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Shale Shocked: ‘Remarkable Increase’ In U.S. Earthquakes ‘Almost Certainly Manmade,’ USGS Scientists Report

By Joe Romm  

"Shale Shocked: ‘Remarkable Increase’ In U.S. Earthquakes ‘Almost Certainly Manmade,’ USGS Scientists Report"

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A U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) team has found that a sharp jump in earthquakes in America’s heartland appears to be linked to oil and natural gas drilling operations.

As hydraulic fracturing has exploded onto the scene, it has increasingly been connected to earthquakes. Some quakes may be caused by the original fracking — that is, by injecting a fluid mixture into the earth to release natural gas (or oil). More appear to be caused by reinjecting the resulting brine deep underground.

Last August, a USGS report examined a cluster of earthquakes in Oklahoma and reported:

Our analysis showed that shortly after hydraulic fracturing began small earthquakes started occurring, and more than 50 were identified, of which 43 were large enough to be located. Most of these earthquakes occurred within a 24 hour period after hydraulic fracturing operations had ceased.

In November, a British shale gas developer found it was “highly probable” its fracturing operations caused minor quakes.

Then last month, Ohio oil and gas regulators said “A dozen earthquakes in northeastern Ohio were almost certainly induced by injection of gas-drilling wastewater into the earth.”

Now, in a paper to be deliver at the annual meeting of the Seismological Society of America, the USGS notes that “a remarkable increase in the rate of [magnitude 3.0] and greater earthquakes is currently in progress” in the U.S. midcontinent. The abstract is online. EnergyWire reports (subs. req’d) some of the findings:

The study found that the frequency of earthquakes started rising in 2001 across a broad swath of the country between Alabama and Montana. In 2009, there were 50 earthquakes greater than magnitude-3.0, the abstract states, then 87 quakes in 2010. The 134 earthquakes in the zone last year is a sixfold increase over 20th century levels.

The surge in the last few years corresponds to a nationwide surge in shale drilling, which requires disposal of millions of gallons of wastewater for each well. According to the federal Energy Information Administration, shale gas production grew, on average, nearly 50 percent a year from 2006 to 2010.

The USGS scientists point out that ”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.” They conclude:

While the seismicity rate changes described here are almost certainly manmade, it remains to be determined how they are related to either changes in extraction methodologies or the rate of oil and gas production.

EnergyWire points out, “all of the potential causes they explore in the paper relate to drilling, or more specifically, deep underground injection of drilling waste.”

Last year, 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, brought up the issue of earthquakes.

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.”

It’s time go beyond mere research and start developing national standards to minimize these earthquakes.

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53 Responses to Shale Shocked: ‘Remarkable Increase’ In U.S. Earthquakes ‘Almost Certainly Manmade,’ USGS Scientists Report

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    I don’t understand the committee’s last statement. If the mechanism that causes the earthquake is not well understood, and all we have is clear correlation, then trying to develop better drilling/injection technologies would appear to be fruitless.

    In a sane world, gas development would come to a halt. It causes massive GHG emissions and poisons watersheds. A few pennies more (if that) per kwh for wind and solar is clearly the way to go.

    • Sasparilla says:

      So well said Mike. I wished we made energy development choices on common sense.

      • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

        What is ‘commonsense’ in comparison to a 10% (or more) return on capital?

    • bratisla says:

      the statement should IMHO be understood as follows : seismologists know that manmade earthquakes are :
      - induced earthquakes : you push water in, you frack, you get an earthquake
      - triggered earthquake : you put water in an active fault, you lubricate it, it moves and generates an earthquake. See Basel earthquake in 2004 (2005 ? I don’t remember).

      For now, I think no one clearly know if the first or second hypothesis is right, and therefore what kind of technical limitation you have to establish in order to limit the magnitude. Mw 3 earthquakes are a bit strong for induced earthquakes by fracking, but it may be possible if you are heavy on fracking power.
      Triggered earthquakes are possible, but that means that injected water inadvertantly or willingly in existing faults has a greater impact than thought.

      If the first hypothesis is right, a new regulation can be put forward to limit the fracking ; if it’s the second, force the companies to check the goddamn underground. Yup, I know, Big Evil Government yada yada.

      One last side point : it doesn’t surprise me that so many problems arise with fracking, even though companies claim they have tons of experience with conventional oil. They are right, they have lots of experience … in the deserts, where the vast majority of oil was. And who cares about some pollution/earthquake in a desert ? Simply put, they have tons of experience in quick and dirty work … and no experience in working in a populated area where people get their water from aquifers.

      • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

        Surely the most important question must be ‘How intense is the maximum earthquake that can be provoked by fracking?’ As usual the answer will be, ‘We don’t know, or care, so let’s just wait and see’, in the frackers ‘commercial-in-confidence’ deliberations, and ‘There’s absolutely no need to worry, and the evil greenie alarmists are just secret Communist ‘water-melons’ so must be ignored’, in public.

  2. Nick B says:

    If aliens were looking on from space, they would conclude that these crazy yet sophisticated Earthlings are hellbent on obliterating the planets crust and reconstituting the atmosphere. When looking for reasons they would be at a complete loss until someone explained the concept of profit. Assessing whether the ends justify the means, a moment of confusion would be replaced by laughter and head shaking before they sped off in search of civilized lifeforms.

  3. M Tucker says:

    We have known for a long while now that pumping fluids underground would cause earthquakes. The long history of the geothermal industry and fracking has shown this. This is nothing new.

  4. Tom King says:

    I don’t understand the fuss about fracking earthquakes. They only release energy which is already there and once released, the pressure will take centuries to rebuild.
    If you’re against fracking, do it because it ruins the ground water.
    If you’re worried about earthquakes, focus on the massive weight redistributed as Antarctica and Greenland melt. Those events actually drive new pressures into the crust.

    • In regards to the polar caps and great glaciers melting thus redistributing weight causing potential new earthquakes is in the same line of thought as realizing that the tip in the warming scale of carbon exchange inequities is not mainly related to inefficient rainforest management but to depleting top soil depths world wide.

    • If causality is established, the energy industry is going to be on the hook for the damage to buildings and other structures caused by their activities. Be watchful for congress to move to make them immune.

    • Frances in California says:

      Tom, it’s obvious you don’t live in California.

  5. Raul M. says:

    If unnatural earthquakes is in revelations, then it would probablely be told as demons (chemicals) causing the ground to tremble, but not as an climatic event.
    Sort of like the people saying that water is no good and isn’t clearing up.

  6. Raul M. says:

    If they have a plan about the drilling fluids placement into the ground, does the possibilities of the location of the drilling fluids change if the Earth quakes? If they think that the Earth will give so far, does it change where they would deposit the drilling fluids?

    • Raul M. says:

      Modern day – telling the drilling fluids, gas, and oil to stay where they want it?
      The other side of the coin where the oil and gas will come to a pool for extraction but won’t go any other way?

  7. John Tucker says:

    You would think this would be front page of every newspaper and news site today.

  8. lizardo says:

    My state (NC) still forbids fracking and injection wells but is apparently on the verge of approving it after the state’s Dept of Env and Natural Resources issued a legislatively required-but-rushed-and-underfunded report which concluded it could be done “safely” given various blah blah, which was contradicted by the details in the full report….

    There is gas here apparently, even if we are not on that map.

    FYI from reading that report I conclude fracking (and it’s wide exemption from Clean Air Act/Clean Water Act and RCRA etc re waste) is a greater threat (even) to surface water and municipal/county water sources than even to groundwater.

    Also a major threat to air quality, and public health.

  9. radhika says:

    Duh. You don’t need a PhD in Geology to see this pattern and its timing.

  10. toonces_2 says:

    No way these are man made….Earthquakes are cyclical…like global warming.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      The voice of the cuckoo was heard in the land.

    • Emily Dale says:

      If you believe what you wrote, I suggest that you move to one of the areas where fracking takes place and continue to drink the groundwater.

  11. prokaryotes says:

    Volcanologist Bill McGuire describes how rapid melting of glaciers and ice sheets as a result of climate change could trigger volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis. + Podcast, Video and major Study.

    http://climateprogress.net/item/will-climate-change-cause-earthquakes.html

  12. sandyh says:

    When a company in Arkansas voluntarily stopped fracking after a series of quakes there and in surrounding states a few years ago, I knew we had another environmental nightmare from the Far Right on our horizon. They refuse to admit they are doing harm even though the evidence continues to pile up.

    The world does not revolve around a lot of coincidences as the Republicans contend. Their Flat Earth policies and attacks on Science are becoming too much for most voters.

  13. Mike Irwin says:

    They are fracking in Pennsylvania, the same place where they’ve been mining for coal for over a hundred years. What happens when an earthquake hits under all of those mine shafts? I can see Pennsylania dropping into gigantic sinkholes. What happens in northwest when these earthquakes set off the dormant volcanoes like Shasta, St. Helen’s, Hood, or the Yellowstone basin?

  14. facts lean left says:

    Republicans want Americans dead. it’s really that simple.

