Oklahoma looks at regulating fracking to reduce earthquakes

posted at 5:21 pm on January 5, 2016 by Jazz Shaw

No, the title was not a typo. And perhaps even more strangely, they’ve got a point, but there may be just a bit of an overreaction here. Areas with large amounts of high volume hydraulic fracturing (fracking) taking place have experienced low grade earthquakes in several areas around the country. When I first heard of these stories several years ago I was, I admit, more than a little incredulous. But the science done in the oil and gas industry has built up sufficiently to show that small earthquakes can indeed be triggered by human activity. Oklahoma is concerned about this and asking for voluntary action on the part of energy companies to tamp things down. (Washington Times)

The state commission that regulates Oklahoma’s oil and natural gas industry ordered some injection well operators to reduce wastewater disposal volumes on Monday after at least a dozen earthquakes hit an area north of Oklahoma City in less than a week.

The Oklahoma Corporation Commission said it was implementing a plan that affects five wastewater injection wells operating within 10 miles of the center of earthquake activity near Edmond, a northeast suburb of Oklahoma City. Among the recent quakes to hit the area was a 4.2 magnitude temblor on New Year’s Day that caused minor damage but no injuries.

“We are working with researchers on the entire area of the state involved in the latest seismic activity to plot out where we should go from here,” Oil and Gas Conservation Division Director Tim Baker said, adding that responding to the swarm of earthquakes in the region was an ongoing process.

You can read a brief summary of one of the two types of fracking related earthquakes here and it’s fairly straightforward even for the layman. There can be direct or indirect quakes caused when there’s a sufficient amount of activity. Some of the earliest ones we heard about were in the Midwest, especially in places where there typically isn’t much tectonic activity. If you disrupt and/or remove enough material from a mile or two below the surface, the weight of the crust over that area can and sometimes will shift under the force of gravity as gaps are filled in. That can produce a (generally very small) earthquake with little effect on the people living above.

The second type, as described in the link above, is a more indirect effect. As fracking operations proceed there is a need to dispose of the water used in the compression process. The easiest, safest and most environmentally friendly way to handle this is to drill disposal wells deep below the ground, fill them with the used water and seal them with concrete. Unfortunately, as is the case in Oklahoma, you may be injecting a lot of water into an area which already has naturally occurring fault lines. The water acts as a lubricant and as it build up it can allow the boundaries to slip sooner than they might have naturally and perhaps a bit more suddenly, resulting in a quake.

These are still quite minor in size with the largest one recorded still being barely over a 4.0, but it’s enough to alarm people and potentially cause some minor damage. While I’m all on the side of the energy industry, I think they’re on the right side of the question here by voluntarily spreading out the injection sites and reducing the potential impact of these effects. One part of being successful in the energy industry is maintaining good relations with the public – particularly the ones you may need to lease land from – and this is a small price to pay for some good will and to cut down the shaking.

Fracking rig CO


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Comments

The water acts as a lubricant and as it build up it can allow the boundaries to slip sooner than they might have naturally and perhaps a bit more suddenly, resulting in a quake.

Having smaller earthquakes more often seems like a good thing to me. And how can Oklahoma object to having an earthquake sooner than would otherwise have happened?

The Monster on January 5, 2016 at 5:25 PM

Government’s fault

(See what I did there?)

adnan on January 5, 2016 at 5:27 PM

Not nearly as absurd as one documentary I saw that blamed “rising volcanic activity” on global warming. The theory was that as snow melts from a mountain, there is less pressure to stop the mountain from blowing up.

Yep.

HugoDrax on January 5, 2016 at 5:27 PM

Missing a rather important point: science has also shown that large earthquakes happen in the absence of small earthquakes.

Count to 10 on January 5, 2016 at 5:31 PM

Stop global quaking?

Stoic Patriot on January 5, 2016 at 5:34 PM

Sorry I don’t buy it. In fact the whole concept seem absurd to me. But maybe I’m wrong. I was under the impression that earthquakes were caused by the movement of tectonic plates. If not that what are they caused by? Anyone know?

Mimzey on January 5, 2016 at 5:36 PM

It would be easier to empty out Oklahoma of it’s residents.

Walter L. Newton on January 5, 2016 at 5:36 PM

Regulartinh earthquakes? Yep I’ve heard it all now….

sorrowen on January 5, 2016 at 5:39 PM

Missing a rather important point: science has also shown that large earthquakes happen in the absence of small earthquakes.

