Human Induced Earthquakes: Section 1 | Gas and Oil Exploration


Anthropogenic Earthquake Week at CatMap

Gas and Oil Drilling | Fracking Wastewater Injection | Massive Groundwater Extraction


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We homo sapiens have been triggering ever more powerful and ever more frequent earthquakes for more than a century. Few geologists will bother to quibble with that statement, although they are often reticent about the topic. Nevertheless, the cause and effect scenarios are solid enough that scientists use the term “induced seismicity” to describe earthquakes caused by humans.However, the degree and extent to which hominids are able to engineer the shaking, trembling and occasional collapse of the planet’s crust is a separate and more complex question. You may be surprised at the answers. In this seven section report, we will first examine the human activities that have been proven to cause earthquakes, and then move into areas that are more speculative, but certainly also possible.Human ability to screw things up in the natural world continues to escalate exponentially in both scale and range. We can excavate a new canyon in a matter of a few years, a process that required millions of years when scraped out by a river. We can flatten a mountain in a matter of months, a process that required eons when left to the wind. We can reduce a major city to rubble in a few seconds, when it previously required days of pillaging and plundering.

In spite of these clear realities, the notion that humans cause earthquakes surprises many people. We are conditioned to believe that quakes are a force of nature (or Providence) and not within the power of mankind. While most quakes are natural, it is well within our ever swelling destructive potential to trigger them in our quest for energy, resources, food and power.

In the most general sense, an earthquake is caused by an abrupt release of energy in the Earth’s crust. This generates seismic waves that merely shake the ground at the low end of the magnitude range, but at the upper end cause cataclysmic up thrusting of mountains, cracking open of crevasses, massive destruction and death. No human induced quakes have yet thrust up mountains that we know of, but three of the most destructive earthquakes of the past twenty-five years were triggered by our activities.

Arkansas Earthquake Swarms

In places such as Guy, Arkansas, earthquake swarms caused by wastewater injection are new but recurring inconvenience.

Fracking and Wastewater Injection

Of all human-induced earthquake cause-and-effect scenarios, the one that currently draws the most mainstream discussion is the hot button process called hydro-fracking or “fracking”. This is the process responsible for the opening to exploitation of vast shale deposits in the U.S. over the past decade. It also coincides with a quantifiable increase in the incidents of earthquake swarms around the country, a series of smallish tremors that occur often, sometimes many times a day. As we will see, the quakes are not all small.

If you think this is all conspiracy theory, we refer again to the USGS report cited in the introduction, which officially links “natural” gas1 drilling activities with seismic activity in Arkansas, Alabama, Oklahoma, Texas, Youngstown, Ohio, Colorado, West Virginia, Virginia and Wyoming. This activity is almost always in the form of earthquake swarms. While the national media isn’t falling over itself reporting oil and gas induced local tremors, a minimal search on your part will yield plenty of stories confirming these events chronicles in credible regional news sources.

The government study was led by USGS geophysicist William Ellsworth, who wrote on the record: “A naturally-occurring rate change of this magnitude is unprecedented outside of volcanic settings or in the absence of a main shock, of which there were neither in this region.”2

Due to the fact that the U.S. is engaged in a record breaking natural gas drilling bonanza, we can expect more of these earthquake swarms in the future. The rest of the planet is not far behind, including Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, Poland and England. Indeed, tremors began immediately following the 2011 drilling of an exploratory well in Blackpool, England, resulting in a immediate ban on hydro fracking. However, once the immense amounts of money at stake became appreciated, the moratorium was lifted and hydro fracking will begin apace in the U.K.

Liberating the Methane
A key detail in the fracking / earthquake relationship is that in most cases it is not the actual drilling that causes underground destabilization, but the rather process of disposing of waste chemicals underground. This is how it works:

Fracking technology requires drilling deep into shale deposits and injecting millions of gallons of nasty lubricating chemicals underground. These chemicals are called fracking fluids. This high pressure technique causes the rock formations to slip against each other and frees up trapped deposits of natural gas / methane. Ideally, the liberated methane gas flows into storage tanks and pipelines and eventually into the homes and businesses of citizens. (Not always – sometimes methane blows up towns and neighborhoods – but that’s a different topic.)

After the injection process, most of those lubricating chemicals are recaptured in the form of “wastewater”. This stuff is the real problem, because there are tens of millions of gallons of it requiring disposal. Wastewater is not really much like actual “water” but rather a witch’s brew of the original hazardous materials that were sent underground to break up the rock plus contaminants it absorbed while it was down there. Except in states like Pennsylvania, where it may legally be dumped into rivers3, the waste fracking fluids are usually re-injected into deep wells purpose-drilled for “permanent” storage. As you can imagine, there are more and more of these wells as the pace of drilling develops into a global frenzy.
Depending on the geologic conditions and the competency of the disposal company, wastewater may migrate in unpredictable ways. It may also have the unintended consequence of lubricating underground fault interfaces. Sometimes the random migration of wastewater also causes groundwater contamination, but that is not our primary concern here. Our concern is that this additional lubrication may cause the rock to move and create tremors of varying intensities. Most swarm tremors are small, but they happen frequently, with dozens taking place daily for extended periods of time in some cases. Given a choice, most people would prefer not to experience earthquake swarms. But no one is given a choice.
Whatever their magnitude, the occurrence of injection well related earthquake swarms is increasing as the drilling companies fan out over the planet with their trucks, rigs and boom towns4. In places like Youngstown, OH – on the western edge of the Marcellus Shale – there had never been any earthquake at all prior to those induced by fracking wastewater injection wells. In that incident, injection wells operated by D&L Energy were shut down by the Ohio Oil & Gas Commission. A D&L well was also near the epicenter of a series of Youngstown-area earthquakes in 2011.

