Study: Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) rarely linked to felt seismic tremors

From the UNIVERSITY OF ALBERTA, another political tool of the left bites the dust.

Researchers find only one hydrocarbon-producing area where production is linked to increased seismic activities at the regional scale

EDMONTON (June 26, 2017)–New research suggests hydraulic fracturing and saltwater disposal has limited impact on seismic events.

For the past two years, UAlberta geophysicist Mirko Van der Baan and his team have been poring over 30 to 50 years of earthquake rates from six of the top hydrocarbon-producing states in the United States and the top three provinces by output in Canada: North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, West Virginia, Alberta, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan.

With only one exception, the scientists found no province- or state-wide correlation between increased hydrocarbon production and seismicity. They also discovered that human-induced seismicity is less likely in areas that have fewer natural earthquakes.

The anomaly was in Oklahoma, where seismicity rates have changed dramatically in the last five years, with strong correlation to saltwater disposal related to increased hydrocarbon production.

“It’s not as simple as saying ‘we do a hydraulic fracturing treatment, and therefore we are going to cause felt seismicity.’ It’s actually the opposite. Most of it is perfectly safe,” said Van der Baan, who is also director of the Microseismicity Industry Consortium.

The findings, as well as continued monitoring, will help point industry experts toward developing mitigation strategies for the oft-maligned practice.

“What we need to know first is where seismicity is changing as it relates to hydraulic fracturing or saltwater disposal. The next question is why is it changing in some areas and not others,” continued Van der Baan. “If we can understand why seismicity changes, then we can start thinking about mitigation strategies.”

Though Van der Baan noted that hydraulic fracturing has been in practice since the 1950s, it has come under increased scrutiny in the last handful of years due to both increased production as well as the use of the increased treatment volumes. He said an important next step will be continued monitoring.

“Hydraulic fracturing is not going away. The important thing is that we need to find the balance between the economic impact and environmental sustainability of any industry,” he said.

Van der Baan will be sharing the studies’ findings extensively with industry and university students this fall when he travels to 25 different cities in North America to meet with as many different professional societies as this year’s Society for Exploration Geophysicists honorary lecturer.

“Human-induced seismicity and large-scale hydrocarbon production in the USA and Canada” appeared in the scientific journal Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, published by the American Geophysical Union.


57 thoughts on “Study: Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) rarely linked to felt seismic tremors

  1. Chalk this up as another fragmented regulatory failure since most of the earthquakes are associated with wastewater injection wells. Some of these were on tribal lands after being stopped on state lands and others were given permits for wastewater wells in the exact areas known for earthquake swarms prior to the shale well drilling era.

    • These earthquakes, if they actually are related to fracking and waste water disposal, are merely triggering earthquakes that would have happened anyway sometime in the next few years or decades.

  2. Good paper. Oklahoma is the exception for two geological reasons. First, it is undergoing active stress strain in the NE/SW trending fault system in the contral to north part of the state. Second, it has as a result a surprising number of acrive fauilts in the main stratum (Arbuckle) previously used for coproduced salt water injection. The state has developed a multipart common sense prevention program including no injection wells near known faults, more smaller rather than fewer bigger injection wells, and injecting into shallower strata than the Arbuckle, which is the major problem. OCC says these steps are working based on two years of experience. Problem recognized, problem solved. And, most of these quakes are below Richter 3, so cause no damage.

    • This real world experiment opens the possibility that fault zones such as the San Andreas could be managed so that earthquakes above Richter 5 or so could be a thing of the past. Underground injection of water into these faults could allow them to slip a little at a time instead of building up enough stress to cause a catastrophic release of energy.

      Sadly, I doubt any of us will live to see that happen.

      • Dr. Maurice Major, one of my professors of geophysics in the late 70’s talked about the concept of injections to release seismic energy on the San Andreas. He then pointed out the flaw in the thinking. Because the Richter Magnitude scale was logarithmic

        To prevent a M 8.5 quake every century, you would have to settle for a mag 7.5 every decade, or a Mag 6.5 every year, or a Mag 5 every day at tea-time.