Count to 10 on January 5, 2016 at 5:31 PM

Another missing point: small and large earthquakes happen. They happen in no predictable order or intensity and in no predictable time frame.

Mimzey on January 5, 2016 at 5:39 PM

I propose that the “lubricant” water be piped into the arses of Bubble Boy voters in order to ease his way into their innards.

vnvet on January 5, 2016 at 5:42 PM

Sorry I don’t buy it. In fact the whole concept seem absurd to me. But maybe I’m wrong. I was under the impression that earthquakes were caused by the movement of tectonic plates. If not that what are they caused by? Anyone know?

Mimzey on January 5, 2016 at 5:36 PM

This isn’t disputing the existence of tectonic plates, and what they’re talking about would scale relative to the amount of water injected. Per the article, the metaphor they use is an air hockey table. With no power running to the table, if you put a puck on it, the puck simply sits there, stable. If you power it on, however, the air jets start blowing, causing it to shift (quake). By a similar token, the waste water from fracking takes the landmass it is underneath and acts the air jets, causing it to shift relative to the rest of the land mass it’s connected to.

Stoic Patriot on January 5, 2016 at 5:42 PM

It doesn’t hurt that oil prices are so low that fracing is a losing proposition anyway.

DFCtomm on January 5, 2016 at 5:44 PM

OTOH, could all the smaller quakes take pressure off a fault and keep it from producing a much larger quake?

JGinGJ on January 5, 2016 at 5:45 PM

Doesn’t take a genius to figure out this is less about earthquakes and more about punishing his enemies.

antipc on January 5, 2016 at 5:46 PM

Doesn’t take a genius to figure out this is less about earthquakes and more about punishing his enemies.

antipc on January 5, 2016 at 5:46 PM

Well it would be if we were talking Obama rather than Oklahoma.

antipc on January 5, 2016 at 5:48 PM

What I’m most interested in is whether or not quake activity is higher where there are natural aquifers.

Stoic Patriot on January 5, 2016 at 5:49 PM

Why is causing earthquakes a bad thing? Aren’t they releasing pressure that is building up? Is it better to let that pressure continue to build resulting in bigger quakes later on?

Rancher on January 5, 2016 at 5:50 PM

This isn’t disputing the existence of tectonic plates, and what they’re talking about would scale relative to the amount of water injected. Per the article, the metaphor they use is an air hockey table. With no power running to the table, if you put a puck on it, the puck simply sits there, stable. If you power it on, however, the air jets start blowing, causing it to shift (quake). By a similar token, the waste water from fracking takes the landmass it is underneath and acts the air jets, causing it to shift relative to the rest of the land mass it’s connected to.

Stoic Patriot on January 5, 2016 at 5:42 PM

I don’t buy it. The plates are about 40 miles below the surface, and once you arrive at the tectonic plates, they are about 60 miles thick. The idea that this little pipe that goes maybe 1 and a half miles deep (or about 38 mile above the 60 mile thick plates) is able to somehow affect their movement is absurd to me. Fracking does not create THAT much pressure. It can’t. The walls of the pipes would burst or the couplings would blow out.

Mimzey on January 5, 2016 at 5:54 PM

In regards to my above post. If the “earthquakes” are the result of minor shifting in the shale level formations, THAT is not an earthquake and should not be referred to as one. (I have no idea if that is what is being claimed) Calling that an earthquake would be just as grievous a mischaracterization as calling the rupturing of an above ground swimming pool, a “tsunami”.

Mimzey on January 5, 2016 at 6:01 PM

Why is causing earthquakes a bad thing? Aren’t they releasing pressure that is building up? Is it better to let that pressure continue to build resulting in bigger quakes later on?

Rancher on January 5, 2016 at 5:50 PM

Thats a good point. I guess they should be stopped because they’re scary.

Mimzey on January 5, 2016 at 6:03 PM

THAT is not an earthquake

It is an earthquake. Earthquakes are any movement of the earth’s crust, whether it be natural due to plates moving, or manmade.

HugoDrax on January 5, 2016 at 6:09 PM

Great tourist draw: Come to the Land of a Thousand Earthquakes!

None are big enough to actually hurt you. I’m sure euroweenies would love it.