    • okuncut says:

      i dont think they want us dead i think they are all just too greedy to think about hte rest of us look at the nuclear plants getting a renewale after japan and tehm beeing teh same design and teh engineer whio made them are flipping out saying shut them down but they got paid and we get the cancer what to they care they are rich and after they destroy what land we ahve they will just move to new places leaving us to die in the wastelands they profited off.

  15. John Coveyduck says:

    Wow they finally figured it out ..I been saying this for years…if you empty the earths core you have the egg shell effect outside is gonna cause pressure to the inside…And lets not forget the shifting plates that the earths core already produces…If you remove the oil and gas and nothing is there to take it’s place…it’s just common sense that says it’s going to cave in or shift…Last time I posted this was to the David Suzuki page I wonder if they’ll listen now….
    And then there’s all the mining for other minerals gold silver iron ores …Diamonds…to name but a few.. Only a matter of time before were trying to fill all the holes with something other then hope or garbage …

  16. Great article. I was wondering if ultra-sound would work to break the shale into powder, and then, the use of a vacuum engine to suck up the powder and gas. Water goes everywhere, and seeps deeper. Seawater may be causing a chemical reaction??? I think that our nation has to look at NOT subsidizing industries that pollute, and use too much fuel to process their product. Taxpayers are paying $200 billion in subsidies to the Oil Industry (including processing this natural gas). Hemp would be a better bet for the investors. It’s a win-win.

  17. Michael says:

    So if it is causing minor earthquakes… is it correct to assume that this threatens the ground water with contamination?

    I could really care less about people having foundation issues or roads having to be repaved if it means natural gas can replace coal for power generation in the near to medium term future (thereby emitting half as much CO2 so long as there are not methane leaks). But if the water table is threatened, then that changes the whole equation.
    MQ

    • But there are methane leaks, and many other impacts, so overall, switching from coal to natural gas gets us nowhere better.

      What’s the net environmental benefit of building new fossil fuel consumption infrastructure that causes significant impacts and no environmental benefits?

    • Ian says:

      Maybe you should be thinking the natural gas is not the replacement for coal, they are both dirty and distructive to our enviornment and air quality, here is a novel idea, hoe about wind turbines, hydro power and harnessing the oceans currents????

    • Andrew says:

      It’s COULDN’T care less, Michael, unless you’re truly meaning to tell us that you have the capacity to care less about this issue. Whatever the case, it would be interesting to see how your level of caring would be affected by your own home collapsing.

  18. Kat says:

    It’s a fact that one of our natural resources is natural gas. A safe way to extract the gas needs to be developed. We could run our cars on natural gas with a little bit of conversion. We would not have to depend on oil at all.

    • h4x354x0r says:

      You really have no clue about energy resources. Go do some research about the aggregate amount of energy we get from oil resources, vs. the aggregate amount of energy we get from gas resources and the number of wells in operation to get that amount of gas.

      Fact is, if we were to completely replace oil use with natural gas, we’d have to be continuously operating somewhere in the neighborhood of a 5 million fracking wells. We’re currently operating about 50,000. It’s not even remotely feasible from a sheer business perspective, let alone the environmental catastrophe that would cause.

      • Michael says:

        h4x354x0r. Only a minute fraction of the Marcellus, Barnett, Gammon, and other shales have begun to be exploited. There is enough supply to completely replace coal for power generation and heavy transportation/equipment fleet (yes, 1 million wells is possible). The reason it is not feasible is because there is no demand. However, if emissions trading passes or if the EPA’s proposed rules for electric generation units kick in (basically no more coal plants) are finalized. Then there will definitely be a demand in the future. That is why companies (i.e. Cheseapeake are already making huge power plays). Now will that be an environmental catastrophe? The jury is still out. That is why this is so important. Is there no way to do it safely? If it can be done safely, it wont be an environmental catastrophe but an environmental victory (ending coal power is the first step to getting the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere to the 350ppm that would avert the worst effects of global warming. See IPCC, Hansen Report, and many others). Is this just bad companies and poor methods? Or as seen in this article, does technique of fracking unavoidably threaten teh water table and reserves?

        • prokaryotes says:

          Well, there are studies which show that shale gas GDP is very bad, even in cases worse than some types of coal even. (major NRDC’s and Cornell Studies, CP reported like 2 month ago). Shale gas is “not” a bridge fuel!

        • h4x354x0r says:

          FACTS: The US is currently using about 80 ExoJoules (EJ) of energy per year from fossil fuels. About 25% of that, 20 EJ, is from natural gas. I got my data mixed up in my last post, but I’ve looked it up again:

          The US is currently operating about 460,000 natural gas wells. Of those, only about 50,000 are older, stable, high-volume wells. These non-fracking wells produce 70% of our natural gas supplies. The rest of the wells, about 400,000, are newer fracking wells which produce the other 30%, about 5 EJ of energy.

