Fracking May Pose Greater Earthquake Risk Than Previously Believed
May 4, 2014

Wastewater Disposal From Fracking Could Lead To ‘Induced Seismicity’

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

The risk of fracking-related underground wastewater disposal could pose a far greater risk of causing earthquakes than experts have previously realized, especially in the US Southwest and Midwest, scientists revealed Thursday at the annual Seismological Society of America (SSA) conference.

According to Patrick J. Kiger of National Geographic, the reason why those regions are the most at-risk is because the fault lines there have yet to be extensively mapped. Furthermore, experts are currently unable to predict which wastewater injection sites could pose a threat to buildings, power plants or other essential parts of the infrastructure.

The seismologists addressed the press via teleconference, and said that they are not certain what could be done to eliminate these potential hazards. They noted that recent research indicates disposal wells could have an impact on earthquake faults located miles away, and emphasized that the link between fracking wastewater disposal and earthquakes needs to be analyzed more thoroughly, the National Geographic reporter added.

“The warning comes as evidence continues to accumulate that the activities associated with the North American oil and gas boom can lead to unintended, man-made tremors, or ‘induced seismicity,’ as researchers call it,” Kiger said, adding that while the fracking process itself has been associated with earthquakes, in most cases the cause of such seismic activity is “injection of fracking wastewater into disposal wells.”

University of Western Ontario earth sciences professor Dr. Gail Atkinson admitted to Kiger that most seismologists “don’t know how to evaluate the likelihood that a [fracking or wastewater] operation will be a seismic source in advance.” However, she was part of a research team who reported that induced seismicity could post a “significant” risk to critical infrastructure.

In January 2012, officials at D&L Energy in Youngstown, Ohio suspended operations at a fracking wastewater well after it was suggested that disposal of the wastewater could have triggered seismic activity in the state. Eleven earthquakes occurred in the Youngstown area in 2011, including a New Year’s Eve one that measured magnitude 4.0.

A few months later, in June, a report completed by the National Research Council at the behest of Congress found that additional research was needed to probe the potential link between earthquakes and the fracking industry. The authors of that study did confirm, however, that the practice of hydraulic fracturing was indeed “the cause for small felt seismic events at one location in the world.”

At the SSA meeting, US Geological Survey geophysicist Art McGarr said that in most cases, wastewater injection wells do not appear to be causing any seismic activity, wrote Kiger. However, he reiterated that there are a few wells that have been linked to earthquakes. He also released a paper at the event which revealed that relatively high wastewater volume and high injection rates made it more likely that an earthquake strong enough to be felt by humans would occur.

Last month, Oklahoma Oil and Gas Association President Chad Warmington, told Bloomberg News that the link between injection wells and earthquakes was inconclusive. He added that his organization was “trying to make sure we understand what data the state needs in order to start making some determinations on cause and effect. We don’t want anybody to jump to conclusions.”

Those comments were made in the wake of reports that Oklahoma had already experienced more earthquakes strong enough to be felt during the first four months of 2014 than they had during all of the previous year. As of April 6, the state experienced its 109th earthquake of at least magnitude 3, Oklahoma Geological Survey research seismologist Austin Holland told Bloomberg, and others have followed since that time.