Different Kind Of Boom: Replacing Extracted Oil And Gas With Toxic Wastewater Causes Earthquakes

A 2011 magnitude 5.7 quake in OK, linked to wastewater injection, buckled US Highway 62. (Credit: John Leeman)

After pulling massive amounts of fossil fuels out of the Earth’s crust so we can burn it up into our atmosphere, we have a good sense of where the stuff goes. Our oceans. A global greenhouse. Our lungs. But what happens to the ground formerly occupied by those fossil fuels?

It’s becoming increasingly clear that oil and gas extraction processes are actually weakening the structural integrity of the Earth’s crust just enough to cause more frequent earthquakes, in places not used to them.

Oklahoma, for instance, is not known for earthquakes. Yet the central U.S. has seen an elevenfold jump in recent years, including the Sooner State’s largest earthquake on record. This 5.7-magnitude quake occurred on November 6, 2011 near Prague, Oklahoma. And research published yesterday in Geology from the University of Oklahoma, Columbia University, and the U.S. Geological Survey has made a direct connection to the disposal of wastewater from conventional oil production:

A new study in the journal Geology is the latest to tie a string of unusual earthquakes, in this case, in central Oklahoma, to the injection of wastewater deep underground. Researchers now say that the magnitude 5.7 earthquake near Prague, Okla., on Nov. 6, 2011, may also be the largest ever linked to wastewater injection. Felt as far away as Milwaukee, more than 800 miles away, the quake — the biggest ever recorded in Oklahoma — destroyed 14 homes, buckled a federal highway and left two people injured. Small earthquakes continue to be recorded in the area.

The recent boom in U.S. energy production has produced massive amounts of wastewater. The water is used both in hydrofracking, which cracks open rocks to release natural gas, and in coaxing petroleum out of conventional oil wells. In both cases, the brine and chemical-laced water has to be disposed of, often by injecting it back underground elsewhere, where it has the potential to trigger earthquakes. The water linked to the Prague quakes was a byproduct of oil extraction at one set of oil wells, and was pumped into another set of depleted oil wells targeted for waste storage.

As Climate Progress has written before, this practice of disposing chemical-laced water generated during the extraction of oil and gas has far-reaching effects. Drillers have been doing this for more than a decade, and the researchers note that the Oklahoma quake did not actually require very much wastewater. In fact, because we have been doing this for so long, the built-up pressure in the Earth’s crust changes the criteria of how quakes happen. The study’s abstract notes:

Significantly, this case indicates that decades-long lags between the commencement of fluid injection and the onset of induced earthquakes are possible, and modifies our common criteria for fluid-induced events.

So we could be paying for more than a decade of wastewater injection and fracking for quite some time with earthquakes. There’s not much more room 9,000 feet down. Wellhead records indicate that pressure in these areas underground increased by a factor of ten from 2001 to 2006.

Fracking usually receives more attention for seismic activity than wastewater injection. Ohio banned fracking “to stop the ground from shaking.” But it’s the whole process of drilling (oil and gas), fracking, and then disposal that contributes to the problem.

A tanker truck prepares to leave OH Water plant that removes metals and chemicals from fracking wastewater. (Photo: Scott Galvin)

Can we stop doing this? Recycling the wastewater is cheaper, and more and more gas companies have started contracting out to do just that. But as Ohio Department of Natural Resources officials note, it’s hard to track where this water goes because it is not regulated. This is rather important because the water is laced with toxic metals, dangerous chemicals, and radium. Recycling companies say the waste ends up in landfills.

So the two options are to either inject it back down in the ground where it lubricates fault lines enough to cause earthquakes in Oklahoma and Ohio, or hope that radium doesn’t leak out of landfills.

Renewable fuels sound better and better the more we learn about enhanced drilling for unconventional oil and gas.

14 Responses to Different Kind Of Boom: Replacing Extracted Oil And Gas With Toxic Wastewater Causes Earthquakes

  1. Joan Savage says:

    USGS records for Oklahoma show three earthquakes greater than M2.5 in the past week, and ten in the past 30 days.
    Two of them were near Prague, OK.

    Frequently updated map:

  2. Merrelyn Emery says:

    It was only to be expected. And I wonder when all the weight from that extra water being distributed from the poles is going to show up. Will it cause additional instability around the rim of fire or in places previously relatively stable? ME

  3. D. R. Tucker says:

    If you don’t think our national parks should be littered with empty plastic water bottles, you’re not alone. Hear what the folks at “Think Outside the Bottle” are rolling out from Grace Morris, Campaign Organizer with the watchdog group, Corporate Accountability. Next, two staffers at Boston University’s newspaper share what’s behind the campuses’ first ever series on climate change impacts. Leslie Friday and David Keefe have the lowdown from Beantown.

