'Groundbreaking' Study Links Texas Earthquakes to Wastewater Injection From Fracking
Even though scientists are pretty certain that wastewater injection from fracking and conventional drilling has led to the unprecedented spate of earthquakes rollicking Oklahoma, Texas and other states in recent years. Definitive proof, however, is rare. But now, in a study published Thursday in Science, researchers have fastened another nail in the "man-made earthquakes" coffin.
Earthquakes in Texas in November 2014.NBC Dallas-Fort Worth
Using satellite imagery, the researchers found that a series of earthquakes that struck Texas between 2012 and 2013— including the largest-ever quake recorded in eastern Texas—were caused by the injection of large volumes of wastewater from oil and gas activities into deep underground wells.
As Mashable explained from the study:
Wastewater not only puts pressure on underground fault lines, causing "induced" earthquakes, but also pushes up the surface of the ground—a phenomenon called "uplifting" that can be seen from space.
Researchers used satellite images of ground uplifting to show how wastewater disposal in eastern Texas eventually triggered a magnitude-4.8 earthquake in May 2012, the largest earthquake recorded in that half of the Lone Star state.
"Our research is the first to provide an answer to the questions of why some wastewater injection causes earthquakes, where it starts and why it stops," said study co-author William Ellsworth, a geophysics professor at Stanford's School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences.
As a Stanford press release described, the researchers used Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar (or satellite-based radar) to detect tiny, highly precise deformations near four high-volume wastewater disposal wells where the 2012 temblor occurred.
These wells had operated between 2005 and 2007, injecting about 200 million gallons of wastewater annually underground at its peak—or, as Science pointed out, "about an Olympic swimming pool's worth of wastewater pumped underground each day."
This uplift, as a result of pumping so much fluid into the ground, caused the terrain between two sets of injection wells to bulge up to 3 millimeters a year on average between May 2007 and November 2010, Science noted. Over time, excess fluids seeped away from the injection point into tiny spaces in surrounding subsurface rocks, boosting water pressure—aka pore pressure. The ever-expanding pore pressure then reached fault zones, thus triggering earthquakes.
As explained in the Stanford press release, the rising pore pressure built up until it triggered earthquakes in 2012 along an ancient fault line. "The quakes ended in late 2013, when pressures began to decline after wastewater injections were scaled back considerably," it stated.
Fracking has become an increasingly controversial oil and gas extraction method especially due to its briney, chemically laden wastewater byproduct. Every day, two billion gallons of this wastewater is injected into roughly 180,000 disposal wells scattered throughout states such as Texas, California, Oklahoma and Kansas.
Mounting evidence shows that this injecting of wastewater is causing damaging earthquakes in areas that had never seen much seismic activity, especially in Oklahoma, which has surpassed California in becoming the country's earthquake capital. Just this month, the Sooner State was rocked by a 5.8 earthquake in Pawnee, the largest ever in the state.
Dauntingly, the researchers in the current study found that seismic activity increased even as wastewater injection rates declined because pore pressure from earlier injections continuing to diffuse.
On an industry-positive note, this research presents a new tool to pinpoint which earthquakes are man-made or natural and to even forecast further seismic activity.
Arizona State University geophysicist and study co-author Manoochehr Shirzaei called the findings "very groundbreaking" and "very new," and explained how this study can, in a sense, make wastewater disposal safer.
"This research opens new possibilities for the operation of wastewater disposal wells in ways that could reduce earthquake hazards," Shirzaei said. Shirzaei indicated he was neither pro or against fracking.
"So now the goal, the scope of every scientist across the U.S.A., and maybe abroad, is to make that injection safer" by "reducing the number of earthquakes as much as we can," he said.
The U.S. District Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 Tuesday saying that the Federal Environmental Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) failed to adequately review the environmental impacts of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of the fracked gas Sabal Trail pipeline, which runs more than 500 miles through Alabama, Georgia and Florida.
As ocean waters warm and acidify, corals across the globe are disappearing. Desperate to prevent the demise of these vital ecosystems, researchers have developed ways to "garden" corals, buying the oceans some much-needed time. University of Miami Rosenstiel School marine biologist Diego Lirman sat down with Josh Chamot of Nexus Media to describe the process and explain what's at stake. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What is killing coral?
I wish we had an easy, straightforward answer for what's killing corals. We know there are many, many different factors influencing coral abundance, diversity, distribution and health these days, but I think the specific answer varies based on where you are.
Temperatures play a major role at global scales, and then you have all of these other, more local factors like disease, physical impacts of storms, or ship groundings.
Researcher Stephanie Schopmeyer prepares to out-plant Staghorn coral onto a Miami reef. Rescue-A-Reef, UM Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science
We had the dredging of the Port of Miami channel a couple of years ago and that caused a lot of localized mortality due to sediment burial and sediment stress. You also have land-based sources of pollution that can damage by location and nutrient influence that causes algal overgrowth of corals.
