Shale Shocked: “Highly Probable” Fracking Caused U.K. Earthquakes, and It’s Linked to Oklahoma Temblors

A previously unreported study out of the Oklahoma Geological Survey has found that hydraulic fracturing may have triggered a swarm of small earthquakes earlier this year in Oklahoma. The quakes, which struck on Jan. 18 in a rural area near Elmore City, peaked at magnitude 2.8 and caused no deaths or property damage.

The study, currently being prepared for peer review, follows news today that Cuadrilla Resources, a British shale gas developer, has found that it was “highly probable” its fracturing operations caused minor quakes of magnitude 2.3 and 1.5 in Lancashire, England. The Cuadrilla study could complicate the expansion of hydraulic fracturing for shale gas in risk-averse Europe, where France has already banned the practice.

That’s E&E News PM on the twin earth-shaking reports on an emerging concern about fracking, which involves blasting massive amounts of water through rock under high pressure to get the gas out.

If this had been happening to some renewable energy technology it would be all but fatal.  Oh, wait, it was:  “Fears of induced minor earthquakes have already complicated development of geothermal energy in regions like Nevada and Switzerland.”  See also LiveScience, “Earthquake Concerns Shake Geothermal Energy Projects.”

As the Economist notes in its piece:


[The UK study]  Geomechanical Study of Bowland Shale Seismicity, came out today, and found that it was “highly probable” that Cuadrilla’s activity did cause the shocks. It reckons they were caused by an “unusual combination of geology at the well site coupled with the pressure exerted by fracking”.

Mike Stephenson of the British Geological Survey says he is not surprised at the report’s conclusion that these shocks were connected to Cuadrilla’s activities — BGS’s analysis already showed that the shape of the seismic traces the two earthquakes made were similar to each other, suggesting that they had the same trigger….

So this is certainly a set back for the shale publicity machine. Beyond that, there are real questions here for Cuadrilla. Compared to drilling for conventional natural gas, shale extraction requires digging many more wells to get at the gas. Cuadrilla has already said it wants to drill at 400 sites in Lancashire. If fracking at one well can cause two small shocks, that must raise concerns about what fracking at 400 points would do.

E&E News has more details on the Oklahoma case:

Triggered earthquakes have also been tied to the long-standing American practice of injecting wastewater into wells. However, most geologists doubt that fracturing can muster similar seismic activity.That is exactly what the Oklahoma seismologist who prepared the study, Austin Holland, told the resident reporting the quakes, who mentioned that fracturing had begun the day before at a nearby well. Earthquakes are typically triggered by stresses more prolonged than those found in fracturing, a reason it is generally held in the geology business to cause seismic events of magnitudes less than zero.

“These were just normal naturally occuring earthquakes,” Holland told the resident.

But out of due diligence, Holland began examining the suite of almost 50 seismic events that followed the 2.8-magnitude quake. The majority of the microquakes struck within 3.5 kilometers of the fracturing well, Picket Unit B 4-18. The quakes were shallow and fit well in time and space with the start of fracturing in the nearby well. The geophysical model fit, too.

“The more and more we looked at it, it looked like it was a correlation,” Holland said.

In January, the Department of Energy set up a committee to examine the full range of environmental impacts of fracking.  I testified to the members and, in addition to raising the issue about methane leakage and global warming, I brought up the earthquake issue.

The committee said that they were indeed aware of this issue and ultimately the seven-member panel released a report of environmental guidelines for the natural gas industry, which included call on more research on “Understanding induced seismicity triggered by hydraulic fracturing and injection well disposal.”

I don’t consider this to be one of the 2 or 3 biggest concerns around fracking, but it is certainly one that bears considerably further study.

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24 Responses to Shale Shocked: “Highly Probable” Fracking Caused U.K. Earthquakes, and It’s Linked to Oklahoma Temblors

  1. Our age really is the Anthropocene.

    And we are affecting so many other geological strata than just the surface.

  2. Ominous Clouds Overhead says:

    I was in Denver in the mid-60s when they had a series of 4+ quakes caused by pumping crap into the lithosphere. Those did so some damage and also scared the shit out of a lot of people.

    In March 1962, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, a chemical weapons plant northeast of Denver, had begun injecting contaminated wastewater down a 12,045-foot well. The earthquakes started the next month.

    When the injections stopped temporarily in 1963, the number of earthquakes dropped. When the injections resumed in 1964, the number of earthquakes increased. The wastewater injections stopped permanently in early 1966, but the earthquakes didn’t stop until late 1968.

    How did the wastewater injections cause earthquakes? Scientists think that the wastewater acted as a lubricant that reduced friction between underground rocks, allowing them move more easily. When movement occurred on a sufficiently large scale, an earthquake resulted.

  3. Joan Savage says:

    Thanks and applause for pulling together this background report today, coming on top of the Reuters short piece. I’m forwarding to shaleshock folk.

  4. mike Roddy says:

    Anything below a 5 is pretty meaningless. Let’s save our outrage for big ones.

  5. prokaryotes says:

    I think there are a wide range of implications. For instance “empty caverns” then you have uptake in soil erosion from weathering, which increases with precipitation.

    And many small seismic events could cause a big one, to occur.

    There is recent science which links monsoon intensity to tectonic plate movement. Thus flood areas are prone to seismic events.

    How much weight does the thailnad flood contribute to the sinking of Bangkok?

