiratory, and neurological damage due to ingested contaminated water”.
Additionally, part of the toxic fluid that is indeed pumped back to the surface is usually dumped into an open-air (sometimes unlined!) pit, where it is free to further seep into aquifers and to evaporate into the air we breathe, releasing volatile organic compounds, liable to produce acid rainfall and ground level ozone.
Many activists and people whose land and lives have been affected by fracking are speaking out against these environmental hazards. But while the public debate about fracking has definitely taken off, the oil and gas industry is a powerful one with a manifestly strong interest in downplaying the documented effects of fracking on health and the environment. It is no wonder, then, that the industry has vehemently rejected the idea of fracking (indirectly) causing a recent, impressive wave of earthquakes.
Something wicked this way comes
In recent years, and in the past year specifically, an extraordinary rise in the number of earthquakes has been reported in US states traditionally unaffected by quakes, such as Oklahoma. The New Yorker reports that “earthquakes were a relatively rare event for Oklahomans. Now they’re reported on daily, like the weather, and generally by the weatherman”. Before 2008, the state only ever experienced one or two earthquakes with a magnitude of 3.0 or above per year. In 2015, Oklahomans still experience one or two earthquakes on average, except they now take place in the course of a single day instead of a year.
But Oklahoma is not the only affected state: between March 4 and March 12 of this year, the small township of Poland, Ohio, experienced 77 earthquakes of magnitude 1.0 to 3.0, most of them unfelt by its residents. Similarly, between November 2013 and January 2014, Azle, Texas, registered 27 earthquakes of magnitude 2.0 or above. No earthquake had previously been recorded in the area for over 150 years.
What is the common point between these three occurrences? They all took place in areas that are being heavily fracked for shale oil and gas. For example, all 77 of the recorded quakes in the Poland Township occurred in the vicinity of oil and gas wells. However, it is not the fracking itself that is causing these earthquakes. Instead, the quakes are triggered by wastewater disposal wells.
As previously mentioned, fracking requires a humongous quantity of water to be pumped into the ground in order to fracture the rocks and allow natural gas to be pumped to the surface. What to do with the remnants of this wasteful process?
Frackers find themselves with billions of barrels (878 billion gallons per year, to be precise) of used toxic water on their hands, water which they must dispose of. They have opted to reinject the soiled water deep into the ground, in what is both completely counter-intuitive, a giant environmental and scientific leap of faith, and, it turns out, a huge mistake – “We don’t really understand where that water is going”, Todd Halihan, a geology professor at Oklahoma State University, told the New Yorker. There are currently 30,000 such disposal wells in the United States. A third of the water used for fracking is reinjected into these wells.
Recent studies have finally shed light on the science behind this causation: wastewater disposal wells can cause earthquakes to occur when “they are dug too deep, near or into basement rock, or when the wells impinge on a fault line”, writes the New Yorker. By altering the stress on fault lines, injection causes earthquakes that would otherwise never have happened. Time Magazine cites research claiming that “those quakes can occur tens of miles away from the wells themselves (…) and they can be large as well—researchers have now linked two quakes in 2011 with a magnitude greater than 5.0 to wastewater wells”. Additionally, once one such quake collides with another fault, a chain reaction of sorts may occur, causing other earthquakes.
A report by the US Geological Survey (USGS) has identified a high risk for injection-induced earthquakes in Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas and New Mexico. This creates more complex challenges than, say, if induced earthquakes were a threat for California, a state which is used to earthquakes and organized accordingly. But in states like Oklahoma or Ohio where earthquakes are traditionally few and far between, buildings are not designed to sustain strong tremors, and people are less prepared and less aware of the required responses and behaviors in case of an earthquake. These earthquakes are also affecting flatter states laid on “rigid rock, which makes them more destructive”, according to Mother Jones.
In spite of these recent findings by the USGS, the shale oil and gas industry has taken to the press to deny the existence of fracking-related earthquakes. By so doing, the industry is playing a dangerous game of semantics with the public’s head. It is true that fracking does not cause earthquakes, or only few and minor ones (see for example, this Seismological Society of America press release linking some of the quakes at the Township of Poland to fracking directly, rather than wastewater disposal). Instead, as explained, earthquakes are caused by the disposal by injection into the ground of wastewater used for fracking. It takes a very particular mindset, made of equal parts disrespect for the public and bad faith, to deny that if it weren’t for fracking, there would be no fracking wastewater injection, and thus no injection-induced earthquakes.
“During hydraulic fracturing, the microseismic events are generally less than magnitude minus two (-2) or minus three (-3) on the Richter scale. A study of hydraulic fracturing-related seismic activity in England found that the combination of geological factors necessary to create a higher-than-normal seismic event was “extremely rare” and such events would be limited “to around magnitude 3 on the Richter scale as a ‘worst-case scenario.”
