Midwest Earthquakes Tied to Fracking. Or not?

According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), the Midwest has been experience a sharp increase in small earthquakes since the last 20th Century up to present and this may very well be tied to the fracking and injection wells in the region. (1) In particular, earlier this year, the Ohio State government has closed down brine injection wells in the Youngstown region after the 11th earthquake struck the region in 2011. (2) The geologists and seismologists were able trace back the epicenters of the earthquakes to “within two miles of the injection wells” (2).

A study of the recent earthquakes that occurred in Ohio from 1990 to 2011 shows that the number has been increasing since the turn of the century and continues to do so. The data can be found on the Ohio Department of Natural Resource website: http://www.dnr.state.oh.us/tabid/23710/Default.aspx

As Dr. Webber had lectured in class a few months ago, fracking is the process of injecting millions of gallons of water and chemical underground to ‘fracture’ the shale and extract oil. As a byproduct, a salty waste water, “brine” is also produced and is generally injected back into the Earth or filtered and dumped into rivers or lakes. The brine picks up contaminants in the ground including sodium and calcium salts, barium, oil, srontium, iron, numerous heavy metals, soap, radiation and other components. (4)

The brine that the injection wells in Youngstown, Ohio put back underground comes from the Marcellus shale wells in Pennsylvania. The brine injection increases the pressure in the shale layer underground and strains the faults to slip. The slips are what causes earthquakes.

However, the study by USGS only ‘suggests’ possible cause between fracking and earthquakes, and “it’s not clear how the earthquake rates might be related to oil and gas production”. (1) There are also others who claim that the increased seismic activity could simply be a natural process as the pattens of earthquakes are not yet fully understood.

While it is unclear how the two are related, it is almost certain that there is a link between injecting fluids and the increase in earthquakes and this processneeds to be regulated. One option is to store up the brine to be cooled and cleaned before dumping it back in the nature. However it is expensive to treat desalinate the brine and the remaining fracking fluid  in the processed water can pose as serious health threats to those who use it as drinking water. Effective of 2001, the EPA has published regulations on the guidelines and standards on the treatment of brine and the discharge into nature. (5) The next step, it seems, will be to regulate the injection process and decide whether to close down all injection wells and force oil and gas companies to deal with their saline spawns.

(1) http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/46981365/ns/technology_and_science-science/#.T4Un39V0GOI

(2) http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/01/05/398406/after-earthquakes-ohio-decides-to-stop-fracking-process-to-help-stop-the-ground-from-shaking/?mobile=nc

(3) http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2012/02/16/10426765-its-not-frackings-fault-study-says?chromedomain=usnews

(4) http://www.marcellus-shale.us/drilling_wastewater.htm

(5) http://water.epa.gov/scitech/wastetech/guide/sbf/index.cfm

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Midwest Earthquakes Tied to Fracking. Or not?

  1. csheble

    This is a highly flawed post. The most prominent and important error comes when the study performed by the Energy Institute at The University of Texas at Austin is cited as evidence that hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a. “fracking”) does not cause earthquakes. First, the MSNBC article on the study is the actual source cited in the post. This article does not mention earthquakes one time. It is about the handling of the waste water and chemicals associated with fracking. It discusses how the UT study claims that the actual fracturing of the shale – that is, the breaking up of underground rock formations to allow trapped oil or gas to escape – is not the cause of groundwater contamination. In fact, the study claims (as the article reports), the groundwater contamination problems are due to the handling of the water/chemicals after the fact [1]. The study confirms this, and can be found at http://energy.utexas.edu/images/ei_shale_gas_regulation120215.pdf. There is not one mention of even the word “earthquake” in the 414 page Energy Institute report. It discusses environmental impacts of shale gas development that can arise at various stages of the process, particularly with relation to groundwater contamination, such as “Drill Pad Construction and Operation,” “Groundwater Contamination,” “Flowback,” “Blowouts and House Explosions,” “Water Requirements,” “Spill Management,” “Health Effects,” and “Atmospheric Emissions.” It also discusses media coverage of fracking. There is one bullet point that lists an environmental convern over shale gas production that references the problem: “Seismic activity possibly induced by fracturing or salt water disposal wells,” but that point is never discussed in the study [2].

    The bottom line is that neither the MSNBC article nor the Energy Institute study can be characterized as claiming that fracking does not cause increased seismic activity, as was posited in the post. Additionally, the claim that “the handling of byproducts of the process is very likely the cause of increase in earthquakes and need to be regulated [sic]” is erroneous, since it is based on an incorrect reading of the original source. The post continues to discuss EPA regulations and the like that are related to wastewater disposal and the risk to water contamination – not to earthquakes.

    There are sources, though, that discuss the link between earthquakes and hydraulic fracturing. An Oklahoma Geological Survey study published in August 2011 reports a possible link between hydraulic fracturing in the Eola Field of Garvin County and microearthquakes reported by residents, but emphasizes that “it [is] 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” [3]. On the other hand, the U.S. Geological Survey study that is about to published finds no link between fracking and earthquakes, but faults (pun intended) the injection wells (i.e. the drilling) for increased seismic activity [4]. A New York Times article from December 2011 also quotes scientists as linking wells to earthquakes, and as long ago as 1960 [5].

    Regardless, the sources are misrepresented, and the information is incorrectly conveyed.

    [1] http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2012/02/16/10426765-its-not-frackings-fault-study-says?chromedomain=usnews
    [2] http://energy.utexas.edu/images/ei_shale_gas_regulation120215.pdf
    [3] http://www.ogs.ou.edu/pubsscanned/openfile/OF1_2011.pdf
    [4] http://www.ibtimes.com/articles/325709/20120409/hydraulic-fracturing-fracking-earthquakes-texas-ohio-wyoming.htm
    [5] http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/13/science/some-blame-hydraulic-fracturing-for-earthquake-epidemic.html?pagewanted=all

    • csheble, you are absolutely correct and I sincerely apologize for the mistake. It seems I was reading other articles that contain references that suggest fracking may not be the cause of earthquakes and confused myself. I have gone back and edited the blog post and I definitely agree with you that there is a direct link between earthquakes and fracking even if the exact cause remains somewhat unclear. Thank you for pointing out my mistake, and once again, I apologize for the overlook.

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