    Monsoons spinning the Earth’s plates: study

    “When forces moving plates along their boundaries reach certain thresholds, earthquakes occur and energy is released. This happens cyclically, typically every several hundred years in the case of large earthquakes. However it appears that the seismic potential of plate boundaries, which is an indication of how prone these are to large earthquakes, depends, among other factors, also on how strong or weak these forces have been in the past. In other words, it depends also on the history of plates over millions of years.

    Climate change “steroids”, accelerates all the processes.

  6. Eric says:

    We need to be concerned about these small quakes, to hopefully prevent larger ones. When I was working in the oilfield in N. Central Texas, that’s exactly what we were doing. We would drill between 4000-8000 feet down and then another 4000-15000 feet horizontally within the shale. We would then frac a large majority of the horizontal portion, pump in a bunch of “heavy” water which would force the gas to travel to the well when complete. I always wondered if that could cause instability. What a corrupt industry, they don’t give a &^%$ about the environment or anything outside of the almighty $.

  7. Grady says:

    I’m no fan of fracking, but Iwould hesitate to use this as an argument against it. First, if it acts as a lubricant, isn’t it just releasing the pressure that is already there, possibly preventing a bigger quake later? Second, isn’t this the same argument used by NIMBYs against Geothermal power?

  8. Joan Savage says:

    In 1989, a 5.6 earthquake struck Newcastle in New South Wales, Australia.

    In January 2007, National Geographic reported:
    “That quake was triggered by changes in tectonic forces caused by 200 years of underground coal mining, according to a study by Christian D. Klose of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York.

    The quake wasn’t enormous, but Australia isn’t generally considered to be seismically active and the city’s buildings weren’t designed to withstand a temblor of that magnitude, Klose said.

    All told, he added, the monetary damage done by the earthquake exceeded the total value of the coal extracted in the area. ”

    Full article:

  9. Joan Savage says:

    Related: Denial of mortgages and insurance for properties that are either currently leased for gas exploration or have a prior history of gas exploration.

    I’m still working through a newly-published review of the topic by Elizabeth Radow.

    Elizabeth N. Radow, “Leases, Boon or Bust?”
    New York State Bar Association Journal, November/December 2011, Vol 83, No. 9, p.10-21. Published by The New York State Bar Association, One Elk Street, Albany New York 12207.

    Available either by subscription or via permitted distribution through

  10. Joan Savage says:

    Article full title:
    “Homeowners and Gas Drilling Leases: Boon or Bust?”

  11. BA says:

    In an Oct 13 2010 CNN article, “Central Oklahoma jolted by 4.3-magnitude earthquake,” it says they received a few reports of minor damage, primarily to windows and due to items falling from shelves and two people required medical care after falling. “At first I thought it could be an explosion,” said Capt. Tom Easley, of the Norman, Oklahoma, police. “You think of the worst possible scenario.” The article also says the quake was relatively shallow, at 3.1 miles deep and the closer a quake’s epicenter is to the Earth’s surface, the more shaking it can cause.

    Norman, Oklahoma, is also at the top of a list of 25 cities that had levels that exceeded California’s proposed limit of Hexavalent chromium (chromium VI). I wonder if there is a fracking connection?

  12. Patrick Linsley says:

    Has anyone done research on how over time several ‘small’ earthquakes (e.g. below 4) damages infrastructure or building and what material sustains more damage? I’d think wood and steel would be okay since both flex and in the case of steel has a stress life that if it doesn’t go over the limit won’t be damaged by it happening to it several times (unlike say aluminum, I learned this stuff watching a program on airline disasters). I would think concrete structures and overpasses might be in more danger.

  13. toyotabedzrock says:

    There is a 5 year running Mud Volcano erupting in Indonesia from Fracking.

  14. h4x354x0r says:

    There’s very little care given to the handling of fracking chemicals and compounds on the surface, too. Contamination is common. Just one more point of danger in all this.

    I wish we could stop wanting the energy so bad. We’re really tearing up our environment, and we’ve only got one of those.

  15. Sean Eaton says:

    We just experienced a 4.7 earthquake at 2:15 a.m. Epicenter is being reported as being approx. 6 miles north of Prague, OK (about 1 hour east of Oklahoma City)

  16. James Northrup says:

    Of course horizontal fracking causes earthquakes. It injects slick water into faults to open them up. And sand to keep them propped open. That’s how it works.

    If the frack hits a seismically active fault – like the San Andreas in California – the fault will slip. And you have an earthquake.

  17. Sean, do you have any more details on this? Any links?

  18. Sean Eaton says:


    We had another (larger) quake about 45 minutes ago. Here is the usgs link to the most recent one (it was a 5.6):

    Here’s the usgs from the one early this morning/late last night (4.7):

  19. Paul Hoover says:

    Wait for a big one? What magnitude should we wait for? I hope you have been through a 6 or 7 I have as a former resident of CA. I doubt many buildings can withstand that here in Kansas.

    We just had a small earthquake about 2 hours ago it was centered in OK. I was wondering gee will my waterbed fall into my basement if this is a big one. Fortunately it wasn’t. But those old feelings kicked in, a small shaking then waiting for the 1st jolt and run for the door way, but it never came.

  20. Rick says:

    Seems like a good way for terrorists to attack the USA…all they need is a deep well and a lot of water to inject and they can trigger a disaster if they concentrate on the right spot.

  21. Chris says:

    With fracking corporations like these, who needs terrorists?

  22. neil says:

    I think terrorists would have trouble getting permits.

  23. Michael Fliss says:

    11/7/11 NY Times piece on Oklahoma earthquake sets a record. Austin Holland comments.