Quantcast
Energy

Fracking Wastewater Injection Wells Blamed for Oklahoma’s Recent String of Earthquakes

Oklahoma has had a whole lot of shaking going on during the last six years. Seismic activity in the state has risen dramatically, from just more than a dozen earthquakes recorded back in 2008 to more than 100 in 2013. And here we are only halfway through 2014, and already the number of Oklahoma quakes with a magnitude of 3.0 or higher has surpassed the number of such earthquakes in California—a state famous for its big temblors.

The state of Oklahoma recorded more than 100 earthquakes in 2013. Image credit: OnEarth

What on Earth (or under it) could be causing the Sooner State to rumble like this? A new study, published last week in the journal Science, suggests that a common byproduct of oil and gas drilling may be to blame.

In the process of extracting oil and gas, energy companies also end up extracting a lot of underground water: for every quart of oil yielded, in fact, as much as a gallon of water gets sucked up out of the ground. Because this wastewater is salty, drillers can’t simply dump it into the nearest freshwater stream; instead, they typically inject it back into the formation, via deep wells that can extend anywhere from one to three miles below ground. Unfortunately, the study’s authors have found, these wastewater injections can agitate long-dormant faults, causing them to slip—and trigger an earthquake.

A number of previously published studies (you can read a few herehere and here) have shown strong correlations between wastewater injection wells and increased seismic activity. But by synthesizing the most sophisticated hydrological models with the latest seismological data, the authors of this most recent study have arrived at our clearest understanding yet of how, exactly, the act of injecting water into the ground might physically result in an earthquake. 

According to the researchers, only a handful of Oklahoma’s 10,000 wells—roughly 90 of them where drillers have routinely been pumping wastewater below the surface—may account for the state’s biggest cluster of earthquakes. (Within 25 miles of these well sites, more than 100 earthquakes have been recorded.) Although the study doesn’t prove, conclusively, that the wells induced those earthquakes, the data does strongly support that suspicion.

“The main purpose of this study was to try to understand the physics of the system better, particularly the linkage between wastewater injection and observed seismicity,” says co-author Shemin Ge, a hydrogeologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Through this understanding, she and her partners are hoping to identify and promote best practices—such as making sure that a site isn't too close to a fault before any drilling begins, or limiting the amount of water injected into a well.

The size of Oklahoma’s oil and gas industry has nearly doubled since 2004. But it's not the only state where earthquake activity is rising at same time that oil and gas development are surging: ColoradoTexasArkansas and Ohio have also been feeling the Earth move a lot more than usual. Even so, nearly half of all the earthquakes that took place in the central and eastern U.S. between 2008 and 2013 occurred in Oklahoma.

The quakes have cracked foundations and buckled highways. Last October, the state’s insurance commissioner began encouraging homeowners to buy earthquake insurance—a purchase that, up until now, has probably made a lot more sense to residents of Temecula than Tulsa. Now some nervous Oklahomans are calling for a moratorium on wastewater injection wells, taking a cue from their neighbors in Arkansas, who in 2011 issued a ban of their own on any underground wastewater disposal within 1,150 square miles of a major geologic fault.

“We don’t fully understand what the hazard implications of [wastewater injection] are,” says Bill Ellsworth, a U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist who knows a thing or two about earthquakes. (He’s published more than 100 studies on them—though he wasn’t a part of this most recent study). Still, Ellsworth says, “this type of research is an important direction for people working in this field to be perusing.”

Can’t argue with that. In the meantime, Okies, take a few earthquake tips from your friends on the West Coast (and maybe get that insurance).

This article was originally posted in Natural Resources Defense Council’s OnEarth. 

Show Comments ()
Sponsored
Popular
Robert Vessels

Fly Fishing in Yellowstone: How One Veteran Found a New Life in the Outdoors

By Lindsey Robinson

Evan Bogart never wanted to sleep in a tent again. Between 2004-2011, he'd served in the U.S. Army as an infantryman and spent three long combat deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. He'd spent a good portion of his years in service living in a tent in hot and hazardous deserts. He'd had enough of the outdoors; he wanted to be in places with air conditioning, electricity and no reminders of the war-torn lands he had experienced.