Blake on January 5, 2016 at 6:09 PM

Describe the problem accurately. It’s not the fracking, but the waste water reinjection after the fact.

Madd_Addam on January 5, 2016 at 6:13 PM

There was also a substantial swarm of earthquakes in the same area in the mid-1950’s, as big as 5.7. No deep waste water injection at that time, and no large-volume fracking.

I wonder what they attribute those to? Disturbing an Indian burial ground, maybe? Or could they have been, you know, like, natural? OK has always had a lot of earthquakes.

iurockhead on January 5, 2016 at 6:15 PM

It is an earthquake. Earthquakes are any movement of the earth’s crust, whether it be natural due to plates moving, or manmade.

HugoDrax on January 5, 2016 at 6:09 PM

Thats a good point and I accept it as accurate in the clinical definition sense. To the average person, I’m guessing that the threat of fracking causing an “earthquake” is a dire image of fracking bringing on “the big one”, which I believe to be as much bullshit as “global warming” causing the earth to die and mankind to follow shortly after.

Mimzey on January 5, 2016 at 6:16 PM

Everyone knows that the real threat from fracking is the possible reawakening of Godzilla. Cuz that would be bad…reeeeeal bad.

Mimzey on January 5, 2016 at 6:18 PM

Earthquakes are any movement of the earth’s crust, whether it be natural due to plates moving, or manmade.

HugoDrax on January 5, 2016 at 6:09 PM

So technically, the ground shaking from mining explosions or the like, are “earthquakes”.

Mimzey on January 5, 2016 at 6:21 PM

Fear mongering doomsayers!!!

WryTrvllr on January 5, 2016 at 6:21 PM

So technically, the ground shaking from mining explosions or the like, are “earthquakes”.

Mimzey on January 5, 2016 at 6:21 PM

Yes. Underground nuclear explosions can do that too.

HugoDrax on January 5, 2016 at 6:29 PM

Ever hear of The New Madrid fault line? It runs up and down the Mississippi river. Yes, it’s one state over from Oklahoma (on the eastern side of Arkansas and Missouri) but a big one hit in the early 1800s (1803?) and it caused the Mississippi to flow backwards for 3 days. I’m rather skeptical about any quakes being caused by fracking.

Ruckus_Tom on January 5, 2016 at 6:51 PM

These are “earthquakes” in the strictest sense, but as they are caused by fracking and not a fault line, their potential for shaking is severely limited. The shaking is being cause by underground soils resettling, not large land masses rubbing together. I’d say less that 1% of all frack-quakes can even get above 4.0 on the Richter scale.

Rusty Nail on January 5, 2016 at 6:59 PM

Ever hear of The New Madrid fault line? It runs up and down the Mississippi river. Yes, it’s one state over from Oklahoma (on the eastern side of Arkansas and Missouri) but a big one hit in the early 1800s (1803?) and it caused the Mississippi to flow backwards for 3 days. I’m rather skeptical about any quakes being caused by fracking.

I’m rather skeptical about this claim. I think 3 hours is closer to the truth.

The Monster on January 6, 2016 at 12:31 AM

Oklahoma looks at regulating fracking to reduce earthquakes

SCIENCE!

LMAO

Man, we have really changed little since Ancient Rome. Great technology, wealth and power, but can’t help lapping up the pseudoscience.

It is an earthquake. Earthquakes are any movement of the earth’s crust, whether it be natural due to plates moving, or manmade.

Earthquakes are due to plate tectonics and the movement of gazillions of tons of crust at a fault line. What they’re talking about here is subsidence. This type of logic would classify the sudden subsidence of overburden in an underground coal mine as an “earthquake” (though I’m sure for the guys working there, it may as well be! LOL).

Dr. ZhivBlago on January 6, 2016 at 1:32 AM

I’m rather skeptical about this claim. I think 3 hours is closer to the truth.

The Monster on January 6, 2016 at 12:31 AM

Okay. My timing was off. But it just goes to show that the fracking Earth is more powerful than fracking mankind.

Ruckus_Tom on January 6, 2016 at 1:59 AM

These claims that waste water injection lubricates the faults is dubious at best. The faults are from 2-1/2 miles to 4 miles deep and the deepest waste water disposal well in Oklahoma is around 6,000 feet – just over 1 mile deep.

