Scientists Strengthen Link Between Prolonged Fracking and Large Quakes

fracking_NW_Colo_TimHurstScientists have known for years that injection site activity for hydraulic fracturing can cause earthquakes. A study conducted by Southwestern Methodist University  and the University of Texas  in 2010 found that there was “plausible” evidence that injection wells were causing earthquakes in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

But nine different studies  looking at recent earthquake sites in north, central and south Texas have now confirmed that suspicion. Some of the quakes have been strong enough to damage houses and infrastructure. That includes the most recent swarm of quakes around the city of Azle, where a team of researchers have been mobilized to measure and pinpoint the cause of hundreds of events in the area.  The increase has also alarmed residents in nearby Reno, where residents – including one mom nicknamed “The Digger” for her ability to push the limits on this issue – and the town mayor are stepping to the forefront to call for more investigation into why sinkholes and tremors are occurring near fracking sites.

Now scientists are warning that repeated wastewater injection necessary as part of hydraulic fracturing can increase the chance of quakes in areas where fault lines haven’t been taken into consideration.

Last month, during the Seismological Society of America annual meeting in Anchorage, Alaska scientists reported that in some cases, injection site activity appeared to trigger quakes. After a 5.7 magnitude earthquake was registered in central Oklahoma a few years ago, researchers pinpointed the event to less than 700 feet from an injection site and determined that the introduction of wastewater through the injection site was altering the pressure on a nearby fault.

What’s more, said the study’s principal investigator, Dr. Katie Keranen, the injection site doesn’t need to be next to the fault for it to affect seismic activity, since “pressure can travel,” said Keranen. So according to the research, years of wastewater injection that doesn’t appear to be adjacent to a fault line can still cause enough pressure to spur earthquakes — including large ones.

That’s bad news for states like Colorado, where seismic activity is relatively overlooked, but is actually fairly frequent, says the Colorado Geological Survey, and has already been linked to waste fluid injections. The early stages of hydraulic fracturing actually go back to the 1950s and 1960s in Colorado, where some of the first earthquakes from fracking were recorded, and exploration has been prolific.

But as far as the Texas’ Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas exploration in the Lone Star State, sees it, all of this is still conjecture. While the commissioners have agreed to investigate the issue, the debate hasn’t slowed the pace of fracking or the use of wastewater injection sites in north and east Texas.

But it has increased public scrutiny on the issue. On Wednesday (June 18) the topic will be discussed again, this time in the small city of Azle. Residents and local media will be hosting a forum to discuss the data that suggests that the increase in seismic activity may not be Mother Nature’s fault.

Note: We know that the topic of whether fracking and/or re-injection sites can cause seismic activity, and welcome readers’ comments on this issue. Due to space considerations, the writer did not include the breadth of research on this topic, but the following sources may be helpful for further reading:

Southern California Earthquake Center: Investigating Earthquakes Through Regional Seismicity – Footnote: Do any man-made influences affect seismicity? – This provides a good historical overview of events and research relating to water sources and seismic activity. The creation of Lake Mead in 1936 was a starting point for this research, followed by the results of injection well research in Colorado in the 1960s. Keep in mind that the technology to bore to levels that are now used in wastewater injection sites is relatively new. At this time, it is unclear how deep the injection site needs to be to initiate seismic activity.

Further reading on research connecting wastewater injection sites (and on a rarer scale, fracking) can also be found through USGS.

Image courtesy of Tim Hurst

Jan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

20 responses

    1. Says who? It’s been well established that fracking has led to earthquakes in Ohio. Granted, these are very minor earthquakes, so whether or not it’s actually hazardous is indeed debatable.

      1. Says any geologist or geophysicist that has studied the issue. There is a link to high volume injection wells and seismic activity but not to fracking. Maybe the author is just ignorant and not trying to promote misinformation, but I doubt it.

        1. Hi Robert W and Oklahoma Sam – thanks for you comments!
          Actually, seismic activity has not been ruled out as a potential product of hydraulic fracturing. The USGS confirms that there have been a small number of incidents attributed to fracturing. No minimum depth has been established to date to determine what will cause an earthquake or tremor, and high-powered water sources are used in fracturing as well. Research on this is ongoing.

          However, seismic activity *has* been linked fairly strongly to to wastewater injection, as my updates indicate. Please see the added note, plus feel free to check out the nine different surveys done on this topic noted in the post.

          Robert, since watewater injection is a current part of hydraulic fracturing, my reference to “fracking” in the first sentence was referring to this relationship. However, I’ve taken your comment into consideration and clarified my wording. Thanks for the heads-up!