          If we were to replace the other 60 EJ of energy currently being supplied by oil, we would need ~ 60/5*400,000 wells: roughly 4.8 Million fracking wells in continuous operation.

          Sure, a million frack wells can be done; it’s only twice our current wellhead count. But almost certainly not 5 million, continuously, forever. That’s what it would take to completely replace oil consumption.

          And theres always still that environmental cost…

          • h4x354x0r says:

            How long will it take to reach 1 Million Frack wells?

            The largest increase in nat gas wellhead count happened between 1999 and 2009 as the Fracking industry exploded. In those 10 years, the wellhead count went from ~300K to ~500K; a 66% increase. Extrapolating that rate from current wellhead count, in another 10 years we’ll have 830,000 wells. To reach a million wells at those growth rates, it will take 15 years.

        • h4x354x0r says:

          Don’t confuse years of supply with MCF per day, either. Only the latter makes any difference. Natural gas production has been increasing about 4-5% per year for the last 5 years; it’s currently at about 28.5 Million MCF for that 20 EJ of total energy per year.

          At those growth rates, doubling production to meet less than half our energy needs will take about the same 15 years that doubling wellhead counts will take. There are real limits to how fast we can extract natural resources from the earth, no matter how much of it is there.

  19. h4x354x0r says:

    It’s actually a double-whammy: not only is the fracking itself causing earthquakes, others here have linked to articles that point out climate change is causing changes in geological pressures that are likely to cause earthquakes, too. It’s not one or the other, it’s both.

  20. leeanna burke says:

    you can type in how many earthquakes in like say the last seven days and a map comes up and shows they are almost everyday in several areas of the us,come on people let up on the oil drilling crap we have other means and off shore drilling ,these earthquakes could somday be so severe will be alot of devastation

  21. Chris says:

    Here’s an idea to help minimize these risks…STOP FRACKING FRACKING! What are these people thinking? Fossil Fuels have done nothing but help destroy this world. It’s time to change our energy sources into things that are much less destructive, overall. Forget about mitigating the impact of fossil fuel retrieval and usage. Alternative Energy NOW!

  22. It is geologists who proposed the name for our era: the Anthropocene.

    At this time, humans are leaving scars in the rock – clearly visible world wide. Atmosphere, ocean and rock… no matter how our cities crumble to dust, the global geology is forever marked.

  23. zeldarose says:

    Well, all the talking back and for is very interesting and enlightening – but that’s all it is Talk! Who decides if the situation is serious enough to do something about it. The energy dept or American citizens. If I lived in the earthquakes areas – I wouldn’t want the oil industry experimenting on my ground water or ground stability. Don’t get me wrong I enjoy feeling the earth move just as much as any geologist and thrilled with the studies and findings. But I just as soon leave the moving and shaking up to Mother Earth’s schedule and not to the oil companies desire for profit and power. Oil companies may have the mineral rights, but not the right to endanger populations with polluted groundwater and possible sinkholes. Any pollution to groundwater and flammable water traveling through city water systems, should call a stop to the practice. People’s right to life and health always come before profits. Though it may not be the way it is at present – the reaction and non-acceptable of Americans will certainly change that if enough Americans choose to speak up and say no. When representatives receive mail, phone calls and communications on a specific issue – it is in their best self-interest to listen to their constituents. Tell your representatives what you want done, of what you want stopped….and keep telling them. “Power is not only what you have, but what the the enemy thinks you have”. “Keep the pressure on….”.

  24. mts007 says:

    it’s all about solar and wind. we need to start putting solar panels over every parking lot(malls,colleges,stadiums,strip malls). even light posts can be converted to have a solar array and/or wind mill put on them – and how many light poles are in every city. and all that has to happen is for the sun to rise and the wind to blow and, wolla – we have power.

  25. celestus says:

    This is likely geology dependent. There’s been extremely high fracking activity in North Dakota for several years now, and no earthquakes.

  26. John Giannes says:

    In, I believe, the 60′s here in Denver we had a series of earthquakes attributed to the underground pumping of radioactive waste from Rocky Flats nuclear facility between Denver and Boulder. I don’t recall exactly but it seems that after a time of causing these temblors this was required to be stopped by this facility and the earthquakes also stopped. It would seem to be the same type of mistake all over again except for the radioactive aspect of this fracking present day.

  27. Emily Dale says:

    Profit becomes more important than quality of life. Any exploitation of nonrenewable resources will have negative environmental and geological results, regardless of the rationale of those favoring the nonrenewables. If a person has stock in nonrenewables, then he/she is naturally going to downplay any negative results, especially if nothing is occurring in their neighborhood.