Join 3,512 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Cast the first Yellowstone
September 1, 2013 10:47 PM   Subscribe

Massive earthquakes in Chile and Japan have been found to cause the dramatic increase in violent quakes around fracking's largely unregulated wastewater injection wells observed in the Midwest in the past two years, where injected water acts as a lubricant for geological faults that were previously thought to be "dead" or stable for millions of years.
posted by Blazecock Pileon (12 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
Also, coal mining causes earthquakes too.
The bright side is shale gas has lead to a decline in US co2 emissions.
No evidence yet that solar panels cause earthquakes, so maybe renewables could be an energy alternative worth pursuing?
posted by bystander at 11:43 PM on September 1, 2013


So ... this is bad, I guess?
posted by GallonOfAlan at 12:55 AM on September 2, 2013


The articles you cite state "smaller quakes", but this has been translated into "violent quakes" in your headline.

Unregulated wastewater injection can be a problem, and should be addressed. This is not a new practice (long pre-dated fracking), nor is it new that it can cause earthquakes. This was known in the '60s. All oil wells produce saline water as well as oil, and this is generally disposed of via injection, as regulation correctly prohibits disposal in other ways.

The interesting part of this study is that 'remote triggering' seems to be in play here regarding what otherwise would be considered 'stable' areas, thereby changing how much you should inject in one given area without risk. This isn't a huge surprise given that the mid-continent area is actually under quite a lot of intra-plate stress, and is not considered aseismic. The Snyder quake is potentially the most interesting one, but also the smallest by an order of magnitude.
posted by grajohnt at 3:32 AM on September 2, 2013 [8 favorites]


In BC, companies are required to do micro seismic monitoring. In some cases, minor shocks have been recorded, minor as in detectable only by instrumentation. Fracking didn't create new faults, but it is lubricating the existing ones. By releasing pressure early, it can prevent higher magnitude socks at a later stage.
posted by arcticseal at 7:54 AM on September 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


Chalk up another negative externality to fracking (and other industrial processes that involve wastewater injection). I don't even know how you'd start to assess costs on this one, though.
posted by immlass at 7:58 AM on September 2, 2013


Man, our species is really bad at terraforming.
posted by Apocryphon at 8:46 AM on September 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


The first sentence of the FPP is problematic and misrepresents the Jones article, much more the original Science article. The Science article describes how wastewater injection wells are more prone to remote (both distance, and more interestingly, time) triggering seismicity. As pointed out, wastewater injection wells are not new, not confined to fracking operations, and their connection with reactivating faults has long been known. What is incorrect in the FPP are describing this seismicity as a "dramatic increase". I don't have the access to the full Science article, since I'm travelling, but it looks like the study described three events. Also, "violent" may be overstating it, though for certain substrates, a magnitude 5.7 earthquake could be a big deal.

The likelihood of fault rupture depends on the accumulation of elastic strain around the fault, and the strength of the fault. High fluid pressures in the fault and adjacent fault rocks lowers the strength of a fault. Where injection sites are close to faults, water injection can bring raise pressure and lower the strength at the fault, bringing it closer to a critical state. It's a bit surprising how even far away from plate boundary zones, how much of the Earth's crust is close to a critical state, but there's a simple intuitive explanation: rupture of faults relieves accumulated elastic strain, but does not bring it to zero. Therefore, even far from plate boundary zones where far field stresses load up faults, the crust is close to a critical state. It is perhaps more surprising how rare induced earthquakes are.

To be clear: describing the connection between wastewater injection and induced seismicity does not get you published in Science. The more interesting and novel result is how very large (actually, the very largest earthquakes in recent memory) can induce seismicity where water injection has brought faults close to a critical state even from across the globe, and, in my mind even more surprising, months after the main event.

