Scientists convinced of tie between earthquakes and drilling

Posted Apr 23, 2015 by Karen Graham
The evidence is coming in fast and furious, showing us that the U.S. drilling boom is responsible for the dramatic increase in the number of earthquakes being felt around the country.
Anti-fracking protesters in New York City  August 2012.
Anti-fracking protesters in New York City, August 2012.
Scientists are more certain than ever that the hundreds and hundreds of earthquakes across the country are caused by oil and gas drilling operations. So far, most of the quakes have been relatively minor, cracking plaster and shattering nerves, but seismologists are worried the shaking will dramatically increase our chances of bringing on a big earthquake.
For years, the oil and gas industry has scoffed at the idea of drilling causing earthquakes, saying more scientific data was needed. But with the latest studies, there may be enough proof to bring heavier regulation of the industry, making it more difficult to get approval for new projects.
Fracking the Bakken Formation in North Dakota.
Fracking the Bakken Formation in North Dakota.
Joshua Doubek (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Jason Bordoff, the founding director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University is very concerned about the dangers of continued drilling without stiffer regulations. He says the possibility of causing man-made quakes "is an important and legitimate concern that must be taken very seriously by regulators and industry."
Bordoff says states and the industry can reduce the risk of earthquakes by closer monitoring, imposing stricter standards and recycling waste-water, instead of injecting it back into the ground.
Besides all the government and academic studies that have been done over the past several years, two new studies were released this week. They add to the growing body of evidence that implicates the U.S. oil and gas drilling boom, despite the bounty of jobs created and the tax revenues seen.
The injection of waste-water deep underground is the culprit
A number of earthquakes are actually blamed on fracking, the injection of large volumes of water, sand and chemicals into the ground to "fracture" or crack rock formations, releasing the oil or gas. It is the disposal of the waste-water that is causing the most trouble. "The picture is very clear" that waste-water injection can cause faults to move, said USGS geophysicist William Ellsworth.
Cumulative number of earthquakes with a magnitude of 3.0 or larger in the central and eastern United...
Cumulative number of earthquakes with a magnitude of 3.0 or larger in the central and eastern United States, 1973-2014. The rate of earthquakes began to increase starting around 2009 and accelerated in 2013-2014.
The waste-water derived from fracking is a mix of "very salty water that includes some metals, chlorides, waste-water and toxic organics," according to the U.S. Army’s Rocky Mountain Arsenal (RMA). In 1961, the RMA drilled a deep injection well to a depth of 12,045 feet. Over the years, liquid waste was injected into the well until a halt was ordered in 1966. The reason for the halt? The liquid injection was “triggering earthquakes in the area,” according to the RMA.
In July of 2001, the Environmental Protection Agency released an 87-page study, “Technical Program Overview: Underground Injection Control Regulations EPA 816-r-02-025." In that report, the EPA indicted that deep well injection caused seismic events in regions of the U.S.
Research has identified 17 areas in the central and eastern United States with increased rates of in...
Research has identified 17 areas in the central and eastern United States with increased rates of induced seismicity. Since 2000, several of these areas have experienced high levels of seismicity, with substantial increases since 2009 that continue today.
On Thursday, the U.S. Geological Survey released a comprehensive map of the U.S. pinpointing areas in the central and eastern part of the country that have seen earthquakes that researchers say were triggered by drilling operations. The report also noted that earthquakes in these areas were on the rise.
And on Tuesday this week, a study in the journal Nature Communications, described how a swarm of small earthquakes west of Fort Worth, Texas were linked to nearby natural gas wells and waste-water injection wells. With all the evidence, The American Petroleum Institute says the industry is working with regulators and scientists "to better understand the issue and work toward collaborative solutions."
But despite all the evidence, the EPA has already said they have no plans to change the regulations. "We knew there would be challenges there, but they can be overcome," EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said Thursday at an energy conference in Houston.