I’m the first to remind folks that correlation isn’t causation, but the rise in earthquakes after oil companies use contemporary hydraulic fracturing methods (fracking) to extract oil, natural gas and coal seam gas is giving me pause. Add to that the nature of the beast (millions of gallons of “mystery liquids”) and it seems to me that re-examination of current law and regulation is far overdue.
Tuesday’s earthquake was centered in Mineral, Virginia, about 90 miles from the nation’s capital. According to USGS records, the 5.8 magnitude quake tied for third most powerful (ie, destructive) East Coast quake in recorded history.
Not only was it powerful (relatively speaking), it was rare:
The odds of a quake exceeding a magnitude of 5.5 occurring in central Virginia are so slim that Dominion Power determined only around six quakes of that size would occur in the area over the next 10,000 years. Dominion was looking at building a third nuclear reactor at their power plant in North Anna, VA, where facilities had to be taken offline yesterday as a result of the quake. Despite predicting that the site would be scarcely affected ever by a tremor, the quake’s epicenter was only mere miles from the nuclear facility.
Dominion, which confirmed in February that it will be building a third reactor for the plant, was rated by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission as the seventh most-likely site to receive damage from a quake, taking into consideration the 100-plus plants from coast-to-coast. Even still, the plant had its earthquake-sensing seismographs removed in the 1990s in order to save money.
Hydraulic fracturing is the process whereby oil companies inject water mixed with chemicals below ground; the injection is designed to create fractures in order create permeability that will allow extraction of situ fluids (such as oil and gas). Halliburton developed the technique in the 1940s (pdf). However, contemporary fracking differs from legacy methods. “Slick water” hydraulic fracturing, developed in the late 1990s, uses a different chemical mix (and up to three orders of magnitude more chemicals by volume); “high-volume” hydraulic fracturing (HVHF) uses much more fluid (about two orders of magnitude more, 3-7 million gallons of water per well, pdf) than the old method.
Although industry says “no way” could these practices be causing earthquakes, in 1990 the USGS said otherwise:
Earthquakes induced by human activity have been documented in a few locations in the United States, Japan, and Canada. The cause was injection of fluids into deep wells for waste disposal and secondary recovery of oil, and the use of reservoirs for water supplies. Most of these earthquakes were minor. The largest and most widely known resulted from fluid injection at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal near Denver, Colorado. In 1967, an earthquake of magnitude 5.5 followed a series of smaller earthquakes. Injection had been discontinued at the site in the previous year once the link between the fluid injection and the earlier series of earthquakes was established. (Nicholson, Craig and Wesson, R.L., 1990, Earthquake Hazard Associated with Deep Well Injection– A Report to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 1951, 74 p.)
That was 21 years ago, and industry practices have changed. Multi-stage fracking (which extend fractures across several miles) and “slick water” fracks have become widespread in the past decade. According to a 2008 ProPublica investigation, nine out of 10 natural gas wells in the United States involve fracking. The number of wells are growing: in 2007, there were 449,000 gas wells in 32 states, thirty percent more than in 2000. And all these fracked gas wells need wastewater disposal injection wells.
Braxton County West Virginia (160 miles from Mineral) has experienced a rash of freak earthquakes (eight in 2010) since fracking operations started there several years ago. According to geologists fracking also caused an outbreak of thousands of minor earthquakes in Arkansas (as many as two dozen in a single day). It’s also linked to freak earthquakes in Texas, western New York, Oklahoma and Blackpool, England (which had never recorded an earthquake before).
- Arkansas: The number of Arkansas earthquakes dropped by 75% after the Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission issued a temporary ban on fracking. In the month prior to the shutdown, there were more than 80 seismic events with a magnitude 2.5 or greater; afterwards, that dropped to 20. “Ninety percent of these earthquakes that have happened since 2009 have been within 6 kilometers of these salt water disposal wells,” according to Steve Horton, an earthquake specialist at the University of Memphis Center for Earthquake Research and Information (CERI).
- Colorado: On Monday, Colorado experienced a 5.3 magnitude earthquake in its southeastern corner. About 90 percent of the gas wells in Colorado have been fracked. In 2001, a USGS investigation could not rule out fracking as a contributor to widespread earthquakes in the region.
- Texas: In 2009, The Fort Worth Business Press wrote: “It’s clear the incidence of earthquakes has increased as Barnett Shale production increased during the past two decades.” Also in June 2009, the Wall Street Journal wrote: “More earthquakes [at least 100] have been detected in the [Cleburne, Texas] area since October  than in the previous 30 years combined.” Regarding a recent study of earthquakes in Texas: “What we have is a correlation between seismicity, and the time and location of saltwater injection. What we don’t have is complete information about the subsurface structure in the area – things like the porosity and permeability of the rock, the fluid path and how that might induce an earthquake.”
- West Virginia: After the West Virginia Oil and Gas Commission forced a reduction in on injection rate and pressure, “the earthquakes there seem to have dissipated,” Horton continued.
It’s not just the earthquakes that should be raising eyebrows.
“More than 1,000 other cases of contamination [related to fracking] have been documented by courts and state and local governments in Colorado, New Mexico, Alabama, Ohio and Pennsylvania,” ProPublica continues. But under the Bush Administration, Congress exempted fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act (emphasis added):
Of the 300-odd compounds that private researchers and the Bureau of Land Management suspect are being used, 65 are listed as hazardous by the federal government. Many of the rest are unstudied and unregulated, leaving a gaping hole in the nation’s scientific understanding of how widespread drilling might affect water resources.
Buried deep within the 424-page [2004 EPA] report are statements explaining that fluids migrated unpredictably — through different rock layers, and to greater distances than previously thought — in as many as half the cases studied in the United States. The EPA identified some of the chemicals as biocides and lubricants that “can cause kidney, liver, heart, blood, and brain damage through prolonged or repeated exposure.” It found that as much as a third of injected fluids, benzene in particular, remains in the ground after drilling and is “likely to be transported by groundwater.”
The EPA began preparing its report on hydraulic fracturing in 2000, after an Alabama court forced the agency to investigate fracturing-related water contamination there under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Political pressures were also mounting for the agency to clarify its position on fracturing. The 2001 Energy Policy, drafted in part by the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, a former Halliburton CEO, noted that “the gas flow rate may be increased as much as 20-fold by hydraulic fracturing.” While the EPA was still working on its report, legislation was being crafted to exempt hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act.
But one of the report’s three main authors, Jeffrey Jollie, an EPA hydrogeologist, now cautions that the research has been misconstrued by industry. The study focused solely on the effect hydraulic fracturing has on drinking water in coal bed methane deposits, typically shallow formations where gas is embedded in coal. It didn’t consider the impact of above-ground drilling or of drilling in geologic formations deep underground, where many of the large new gas reserves are being developed today.
“It was never intended to be a broad, sweeping study,” Jollie says. “I don’t think we ever characterized it that way.”
Nevertheless, a few months after the report’s release, the sweeping 2005 Energy Policy Act was passed. Almost no attention was paid to the three paragraphs that stripped the federal government of most of its authority to monitor and regulate hydraulic fracturing’s impact on the environment.
To get an idea of just how generous Congress has been to the natural gas industry, take a look at this New York Times report from earlier in 2011:
Coal mine operators that want to inject toxic wastewater into the ground must get permission from the federal authorities. But when natural gas companies want to inject chemical-laced water and sand into the ground during hydrofracking, they do not have to follow the same rules.
The air pollution from a sprawling steel plant with multiple buildings is added together when regulators decide whether certain strict rules will apply. At a natural gas site, the toxic fumes from various parts of it — a compressor station and a storage tank, for example — are counted separately rather than cumulatively, so many overall gas well operations are subject to looser caps on their emissions.
Note: we don’t know the chemical composition of the fracking mixture; they’re called mystery liquids for a reason. The natural gas industry is exempt from disclosure (community right to know) as well as most reparation (superfund).
The U.S. had 284 trillion cubic feet of “proved” oil reserves in 2009.
In 2010, U.S. consumption of natural gas was 24,136,666 million cubic feet (24 trillion cubic feet).
You can see the pressure to tap domestic reserves, even if they would only last about 10 years if we had no other source. We import a small volume of natural gas from Canada each year.
- Hydraulic Fracturing 101
- Untested Waters: The Rise of Hydraulic Fracturing in Oil and Gas Production and the Need to Revisit Regulation Fordham Environmental Law Review, 2009
- Hancock and the Marcellus Shale: Gas Extraction Along the Upper Delaware, The Earth Institute (Columbia University) Urban Design Lab, 2009