It is incorrect to describe wastewater injection wells as unregulated or poorly regulated. The actual process varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but generally, no wastewater injection well can be drilled nor can an existing well be converted to an injector without a license. The application for these requires a description of the geology including, but not limited to the stratum where fluids will injected, pore pressures at the injection level, the rate and total volume of the fluid injection, and the description of the injected fluids. Regulatory agencies are generally well disposed to these kinds of operations, since treating wastewater or produced water is generally much more difficult and carries greater risk than deep injection.

In some cases, there are monitoring requirements, but, contrary to Arcticseal's comment, microseismic monitoring is neither required nor routine for both fracking and injection. (I know, because I've been involved with both kinds of wells in British Columbia).

In short, this study, and generally the half dozen or so papers that have appeared in the last five years describing induced seismicity associated with shale gas and tight oil production, should not be interpreted as discovering a major hazard or externality to modern production techniques. What these studies may bring are increased requirements for licensing injection wells, where a better description of nearby faults and their stress state may be desired. However, many faults in the subsurface are extremely hard to detect and determining in situ stress is also quite tricky and has large uncertainties.
posted by bumpkin at 9:07 AM on September 2, 2013 [5 favorites]


The articles you cite state "smaller quakes", but this has been translated into "violent quakes" in your headline.

Having read the articles, I will stand by my description, given the relative scale between the initial earthquakes in Chile and Japan, and the follow-up events in Oklahoma and how that affected people who live there.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:09 AM on September 2, 2013


It is incorrect to describe wastewater injection wells as unregulated or poorly regulated. The actual process varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but generally, no wastewater injection well can be drilled nor can an existing well be converted to an injector without a license. The application for these requires a description of the geology...

That geological assessment requirement would seem to be contradicted the facts cited in the second MJ article:

After an injection well was linked to quakes in Youngstown [18], Ohio, Gov. John Kasich issued an executive order [19] requiring operators to conduct seismic studies before the state will issue well permits. So far, Ohio is alone in this regard; no other state—or the federal government—requires any type of seismic-risk assessment for all of its injection wells. (emph. added)
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:15 AM on September 2, 2013


The articles you cite state "smaller quakes", but this has been translated into "violent quakes" in your headline.

Yeah, that's a really misleading editorialization in the FPP. There's plenty of reasons to be worried about fracking without exaggerating the science.

I know nothing about seismology. Ignoring the fracking bit for a moment, do far-away quakes cause reflex quakes in existing faults in general? The MoJo article says this is a known phenomeon for "areas with naturally high subsurface fluid pressures"; how about ordinary faults? It's also striking how that article talks about the reflex quake coming "as much as 20 months later". Amazing that you can determine a correlation like that.

It's a shame the actual article is paywalled. Here's the first author's personal site. Unfortunately I don't think he's posted his paper on his own site. (The web server is not working well right now, but Wayback has it.)
posted by Nelson at 9:16 AM on September 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


> By releasing pressure early, it can prevent higher magnitude socks at a later stage.

Wait, the USGS lists that as a myth:

"there are never enough small ones to eliminate the occasional large event. It would take 32 magnitude 5's, 1000 magnitude 4's, OR 32,000 magnitude 3's to equal the energy of one magnitude 6 event. So, even though we always record many more small events than large ones, there are far too few to eliminate the need for the occasional large earthquake. As for "lubricating" faults with water or some other substance, if anything, this would have the opposite effect. Injecting high- pressure fluids deep into the ground is known to be able to trigger earthquakes—to cause them to occur sooner than would have been the case without the injection. This would be a dangerous pursuit in any populated area, as one might trigger a damaging earthquake. "
posted by hank at 4:54 PM on September 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


So after all that fracking in California in the Los Angeles basin, I suppose that is now the reason California has experienced a great quake since that started 10 years...oh, no that has not happened. So perhaps fracking has saved us from that....
posted by OhSusannah at 7:26 PM on September 2, 2013


« Older Dizzee Rascal's new music video "I Don't Need A Re...  |  In February 2008, Josh Hoising... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments