If you read the title there’s not much more of an intro to do, really. Let’s just get to the case.
Oklahoma’s Supreme Court said New Dominion LLC can be sued for damage caused by an earthquake that a woman blames on disposal wells tied to fracking, in what may be the first such case to head to a jury trial.
Sandra Ladra sued New Dominion and Spess Oil Co. for injuries suffered to her knees and legs in November 2011, when a 5.0 magnitude earthquake struck near her home in central Oklahoma. She said the tremor caused the rock facing on her two-story fireplace and chimney to fall into the living room, where she was watching television with her family.
Oklahoma, a region not known for seismic activity, has experienced a rash of earthquakes since 2009, the same year area oil companies began using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to shatter deep rock layers to extract oil and gas. Fracked wells produce large quantities of wastewater, which drilling companies inject into ultra-deep disposal wells, which critics blame for causing earthquakes.
I’m going to start off here by saying something which may surprise some long time readers. The plaintiff in this case, as well as in many of the less hyperbolic complaints from opponents of domestic energy, actually has a point. I’ll confess, when I first heard some of the stories hitting the energy related media a few years back about fracking causing earthquakes, originally in Ohio and Texas, I was.. skeptical, to put it kindly. To be less kind, I was ready to write these people off as loons. But we’re dealing with science here and we have to keep an open mind. And as it turned out, there is some basis in fact for what’s been going on. Deep drilling, where you are fracturing a lot of substructure and allowing the land above it to press down and settle, can actually cause low level disturbances which are very similar to earthquakes. (Okay… to be fair, I suppose they actually are earthquakes since the Earth is quaking.) And I’m one of those boring people who receive regular industry updates on all of these related subjects and the facts are what they are.
But at the same time, I also agree with industry experts who arrive at the same conclusion as the US Geological Survey (USGS) from the Department of the Interior. They understand that our ability to generate earthquakes – even if we were trying – pales in comparison to the shifting of tectonic plates. The quakes which drilling disruptions cause tend to be small scale events at best.
To produce natural gas from shale formations, it is necessary to increase the interconnectedness of the pore space (permeability) of the shale so that the gas can flow through the rock mass and be extracted through production wells. This is usually done by hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”). Fracking causes extremely small earthquakes, but they are almost always too small to be a safety concern. In addition to natural gas, fracking fluids and salt water trapped in the same formation as the gas are returned to the surface. These wastewaters are frequently disposed of by injection into deep wells. The injection of wastewater and salt water into the subsurface can cause earthquakes that are large enough to be felt and may cause damage.
Unfortunately, as even the foremost experts in the field will tell you, seismology and the study of the Earth’s interior is still a very inexact science at best. Plenty of theories are out there and the science continues to advance, but earthquakes remain something of a mystery. (Some have speculated that one seismic event can cause a slow motion cascade of earthquakes, but you can’t really duplicate it.) But returning to the question at hand, it seems that extensive drilling can at least cause small quakes, usually below a 3.0 on the Richter scale. That 5.0 in Oklahoma was a surprisingly large one (though not in comparison to the really big rumblers) and is worth studying. But was it waiting to happen anyway?
You probably don’t think of Missouri as earthquake country either, but it was the site of one of the biggest quakes in the recorded history of the continental United States. (Of course, in 1811 there wasn’t much man made stuff to fall down.) The Earth is a complicated piece of machinery.
Still, there seems to be a connection. The industry is already looking at these questions and they may wind up needing to change liquid injection methods to shore up subsurface shifting. Who knows? And as for this case, I can sympathize with the woman who brought the suit. Personally I think the companies should cover her medical costs and repair her fireplace. Heck.. it’s the energy industry. Buy her a new house. But it’s also no reason for anti-energy activists to tie a flag on this hill and say it’s a reason to stop drilling.