Evan separated in 2011 as an E6 Squad Leader, with an honorable discharge and two Purple Hearts. But his own heart was heavy and troubled. He'd become disillusioned with the U.S. military and its goals in the Middle East. The violence and destruction he'd witnessed left him feeling both angry and guilty. He distinctly remembers one moment in Iraq: "An old woman told me I was a bad man, and I realized I agreed with her."

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Make A Change World

How Two Brothers Convinced the Indonesian Government to Clean Up the World's Most Polluted River

By Gary Bencheghib and Sam Bencheghib

On August 14, we set out to kayak down the world's most polluted river, the Citarum River located in Indonesia, to document and raise awareness about the highly toxic chemicals in its waters and the masses of plastics floating on its surface.

We paddled a total of 68km in two weeks on two plastic bottle kayaks from the village of Majalaya, located just south of Bandung to Pantai Bahagia, the river mouth at the Java Sea. Each kayak was made of 300 plastic bottles to demonstrate that trash can have a second life.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular

General Motors to Run Ohio, Indiana Factories With 100% Wind Power

By Greg Alvarez

Last week I predicted it wouldn't be long before we had more news on Fortune 500 wind power purchases. Well, a whole seven days passed before there were new deals to report.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
South Carolina United Turtle Enthusiasts (S.C.U.T.E) unearthed three baby loggerheads after a nest inventory at Pawleys Island beach. Lorraine Chow

Sea Turtle Population Rebounding But Many Threats Remain

A new study published in Science Advances has found that most global sea turtles populations are recovering after historical declines.

The results from the analysis suggest that conservation programs actually work, and why we must defend the Endangered Species Act (ESA) that protects vulnerable plants and animals, and is currently under attack by political and business interests.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Popular
www.youtube.com

Baby Rhino Brings New Hope to India’s Manas National Park

A baby rhino spotted alongside its mother in Manas National Park, located in the northeastern Indian state of Assam, is an encouraging new sign that the rhino population in the protected area is on the upswing. The mother, named Jamuna, was rescued as a calf from Kaziranga National Park, located about 200 miles east of Manas and raised at the Center for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation, a facility that cares for injured or orphaned wild animals run by Wildlife Trust of India/International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Assam Forest Department. She was moved to the Manas in 2008 as part of the country's rhino conservation efforts.

The calf is her second since 2013—a positive indication that despite concerns due to poaching of mature males, rhinos in Manas are reproducing.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Cedar Mesa Valley of the Gods in the Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah. Bob Wick, BLM

Navajo Nation Readies Legal Action if Trump Shrinks Bears Ears National Monument

Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke's recommendation to reduce the size of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah could spark a legal battle between the Navajo Nation and the Trump administration.

"We are prepared to challenge immediately whatever official action is taken to modify the monument or restructure any aspect of that, such as the Bears Ears Commission," Ethel Branch, Navajo Nation attorney general, told Reuters.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Popular
Jilson Tiu / Greenpeace

Nestlé, Unilever, P&G Among Worst Offenders for Plastic Pollution in Philippines Beach Audit

A week-long beach clean up and audit at Freedom Island in Manila Bay has exposed the companies most responsible for plastic pollution in the critical wetland habitat and Ramsar site—one of the worst locations for plastic pollution in the Philippines.

The Greenpeace Philippines and #breakfreefromplastic movement audit, the first of its kind in the country, revealed that Nestlé, Unilever and Indonesian company PT Torabika Mayora are the top three contributors of plastic waste discovered in the area, contributing to the 1.88 million metric tonnes of mismanaged plastic waste in the Philippines per year.

Keep reading... Show less
GMO
www.youtube.com

Arkansas Plant Board Backs Dicamba Ban Next Summer in Blow to Monsanto

The Arkansas Plant Board has approved new regulations that prohibit the use of dicamba from April 16 through Oct. 31, 2018 after receiving nearly 1,000 complaints of pesticide misuse in the state.

Arkansas, which temporarily banned the highly volatile weedkiller in July, could now face legal action from Monsanto, the developers of dicamba-resistant soybeans or cotton and the corresponding pesticide, aka the Xtend crop system.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

Get EcoWatch in your inbox