Rhetoric By Voldemort
By way of setting a smokescreen, spokes models for gas drilling interests are quick to point out that “fracking does not cause earthquakes, waste water injection wells do.”5 This is one of those statements concocted by professional liars that is so patently farcical that it might actually seem true. The missing component in the lie, of course, is that there would be no wastewater without fracking, the process that produces it in the first place. If you accept the corporate statement at face value, this glaring omission is simply skipped over and effectively removed from the equation, as if Voldemort had created a magical version of evil algebra.

Similarly, many scientists on industry payrolls deny any link between gas /oil exploration and earthquakes, using the argument that the industry has been using fracking technology for 60 years. That is true, but the technology currently employed is quite different than the traditional methods. High volume slick water fracking, the technology driving the current drilling bonanza, uses far more water than standard methods – 70 to 300 times more. Slickwater fracking requires 2 to 7 millions gallons per well, compared to 20,000 to 80,000. A lot more fluids, a lot more wastewater to dispose of.
It has only been a dozen years since “slick-water” fracking has been in use, about the amount of time earthquake swarms have begun to manifest themselves on a large scale. It’s like, let’s see…comparing assault weapons to hunting rifles.

Earthquakes Courtesy of the U.S. Army
If you are one of the well informed minority who has followed the nearly invisible earthquake swarm reports over the past few years, the unambiguous conclusions from the USGS study should come as no surprise. But you may be a little shocked to hear that this is all yesterday’s news to geologists: Scientists first connected the underground disposal of waste water with induced earthquakes in Colorado back in the 60’s, when waste injections from the Rocky Mountain Arsenal triggered local earthquake swarms. That’s right, in 1961, the Army decided that the best way to dispose of toxic waste from napalm production (among other things) was to drill a 12,000-foot well in the Rocky Mountains and inject the bad stuff deep into the crust of the Earth. From 1962 to 1966, the Army deposited 165 million gallons of toxic waste into the artificial cavern. That’s just how the Army rolls. Unfortunately, the injections quickly triggered earthquakes in the region, and the Army eventually shut the operation down. The stuff is still down there, a small portion of 30 trillion gallons (that we know of) of murky toxic waste gurgling beneath America’s bright malls and thrilling amusement parks on the surface.

The Guy, Arkansas tremors of 2010 – 2011 are a typical example of wastewater disposal-induced earthquake swarms that took the residents by surprise. The area is home to a classic gas drilling frenzy, which opened up in 2008. While the region is not historically immune to quakes, the 2010 increase in frequency was statistically phenomenal, with a dozen quakes per diem becoming the norm. Eventually the Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission shut down the four wells in the vicinity and imposed a moratorium on new wells. The operators of the well, Clarita Operating LLC filed for bankruptcy and left the mess to the Arkansas taxpayers. After more than 1300 quakes, they stopped.

In other words, the USGS research only confirms what we already knew: injection wells cause quakes, including delayed tremors as the fluids continue to migrate underground. The attitude of the drilling companies is sanguine: OK, maybe injection wells do cause little tiny quakes but there is no real danger. You sissies should just man up and learn to like it. There are jobs at stake. Not for you, necessarily, but for our out of town roughnecks. And we’ll be gone in seven to ten years anyway, so what’s the big deal?

New earthquake swarms in Arkansas continued on into 2013, with two dozen quakes shaking up the area around Morrilton during May. Is there a relationship to two new injection well drilled in the same area, apparently just outside the previous moratorium area. An Arkansas Geological Survey scientist by the name of Scott Ausbrook provided this insight: “The best probability at this point is they are natural, but we can’t rule out the possibility that there may be a relationship.” Then he said, “The chances of so many temblors in the region in such a short time are “Powerball kind of odds.” Those are big odds, but in the hands of a $600 an hour gas company corporate attorney, they would not constitute irrefutable proof in the case of a lawsuit. ‘Cause guess who writes the laws.

Or consider the experience of Braxton County, WV, which hosted a series of “freak” earthquakes in 2010. A nearby well had been injected with 10.6 million gallons of waste brine from Marcellus Shale sites starting in June 2009, causing the locals to suspect a cause and effect. But officials of the West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey said the earthquakes were a mere coincidence despite the area’s negligible history of any seismic activity. Eventually, the West Virginia Oil and Gas Commission compelled disposal companies to lower the pressure and rate of salt water injection into the bedrock, which significantly reduced the instances of earthquakes. Similarly,
a study by Southern Methodist University and University of Texas-Austin documented the fact that earthquakes erupted in the Dallas/Fort Worth area shortly after a disposal well there began operating in 2008. When it was shut down, the tremors stopped.

