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Thursday, July 11, 2013

Study Suggests That Wastewater Injection Could Trigger Major Earthquake

From Science magazine:
Earthquakes in unusual locations have become an important topic of discussion in both North America and Europe, owing to the concern that industrial activity could cause damaging earthquakes. It has long been understood that earthquakes can be induced by impoundment of reservoirs, surface and underground mining, withdrawal of fluids and gas from the subsurface, and injection of fluids into underground formations. Injection-induced earthquakes have, in particular, become a focus of discussion as the application of hydraulic fracturing to tight shale formations is enabling the production of oil and gas from previously unproductive formations. Earthquakes can be induced as part of the process to stimulate the production from tight shale formations, or by disposal of wastewater associated with stimulation and production. Here, I review recent seismic activity that may be associated with industrial activity, with a focus on the disposal of wastewater by injection in deep wells; assess the scientific understanding of induced earthquakes; and discuss the key scientific challenges to be met for assessing this hazard.
Read more here.

Of course, many were quick to latch onto this study and falsely put forth the notion that hydraulic fracturing can cause major earthquakes.  The study is focused on wastewater disposal into injection wells, and the abstract specifically states that fracking "appears to pose a low risk of inducing destructive earthquakes".  One of the first to falsely say that the study applies to fracking?
So, just to keep it straight, the scientists behind the study conclude that wastewater disposal could trigger a major earthquake if fault lines are not carefully considered in planning an injection site.  Science matters...and so do details.  Those who say this study suggests that fracking could cause a major earthquake are confused or they are lying.

That being said, the study raises an important, although not entirely original, point.  Regulations on injections wells need to be updated to carefully take into account faults and avoid a potential seismic disaster.  The fact that small quakes are capable of being produced from injection is rather well-established, as those in the Youngstown area can certainly attest to.  The idea of a major quake should cause states to carefully review their regulations, as Ohio did in the wake of the earthquakes that took place early last year.

Read more about the study in an NBC News article here.  An excerpt:
The fracking technique used to produce natural gas and oil involves shooting several million gallons of water laced with chemicals and sand deep underground to break apart chunks of shale rock, freeing trapped gas to escape through cracks and fissures into wells.
The process produces earthquakes that are almost all too small to be felt — the largest one linked directly to fracking is a magnitude 3.6 in the Horn River Basin of British Columbia, Canada, in 2009, Ellsworth noted in Science. 
The larger earthquakes are associated with injection of wastewater into underground wells, a technique used to dispose of the briny, polluted water that comes to the surface after a frack job is completed and a well is producing natural gas and oil.

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