For reference, a magnitude three earthquake is described by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) as causing “vibrations similar to the passing of a truck.”
An Oklahoma Geological Survey study on seismicity near hydraulic fracturing activities concluded that it was “impossible to say with a high degree of certainty whether or not these earthquakes were triggered by natural means or by the nearby hydraulic-fracturing operation.” The study did note, however, the events under examination were “small earthquakes with only one local resident having reported feeling them. The earthquakes range in magnitude from 1.0 to 2.8.”
Under the guise of honesty and transparency, “Energy from Shale” conveniently forgets to mention the earthquakes induced by reinjecting high volumes of toxic water into the ground, a practice which is a direct consequence of fracking. This choice to tell only part of the story deliberately misleads the public.
What the future holds
Injection-induced earthquakes, regardless of magnitude, could pose a significant threat if they began to occur in more populous areas, earthquake-prone areas, or areas with nuclear power plants, as Time reports that:
“Fracking and drilling move to a part of the country that already has clear existing seismic risks—like California, which has an estimated 15 billion barrels of oil in the Monterey Shale formation that could only be accessed through fracking (limited fracking has been done in California, but only in the lightly populated center of the state).”
Until governments worldwide wake up and fracking becomes a thing of the past, and in order to avoid potential damage caused by injection-induced quakes, one can only hope for a legislative response and a stricter regulation of wastewater disposal wells. In the United States, the state of Ohio has recently instituted a requirement for oil and gas companies to set up earthquake monitors before drilling in a geographic zone that has experienced quakes with a 2.0 magnitude or above, or within 3 miles of a fault line. Regulators may pull the plug on fracking if seismic monitors record an earthquake of magnitude 1.0 and above, making Ohio one of the stricter states in this regard.
Citizens affected by injection-induced earthquakes have taken to courts for compensation for the damage sustained, with a group of Arkansans filing a class action against BHP Billiton Petroleum and Chesapeake Energy. As Oil Price remarks,
“The big threat to drillers is a court case going against them, saddling the industry with the costs of earthquake-related damage and raising the liability for all future drilling. In essence, the subsequent cost of insurance needed by drilling companies could make oil and gas production unviable.
One case in particular could determine how bad costs could get for the industry. A woman named Sandra Ladra has brought a case against two oil companies – New Dominion and Spess Oil Co. – after her chimney collapsed amid a 5.7 magnitude earthquake, and the falling bricks severely injured her. The Ladra case has now moved to the state supreme court. A court ruling in her favor will amount to a huge blow to the industry statewide, raising costs of operating and possibly contributing to a significant reduction in drilling over the long-term.”
An urgent choice
Mother Earth, the plentiful, the fertile, the generous. We have long started to destroy her without a shred of afterthought, exhilarated as we are by the progress within our reach, moved only by the desire to fuel our exponentially unreasonable lifestyles. Like small children, we eschewed future well-being for the benefit of immediate satisfaction. But while we might be insatiable, nature’s geological resources are not infinite. We have scavenged and dug and pumped and excavated the ground for precious oil and gas, pooh-poohing the Cassandras who dared point out that perhaps we should look into alternative sources of energy. These earthquakes are just one of the hundreds of little-known, new phenomena caused by our irresponsible exploitation of our environment and resources.
America’s love story with fracking will be short-lived. Fracking is not the miraculous solution it has been paraded to be. It is a precarious, soon to become unprofitable technique, capitalizing on a resource that has already started to run out. But in our frenzied urge to squeeze any remaining juice out of our earth, we have wasted precious time we could have spent working on environmentally-friendly (human life-friendly?) energy resources.
There is something symbolically striking and frightening about injection-induced earthquakes: they appear a godly punishment, the work of an irate deity faced with man’s unapologetic display of greed and gluttony. But for us mere mortals, the immediate question is the following: what will it take to make us cross the line and abandon fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy? How scared must we become before we start favoring future rewards (longevity, acceptable life conditions for the next generations, or, quite simply, the continuation of life as we know it) over immediate satisfaction?
As Richard Heinberg wrote in Snake Oil: How Fracking’s False Promise of Plenty Imperils our Future, “fracking for oil and gas poses a danger not just to local water and air quality, but also to sound energy policy, and therefore to our collective ability to avert the greatest human-made economic and environmental catastrophe in history”.
 Though it has existed since 1866; see “Snake Oil: How Fracking’s False Promise of Plenty Imperils our Future” by Richard Heinberg.
 EFS is a website of the American Petroleum Institute (API), the largest trade association for the oil and natural gas industry, representing over 400 companies in the sector, and whose CEO Jack Gerard was mentioned in 2012 as a possible Energy Secretary in a potential Mitt Romney administration.
 Emphasis added.
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