The fact that the drop in the number of quakes in California is directly proportional to the increased number of quakes in Oklahoma seems to be ignored. This whole thing smacks of agenda to me.

Woody

woodcdi on January 6, 2016 at 10:42 AM

As fracking operations proceed there is a need to dispose of the water used in the compression process. The easiest, safest and most environmentally friendly way to handle this is to drill disposal wells deep below the ground, fill them with the used water and seal them with concrete. Unfortunately, as is the case in Oklahoma, you may be injecting a lot of water into an area which already has naturally occurring fault lines.

If by compression process you mean the fracking process, that isn’t the case in Oklahoma. The majority (90%) of the water put into the ground is from “produced” water, water that was with the oil in the ground and then either used in the fracking process or buried again because it couldn’t be used for any other purpose. That isn’t to say that your point isn’t correct, just that the Oklahoma case is a little different.

Also, salt water is produced in ALL oil wells, not just fracking wells.

For instance, in Oklahoma, only 10% of the fluid injected into disposal wells is spent fluid that was initially used in hydraulic fracturing and cannot be reused (Murray, 2013). These formation brines (also termed produced water or wastewater) are typically salt water that is trapped in the same pore space as the oil and gas and comes up with the oil and gas. This salt water is often laden with dissolved salts, minerals, and occasionally other materials that make it unsuitable for other uses.
https://profile.usgs.gov/myscience/upload_folder/ci2015Jun1012005755600Induced_EQs_Review.pdf

In the areas of seismic activity, the saltwater disposal principally comes from “produced” water, saline pore water that is coproduced with oil and then injected into deeper sedimentary formations.
http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/advances/1/5/e1500195.full.pdf

Patriot Vet on January 6, 2016 at 1:27 PM

I’ve lived in Oklahoma my whole life. Until the last 5-6 years I’d never once felt an earthquake. Not one time.

Now they are relatively regular. You feel small ones on a usual basis. A few times a year now you’ll feel a big one.

While I was in Norman, closer to the epicenter, I was in a number of larger ones that did damage to buildings, caused the buildings at the University of Oklahoma to temporarily evacuate campus buildings, and shook the piss out of my house.

It’s an undeniable fact that it is happening.

Genuine on January 6, 2016 at 2:28 PM

I’m old enough to remember when lubricating fault line joints was proposed to relieve the tension in the rocks before they built up and released in a big earthquake.

Thanks fracking, for making the next big one less possible. We should give fracking an award.

billrowe on January 6, 2016 at 3:12 PM

I’m old enough to remember when lubricating fault line joints was proposed to relieve the tension in the rocks before they built up and released in a big earthquake.

Thanks fracking, for making the next big one less possible. We should give fracking an award.

billrowe on January 6, 2016 at 3:12 PM

Interesting. Never heard of that.

Patriot Vet on January 6, 2016 at 3:25 PM

Many earthquakes are unrelated to subduction zones. They can be the result the seismic activities that accompany volcanic eruptions, or the inflation of magma chambers prior to eruption. Earthquakes, though decreasing in frequency, have been common in the Upper Midwest and the Great Lakes states due to ‘rebound’ as the mantle continues to adjust in the areas where it was deflected downward by the last continental glaciation.

A rather large ground failure in an underground mine in Upper Michigan about 25 years ago actually resulted in it being registered as a shallow 2+ seismic event by the USGS instruments in Boulder, Colorado. There were permanent surface expressions of the event and there were related S-waves that affected surface structures at a distance. In effect it was an earthquake.

Most earth scientists are not surprised that large amounts of injected fluids can/are resulting in seismic activities. Withdrawal of large volumes of fluids, over time, have resulted in subsidence of the surface, and resulting quakes (see Los Angeles basin). Input of large amounts of fluids, especially over relatively short time spans, will build up localized stresses that will tend to transfer to other areas. That can cause small quakes. When you ‘inflate’ rocks they are going to ‘break’.

Lubrication of ‘stressed’ faults can/will cause quakes (see past projects carried out in California regarding purposeful stress relief on faults). The fear was that ‘unstressing’ small faults may result in the stresses cascading to a large, locked fault that was overdue for a “big one”.

In summary, there are many reasons why real earthquakes happen far from active plate tectonic margins.

Yoop on January 6, 2016 at 3:55 PM