    Read more:
    Under Creative Commons License: Attribution

  4. Paul Klinkman says:

    The real power of earthquakes comes from pent-up forces in the ground. In the Midwest’s case, soil by the megaton has washed down from the Rockies and Appalachian mountains and has deposited itself in the lowlands of the Mississippi River, the Ohio River and other Mississippi tributaries. In one sense the fracking companies can claim, hey, we didn’t put that stress there into the ground. On the other hand, the frackers greased the ground up so that the earth let go violently.

    The fracking companies should reimburse insurance companies for all the homeowner and business claims they caused. A good class action suit by the insurance industry should even up the industry’s books. It’s worth an awful lot of money to the largest insurers. Come on, Allstate, come on Farmers, State Farm, you know that you don’t want to be bled dry by these negligent frackers.

  5. Bill D. says:

    The only hope our species has for long-term survival is to admit that we’ve become a bull in the earth’s china shop. Either we leave nature alone and live by its rules or we’re toast. As the late comic genius George Carlin once said, “The earth will shake us off like a bad case of fleas.”

  6. Conrad Dunkerson says:

    There have been several studies claiming that fracking and other forms of water injection ‘only cause SMALL earthquakes’ due to the localized nature of the extraction processes… and they have ‘confirmed’ that by showing strong correlation between large numbers of low power quakes in the vicinity of extraction sites and occurring soon after water injection, but no similar correlation in time and space for larger quakes.

    The example in this post shows that larger quakes near injection sites could just take longer to occur due to the greater ‘blockage’ which needs time to slip. However, I’ve always found those studies deeply illogical in that they also discount the fact that lots of little earthquakes mean lots of shaking and realigning of forces which logically MUST contribute to the occurrence of larger quakes. If you’ve got a solid block in one spot which is preventing two plates from sliding past each other and all around it smaller blocks are slipping due to fracking then that just puts more and more pressure on the large block AND subjects it to shaking and fracturing which could cause it to give way.

    All that said, in an odd way these induced earthquakes could actually be seen as ‘beneficial’ in that they relieve stress on the fault lines. Basically, by causing earthquakes to occur earlier than they would have naturally we are also causing them to be weaker than they eventually would have. In every case there WOULD have been an earthquake there eventually and it WOULD have been more powerful than the induced quake. Obviously that is no comfort to anyone suffering damage from induced quakes, but over the long term induced earthquakes are better than natural ones. Indeed, we ought to be devoting extensive study into which faults go under what conditions to see if we could actually learn to TARGET induced earthquakes in order to relieve stress in major fault zones like California.

  7. Mike says:

    Really? You think trying to control nature is a good thing?

  8. Joan Savage says:

    The USGS does not endorse stimulating earthquakes. Here are some aspects of earthquakes which prompt me to agree with them.

    Earthquake magnitude is on an exponential scale.
    It takes a 1000 magnitude 2 earthquakes to release the amount of energy of a single M4 earthquake.

    Earthquakes develop at a huge range of depths. The M9.03 Tohoku earthquake of 2011 originated at 32 km depth.

    Please think about what both those factors would mean if someone tried to “prevent” an M7 on the Pacific Coast by setting tens of millions of smaller earthquakes at different depths. Mighty unpopular.

  9. Dare we dream that this might put an end to the $1B CO2 sequestration project in Illinois known as FutureGen 2.0? Not only earthquakes, but also brine displacement into the groundwater will result from hammering supercritical CO2 into deep saline aquifers and hoping it stays put, despite warnings from prominent petroleum engineering professors that geological sequestration is “profoundly non feasible.” That billion dollars may sound trivial (a day in Afghanistan), but it’s half of what President Obama hopes to raise from increasing oil royalties for research.

  10. Conrad Dunkerson says:

    Umm… yes, I DO think ‘trying to control nature’ is a good thing. Obviously. Or would you rather give up your climate controlled home to live in a nice cave somewhere?

    We should try NOT to learn more about the causes and spread of earthquakes? That would be the better course? Or if, after studying how water injection impacts earthquakes, we learn ways to mitigate the damage done by earthquakes then we should NOT act on that knowledge? Just let nature take its course?

    How about disease? Should we stop “trying to control nature” and just let sick people die?

    The thing about most luddites is they never really seem that eager to practice what they preach.

  11. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    ‘We thought that nothing could possibly go wrong’-a fitting epitaph.

  12. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I seem to remember one debunker surmising that sequestered CO2 would react with groundwater to produce acid that would eat its way through susceptible rock strata, with possibly not entirely beneficial consequences.

  13. Catherine says:

    There are many other places many miles away in Oklahoma and in other nearby states (Kansas, Texas, etc.) that have wastewater injection near faults, but they don’t have earthquakes. So why only at one place and not at all the other places? That area of Oklahoma is going through some underground uplift and shifting that has been going on even before the Industrial Age. The Natives tell stories of the earthquakes there before white men came there.