      2. Sorry Oky, but Robert is correct. The wells in Ohio were deep injection wells many miles away from the shale gas fields. It is a very different operation and different impact underground. The people writing these studies muddy the waters all the time but then deep in the reports they make a clear statement differentiating them. The press never gets into it though.

        1. Thanks Dutchman61 for your comment.
          The research I referenced noted that, and pointed out that pressure travels. That was cited to point out that distance is being determined to be less important than the industry first thought.

          Also, please see my comment above: Safe depth/minimum depth has not yet been determined, but historical research dating into the mid-1990s indicate that this is not a phenomena linked with the current depths used. But I would be interested in hearing about new research in this issue.

          Thanks again!

  1. Injection wells are different from fracking and the reporter should have enough brain cells to figure that out. Injection wells are generally extremely deep and they force tens of thousands of gallons of liquid into the rock. The liquid and its effects can travel for miles along micro faults. Fracking uses a shock wave to open cracks and put sand in to wedge them open so oil and gas can escape. The impact of the 100,000 psi shockwave is on average 100 feet. The liquid is recovered and additional liquid is removed. They are very different. If there was a pattern, why is it that it is not obvious with over 1,000,000 wells fracked world wide? By comparison, there are only a few thousand deep injection wells and there is a documented impact from hundreds of them.

    1. Thanks Dutchman61. This reporter takes note – and does have. I

      I’d be interested in knowing what the actual depth was for the Colorado incidents in the 1960s. If you happen to know, please feel free to write me through TriplePundit. I’d love to hear!

  2. I live in oklahoma and we had the epicenter of a quake near a fracking site. In fact the frequency of quakes has increased over the last couple of years. As long as there is money to be made then people who cannt or will not think for themselves will be duped into believing that climate change is not real and that fracking is safe.

  3. This article is a bunch of bologne! Many other studies show no link between hydraulic fracturing and earthquakes. The “enviro wackos” are at it again! Why don’t you blokes quit wasting valuable time, and spend your energy and resources on something more useful. Oil/Gas production is here to stay because we know of no other substance on earth that can produce plastics without it. You cannot manufacture these materials from corn,water nor wind. Please quit the silliness!

    1. Thanks Glenn for your comment.
      Our aim here is to report on the news that emerges on this topic. We’ve provided 11 sources ranging from research at accredited universities to the U.S. Geological Survey and affiliated industry discussions, with data dating back to the mid-1900s. It’s major news if you have credible sources that refute these studies, and I am sure the USGS would be thrilled to hear it.

  4. Really wondering why people tend to be so nasty in comments and responses. In these few comments, we have somebody wondering about the reporter’s brain cells, somebody else calling the article a ‘piece of garbage’ and ‘propaganda,’ another talking about it being baloney and calling the author an enviro-wackers… Whatever happened to the concept of civility? And also maybe discussing the ideas, instead of attacking the author personally – wondering about his cognitive ability or calling the entire issue out as garbage. Wondering if it’s possible for you people (phrase used on purpose to lump together people who are deliberately rude to others online) to debate facts and points, without being negative personally and attacking the person / writer / thinker, etc?

    1. Why does the media report only the problem? Let’s stop dwelling on the issue and discuss a solution. And as we discuss the solution lets consider the positives the media never reports.

      Below are benefits of natural gas:

      Natural gas serves approximately 65 million homes; 5 million businesses like hotels, restaurants, hospitals, schools and supermarkets; 193,000 factories; and 5,500 electric generating units. On a daily basis, the average U.S. home uses more than 200 cubic feet of natural gas.

      1. By adopting conservation practices and converting to high efficiency natural gas appliances natural gas customers saved 81 trillion British thermal units (TBtu) of energy in 2010, which is the equivalence of 4.2 million metric tons of CO2 emissions.
        SUPPLY & USAGE

        1. Hi Solution Driven,
          Thanks for your valuable points here. I don’t think these scientists or the residents affected by these
          quakes are questioning the value of the product necessarily, but the
          outcome of the approach. It seems to be a common thread in many issues
          these days, as our ability to see and understand the plausible impact of the approach
          we’ve been using. That’s a real technological advantage that we didn’t
          have when we first started using hydraulic fracturing techniques (and
          the associated wastewater injection methods). Seems like the challenge we haven’t met is finding a way that addresses all concerns on this front with our current approach.

    2. Couldn’t agree more Teresa! Perhaps its because its largely “anonymous” – I often wonder would people who make impolite remarks like this say the same thing if it were a face to face?

      I would respectfully suggest thats the lens we ought to view any comment we write through. and particularly when we don’t know the person – as will be the case with almost all online discussions..

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