Local factors are superimposed on regional factors directly related to global climate change. Changes in temperature, more temperature extremes, acidification of the water, changes in storm frequency and sea level rise— all are at different scales — but they all combine to cause coral mortality.
Factors vary both spatially and temporally, but the outcomes are all the same. Regardless of where you are, we've lost a tremendous amount of coral.
Nursery-raised Staghorn coral out-planted onto a reef by a citizen scientist.
In the face of all those threats, can restoration work?
Historically, restoration was developed and used for acute disturbances. A ship runs aground, and so then there's a recovery, and funds are allocated to recovering the reef structure at a given location, and then corals are planted on top of that. But as global conditions decline for coral reefs, there's now a need to scale up. So, we're not just dealing with the localized impact—we're looking at species declining throughout their range.
We need other tools at larger scales, and that's where coral reef gardening has come into play, because it works at larger scales compared to just dumping cement and rebuilding reef structures, costly endeavors that recover just a very small footprint. We're growing and planting these organisms.
Do you worry about planted coral dominating the reefs?
Initially, these techniques were developed for fast-growing corals. The genus that we're focusing on, Acropora, is threatened, so these are very important reef-building species.
When abundant, they monopolize shallow environments. They form thickets, extensive areas of high-density colonies. That's the way they used to grow, until about three to four decades ago when they got wiped out by disease and other factors. The branching corals that we're working with grow between 10 and 15 cm per branch per year, so that's very fast growth.
Through recent advances in coral aquaculture, we're now also able to grow massive species, the ones that grow very slowly. Mote Marine Lab has developed microfragmentation techniques where they can cut coral colonies very, very small and make them grow very, very fast. Although we focused on branching corals initially, now most of the programs, especially here in Florida, are expanding onto other threatened species.
Citizen scientists plant coral. Rescue-A-Reef, UM Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science
Can these efforts solve the problem, or are they a placeholder until climate stabilizes?
You hit the nail on the head. One of the early criticisms of reef restoration was the scale issue and spending a lot of resources working on a very small footprint.
We've dealt with that now, over the past 10 years we've expanded to the point where we're growing thousands and thousands of corals—we're planting thousands and thousands of corals—so that issue of scale is no longer a valid criticism.
The other major criticism is that, even though we're planting a lot of corals, we're planting them onto environments where the same stressors that caused their initial mortality are in place. Now there is ocean acidification and increased temperatures, so things have gotten, in some cases, progressively worse.
Staghorn corals create a sustainable source of corals for use in restoration. Rescue-A-Reef, UM Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science
That is a valid concern if we were just planting corals, but we're not just doing that. We're still concentrating on all of the other aspects of reef restoration, setting up marine protected areas to protect fish stocks and coral impacts, working to curb land-based sources of pollution, and setting up sedimentation and nutrient controls. And then, on a much larger scale, we're all trying to curb carbon emissions, trying to limit the greenhouse impacts and acidification impacts. All these tools just help us buy time.
We're also doing a lot of genomics work to see how corals can increase their resilience. A colleague of mine here at the Rosenstiel School at University of Miami, Andrew Baker, is stress-hardening corals. He works on coral symbiosis, and he found that by applying a little bit of non-lethal stress, he can make corals shuffle their Zooxanthellae, which are the endosymbiotic microalgae that provide energy to the corals. In that process, they're able to uptake Zooxanthellae that are more thermally tolerant. So, through the forced shuffling of symbionts, you may be able to buy these corals one or two degrees of tolerance, so that they become more tolerant to bleaching in future years. That is cutting-edge science.
We're trying to actually find out what makes corals survive, and trying to beef up their defenses and their resilience over time. And that's because we have access to all these coral genotypes through the active propagation from coral gardening.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.
By Karen Perry Stillerman
This job has responsibility for scientific integrity at the USDA, as well as oversight of the department's various research arms and multi-billion dollar annual investments in agricultural research and education that are essential to farmers and eaters alike.
The Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club lodged formal comments with the federal government Monday opposing a massive gas fracking project that spans 220 square miles of public land in Wyoming south of Yellowstone National Park.
The Normally Pressured Lance gas field would destroy wildlife habitat and worsen ozone pollution, a major cause of childhood asthma, in areas already suffering from extreme air pollution.
Sierra received complete surveys from a record-breaking 227 schools—in 36 states, the District of Columbia, and for the first time ever, Canada.
By Andy Rowell
The decades-long struggle for social and environmental justice in the Niger Delta continues, largely unseen by the wider world.
On Aug. 11, hundreds of people from the Niger Delta stormed the Belema flow station gas plant owned by Shell in the Rivers State region of the Delta. The plant transports crude oil to the Bonny Light export terminal, from where it is shipped overseas.
The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine said in a statement the Interior Department has directed it to cease its study on the potential health risks for people living near surface coal mines in Central Appalachia.
The Interior Department, which committed more than $1 million to the study last year, has begun an agency-wide review of grants over $100,000 because of the "Department's changing budget situation."