17 September 2014
Shake, Rattle and Frack
Posted by Dan Satterfield
A new study was published today in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, by three USGS scientists, and it’s the latest in a growing number of scientific studies that show that deep injection of waste water during fracking is causing earthquakes. It seems pretty likely that a quake will do damage in a fracking zone soon, and all this science will be moved into a courtroom. The graph above from the USGS is going to be tough to discredit with a jury. I’ve talked with some seismologists who believe that the increased activity along faults may make the risk of a larger and more damaging quake more likely.
A summary from the Seismological Society of America is below:
SAN FRANCISCO – The deep injection of wastewater underground is responsible for the dramatic rise in the number of earthquakes in Colorado and New Mexico since 2001, according to a study to be published in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America (BSSA).
The Raton Basin, which stretches from southern Colorado into northern New Mexico, was seismically quiet until shortly after major fluid injection began in 1999. Since 2001, there have been 16 magnitude > 3.8 earthquakes (including M 5.0 and 5.3), compared to only one (M 4.0) the previous 30 years. The increase in earthquakes is limited to the area of industrial activity and within 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) of wastewater injection wells.
In 1994, energy companies began producing coal-bed methane in Colorado and expanded production to New Mexico in 1999. Along with the production of methane, there is the production of wastewater, which is injected underground in disposal wells and can raise the pore pressure in the surrounding area, inducing earthquakes. Several lines of evidence suggest the earthquakes in the area are directly related to the disposal of wastewater, a by-product of extracting methane, and not to hydraulic fracturing occurring in the area.
Beginning in 2001, the production of methane expanded, with the number of high-volume wastewater disposal wells increasing (21 presently in Colorado and 7 in New Mexico) along with the injection rate. Since mid-2000, the total injection rate across the basin has ranged from 1.5 to 3.6 million barrels per month.
The authors, all scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey, detail several lines of evidence directly linking the injection wells to the seismicity. The timing and location of seismicity correspond to the documented pattern of injected wastewater. Detailed investigations of two seismic sequences (2001 and 2011) places them in proximity to high-volume, high-injection-rate wells, and both sequences occurred after a nearby increase in the rate of injection. A comparison between seismicity and wastewater injection in Colorado and New Mexico reveals similar patterns, suggesting seismicity is initiated shortly after an increase in injection rates.
The study, “The 2001-Present Induced Earthquake Sequence in the Raton Basin of Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado,” is co-authored by Justin Rubinstein, William Ellsworth, Arthur McGarr and Harley Benz of the U.S. Geological Survey. The study will be published online by BSSA on September 16 and in the October print issue.
It is not the fracking that causes the quake. The driller pumps a small lake’s worth of water into the ground at pressures that would blow down a building if they were directed at one but all that is but for a short time. Most of the above is brought back to the surface as flow back. The wild pressure and the lake’s worth of water do not stay down hole, they do with an injection well. The problem is: what to do with the waste water? The injection model is problematic, we have had quakes related to injection wells here in Ohio dating to the mid-eighties. I remember one quake that was in the fives from an injection well I worked on (rehabbing the thing so it would take more fluid!) . Of course, there was no proof. We are letting the drilling industry flush waste water back into our environment that would not be considered for a steel mill or a car plant. It is all about policy Dan.
Yes, that is why I was careful to say “fracking related activities”.
“That deep injection of waste water during fracking is causing earthquakes”:is what set me off. Injection wells. oh yes, that is a problem and not just for oil field waste, the fiveish earthquake I cited above was from a Union Carbide injection well for disposing of industrial waste from their plant in Painesville, Ohio on the shores of Lake Erie. The well was to the point where it would not take any more fluid. We pumped 3000 gallons of very hot sulfuric acid, mixed with it about a half ton of crystal sulfuric acid, packed 15,000 gallons of water on top of the acid and pumped it all down the pipe at about 10,000 psi. About a week latter there was a 5 plus earthquake about 5 miles out in Lake Erie. I’m not a big fan of injection well disposal.
I like the new horizontal drilling practice. There is far less environmental surface damage from the new wells. What used to take at least ten well sites, takes one today and there is far less oil & gas left in the ground with the new technology. We are already seeing reports here in Ohio of small firms using the new drilling methods to go back and re-drill stripped out fields with some success.
As to the waste, it should go to a sewer plant designed to handle frack water and be reused, over and over again. Will it cost more? At first, sure, as infrastructure is expensive. What is our fossil water worth? And lubing up a fault with millions of tons of high pressure slippery waste frack water is rolling the dice more than I am willing to risk. Faults that slip at depths of five miles are considered shallow and cause more surface disruption.
The issue is one of progress. In the past we dumped our crud in the river or threw it over the hill, we learned to do things better over time. The injection well needs to go the way of the pipe pouring waste into the local river.