From this we conclude there are two kinds of geologists: those who get paid by the extraction industry and those who don’t. The disparity between their conclusions is striking.

“The Mirror in the Bathroom Exploded as If someone Blew It Out With A Shotgun.”
When they will admit a relationship at all, oil and gas interests claim there has been no catastrophic damage from waste water disposal well induced earthquakes.6 But consider this description of a 5.7 magnitude Prague, Oklahoma seismic event November 5, 2011. The surprise tremblor caused serious property damage, including knocking a spire off a five story building, destroying fourteen homes and caused three sections of U.S. Route 62 to buckle7. Other effects: the weekend’s tremors were reportedly felt as far away as Illinois, Kansas, Arkansas, Tennessee and Texas.

One of those homes belonged to Joe Reneau, a local rancher and Army vet. Here is how he described the event, which lasted for over a minute. “There was a horrendous bang, like an airliner crashing in our backyard. The dust was flying and we were hanging onto the bed watching the walls go back and forth. The mirror in the vanity exploded as if somebody blew it out with a shotgun.

Every corner of the house was fractured and our 28-foot-tall freestanding chimney had come through the roof.” 8

So, what’s your definition of catastrophic, Fracking Dudes? Do people have to die? What is the minimum death toll?

In March, 2013, wastewater disposal was confirmed as the trigger for the Prague earthquake and ongoing seismic events in the area. The research was conducted by the University of Oklahoma, Columbia University and the U.S. Geological Survey, and published in the science journal Geology. According to the report, the wastewater well in the Prague quake and shake were from oil operations rather than gas. A distinction, we suggest, without a difference.

For the extraction industries, the term for taxpayers who get in the way of oil, gas and mining is “collateral damage.”

Oklahoma Earthquake Swarms

Long Term Extraction
Three of the largest human-induced seismic events in history occurred near the Gazli natural-gas field in Uzbekistan in 1976, including a 7.3 magnitude quake. The combination of liquid extraction and injection changed the tectonic action in the field, a scenario confirmed by Russian scientists. Earthquakes were virtually unknown in the Gazli region prior to the discovery of gas fields in the region in 1956.

Lest we be accused of unfairly singling out the oil and gas industries, we should also mention a different earthquake cause and effect scenario: extracting massive quantities of groundwater from underground aquifers. The 2011 killer earthquake in Lorca, Spain is attributed to deep and prolonged extraction of groundwater for agriculture. The multinational study by Nature Geoscience found that farmers in the region have been drilling deeper and deeper for over 50 years, sucking up more water each year. The activity caused the water table to drop by 275 vertical yards over the years. The decades long activity weakened an underground basin near an existing fault line and triggered the catastrophic event. Researchers compare the effect to that of a giant sponge from which all the water has been drained, allowing part of the underground rock structure to collapse.
The 5.3 magnitude tremor caused millions of dollars of damage, killed nine people and injured hundreds, in part because the epicenter was close to the surface. The study noted that the aftershocks were all concentrated in the area of the depleted basin.
These findings are compelling for several reasons. Although it has nothing to do with the overwhelming evidence linking underground injection of hydrocarbon fluids to multiple earthquake swarms, the Lorca event shows that the extraction of mass amounts of water from underground has the same effect. Since any research that links energy extraction companies to any disastrous outcome is immediately demonized by the powers that be, this story is all the more difficult to ignore. The disaster was caused by farmers but nevertheless demonstrates the causal principle.
As is the case with global warming, earthquakes have become political to the point where the discourse is grimly predictable. By “political”, we mean that some good ole boys are making lots of big, short term money and screwing up a lot of people’s lives in the process of exploiting public resources. The political component is that the good ole boys win every time, eventually. And yet it is worth noting that the finger pointing at fracking was not originally done by scaredy cat left wing alarmist types such as ourselves. The whistle was blown by the USGS and various Departments of Geology in states like Arkansas and Oklahoma. These areas are not known for their progressive ideas.

1. All natural, All American methane is an explosive fossil fuel and a greenhouse gas ten times more potent than carbon dioxide. It also blows up. The extraction of natural methane causes air pollution in the area, ground water pollution and has now been linked to livestock deaths. The drilling industry downplays these effects.
2. This a quite a brave statement from a man who must be aware that the henchmen of industrial mayhem at FOX News stand ready to humiliate him, dispute his findings and compromise his reputation with their teams of scientific experts.
3. The fracking industry has escaped almost all regulation due to what is called the Haliburton exception, slipped through Congress as a favor to Dick Cheney.
4. The other half of boom is bust, and in every case the reserves estimated by the companies are ten years at most.
5. Cigarettes don’t cause cancer, smoking them causes cancer.
6. And yet, secret meetings are taking place on this very topic. In September 2012, the Society of Petroleum Engineers held it’s first ever workshop on the topic of injection induced seismicity. But the event and its proceedings were closed to the public and the press. For some reason.
7. Do you suppose the drilling companies are going to pay for the damage?
8. Quotation from a Michael Behar article in a Mother Jones March/April 2013 issue.

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