Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

USGS: Recent Earthquakes 'Almost Certainly Manmade'

Energy

Environmental Working Group

By Dusty Horwitt and Alex Formuzis

A U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) research team has linked oil and natural gas drilling operations to a series of recent earthquakes from Alabama to the Northern Rockies.

According to the study led by USGS geophysicist William Ellsworth, the spike in earthquakes since 2001 near oil and gas extraction operations is “almost certainly man-made.” The research team cites underground injection of drilling wastewater as a possible cause.

“With gasoline prices at $4 a gallon, there’s pressure to rush ahead with drilling, but the USGS report is another piece of evidence that shows we have to proceed carefully,” said Dusty Horwitt, senior counsel and chief natural resources analyst at Environmental Working Group. “We can’t afford multi-million-dollar water pollution cleanups or earthquakes that could pose risks to homes and health.”

The USGS study, published by the Seismological Society of America, will be presented at the group’s meeting April 17-19 in San Diego.

The authors shared their findings with EnergyWire’s Mike Soraghan in an article published March 29. Soraghan wrote:

“The study found that the frequency of earthquakes started rising in 2001 across a broad swath of the country between Alabama and Montana. In 2009, there were 50 earthquakes greater than magnitude-3.0, the abstract states, then 87 quakes in 2010. The 134 earthquakes in the zone last year is a sixfold increase over 20th century levels.

The USGS authors said they do not know why oil and gas activity might cause an increase in earthquakes, but a possible explanation is the increase in the number of wells drilled over the past decade and the increase in fluid used in the hydraulic fracturing of each well. The combination of factors is likely creating far larger amounts of wastewater that companies often inject into underground disposal wells. Scientists have linked these disposal wells to earthquakes since as early as the 1960s. The injections can induce seismicity by changing pressure and adding lubrication along faults.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that between 1991 and 2000, oil and gas companies drilled 245,000 wells in the U.S. compared to 405,000 wells between 2001 and 2010—a 65 percent increase.1 As an example of how much more fracking fluid is used, New York state’s review of oil and natural gas drilling regulations in 1988 assumed that companies would use between 20,000 and 80,000 gallons of fluid for hydraulic fracturing per well.2 The state’s 2011 review of regulations for natural gas drilling in shale formations assumed that companies would use 2.4 million to 7.8 million gallons of fluid per well—a 100-fold increase.3

According to Anthony Ingraffea, a professor of engineering at Cornell University who has conducted research on hydraulic fracturing, the increase in both the number of wells drilled and the amount of hydraulic fracturing fluid used per well has been driven by a shift of drilling into so-called unconventional formations such as shale in which gas and oil are distributed over very large volumes of rock, which need stimulation by fracking. Companies have increasingly tapped these formations because they have depleted most of the conventional formations in which gas and oil are contained in a relatively concentrated pool. In these conventional formations, companies can simply perforate the pool with their drill bit and drain a significant quantity of oil or gas. In unconventional formations, however, energy companies must drill more wells because the energy deposits are widely dispersed. Drillers must also use significantly more fracturing fluid to create larger fractures that can access a broader area of oil or gas.

“The rate of drilling and the volume of fluid used have increased tremendously,” said Ingraffea.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates underground waste disposal wells under its underground injection control program. The agency often delegates primary enforcement authority to the states. According to an article written by Soraghan and published in the March 15, 2012 edition of EnergyWire, an EPA task force is preparing recommendations for “managing or minimizing” earthquakes caused by underground injection wells. “The group appears to have receded from its initial goal of finding ways to ‘avoid’ earthquakes caused by injection,” Soraghan reported. An EPA presentation included in the article showed that the EPA sets specific standards for avoiding earthquakes for some types of injection wells, but in the case of oil and gas wastewater injection wells, such measures are up to the agency’s discretion.4

The USGS report is likely to be of particular interest in California, where earthquakes are a part of life largely as a result of the 810-mile long San Andreas Fault. An EWG investigation recently discovered that companies are engaged in hydraulic fracturing, mostly for oil, in a number of counties throughout California, including several directly above the fault line. It is unclear how the companies are disposing of their wastewater.

For more information, click here.


1. U.S. Dept. of Energy, Energy Information Administration, U.S. Crude Oil, Natural Gas and Dry Exploratory and Development Wells Drilled, Annual. Accessed online Mar. 30, 2010 here.

2. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Draft Generic Environmental Impact Statement on the Oil, Gas and Solution Mining Regulatory Program, Volume 1, Jan. 1988, at 9-26.

3. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Revised Draft, Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement on the Oil, Gas and Solution Mining Regulatory Program Well Permit Issuance for Horizontal Drilling and High-Volume Hydraulic Fracturing to Develop the Marcellus Shale and other Low-Permeability Reservoirs, Sept. 7, 2011, at ES-8. Accessed online Mar. 30, 2012 here.

4. Mike Soraghan, EPA Looking for Ways to 'Manage or Minimize' Injection Earthquakes,” Energy Wire Mar. 15, 2012. Accessed online Mar. 30, 2012 here.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

A protest against the name of the Washington Redskins in Minneapolis, Minnesota on Nov. 2, 2014. Fibonacci Blue / CC BY 2.0

The Washington Redskins will retire their controversial name and logo, the National Football League (NFL) team announced Monday.

Read More Show Less
The survival tools northern fish have used for millennia could be a disadvantage as environmental conditions warm and more fast-paced species move in. Istvan Banyai / Wikimedia Commons / CC by 3.0

By Alyssa Murdoch, Chrystal Mantyka-Pringle and Sapna Sharma

Summer has finally arrived in the northern reaches of Canada and Alaska, liberating hundreds of thousands of northern stream fish from their wintering habitats.

Read More Show Less
A mother walks her children through a fountain on a warm summer day on July 12, 2020 in Hoboken, New Jersey. Gary Hershorn / Getty Images

A heat wave that set in over the South and Southwest left much of the U.S. blanketed in record-breaking triple digit temperatures over the weekend. The widespread and intense heat wave will last for weeks, making the magnitude and duration of its heat impressive, according to The Washington Post.

Read More Show Less
If you get a call from a number you don't recognize, don't hit decline — it might be a contact tracer calling to let you know that someone you've been near has tested positive for the coronavirus. blackCAT / Getty Images

By Joni Sweet

If you get a call from a number you don't recognize, don't hit decline — it might be a contact tracer calling to let you know that someone you've been near has tested positive for the coronavirus.

Read More Show Less
Aerial view of burnt areas of the Amazon rainforest, near Porto Velho, Rondonia state, Brazil, on Aug. 24, 2019. CARLOS FABAL / AFP via Getty Images

NASA scientists say that warmer than average surface sea temperatures in the North Atlantic raise the concern for a more active hurricane season, as well as for wildfires in the Amazon thousands of miles away, according to Newsweek.

Read More Show Less
A baby receives limited treatment at a hospital in Yemen on June 27, 2020. Mohammed Hamoud / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

By Andrea Germanos

Oxfam International warned Thursday that up to 12,000 people could die each day by the end of the year as a result of hunger linked to the coronavirus pandemic—a daily death toll surpassing the daily mortality rate from Covid-19 itself.

Read More Show Less

Trending

The 2006 oil spill was the largest incident in Philippine history and damaged 1,600 acres of mangrove forests. Shubert Ciencia / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

By Jun N. Aguirre

An oil spill on July 3 threatens a mangrove forest on the Philippine island of Guimaras, an area only just recovering from the country's largest spill in 2006.

Read More Show Less