        What geophysicist in their right mind would want to subject themselves to that risk and liability?

      • Actually, if I remember correctly, this suggestion first came up back in the 1950s or ’60s when they noticed an increase in minor earth quakes near Denver, Colorado which they finally traced to injection wells at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal. The Arsenal was injecting waste chemicals from the manufacture of chemical warfare agents into deep wells to prevent local ground water contamination. Back then several people suggested this might work to relieve strain on the San Andreas but no one could discount the possibility that it might first cause ‘the big one’ since they could not determine how much strain was already built up in the fault.

    • Speaking of the arbuckle, from my past experience 40 years ago drilling a vertical hole in the arbuckle was very costly because crooked hole problems which had to be countered with expensive bottom hole drilling assemblies and limited weight on the bit which caused slower penetration. This was before the bit steering tools and mwd were developed. By the way the extreme faulting was the cause of the problems.

    • The first Earthquake to hit Oklahoma was near the old Fort Denison in 1882 (4.9 magnitude).

      The first well was not drilled in Oklahoma until 1885 so that’s not it obviously

      Oklahoma is on an ancient fault zone structure called the Nemaha fault zone which originated hundreds of millions of year ago. It goes up through Kansas as well.

      We seen earthquakes caused by geothermal projects as well.

    • Rud, Good points and I agree with your points. I would only add that the Oklahoma City/Edmond area has a problem due to produced water injection wells (not hydraulic fracturing) into tight (low permeability) rocks. As you note the Arbuckle is a huge problem.

      In the Tulsa area they inject even more produced water, but they inject it into under pressured high permeability rocks so they have no problem.

      Some of the produced water, after treatment to remove the gas and oil, is perfectly safe to release on the surface. This water is needed in western Oklahoma and special permits allow such releases in Wyoming and New Mexico. One solution is to allow this in Oklahoma. Hopefully, it will be allowed, solves two problems with one blow.

    • I vaguely remember seeing a TV programme regarding the next “mega-disaster”. After running through such places as San Andreus and Cascadia it continued with the known anomaly of Oklahoma. Within recorded history, let alone observable prehistory there have been many seismic events including major earthquakes on a reasonably regular and predictable cycle. At the time the programme was made the window for increased seismic activity had opened.

  3. Hydrofrac can only release stored elastic energy that is already there. Fracs that are deeper than 2500 feet are typically vertical, and run parallel to the regional stress. Those that are less than 2500 ft are typically horizontal.

  4. ‘another political tool of the left bites the dust.’

    Well, that’s assuming that they don’t simply keep repeating it anyway. Not that there’s any evidence THAT would happen.

  5. Any reservoir that has valuable liquid or gas materials, and has poor permeability, can go from non economic to exploit, to economic. Fracking increases the permeability and recovery from a reservoir. Aquifers with poor permeability are often fracked. Many municipal water wells are fracked. Fracking is not done with just water: CO2 and sand, N2 and sand, compressed air and sand are used. For gas and petroleum fracking water, sand, and polymer (food additive) to hold the sand or beads in suspension is typical.

    • Back in the good ol’ days they often fracked with nitroglycerine. However I think that is a thing of the past now.

      • The old wild catters called that “torpedoing” a well. Other less dangerous to handle explosives became more common.

      • Nitro was used in the tight sands in Pa, NY, Ohio, Wv, starting in the late 1800’s, continued into the 1970’s at least and may even still occur. I actually had a Pet Eng prof in the 1960’s who taught exploding nitro in well bores. Never did it but did observe effects after the fact.

  6. For those individuals that have ever felt an earthquake – Does anyone seriously believe that the highest pressure created by a frac job or with SWD is powerfull enough to create/cause an earthquake as mild as a 1.5 earthquake.
    Do you really think the hydralic pressure can be strong enough to feel the earth move 10-12 miles away

    ( I live in north texas and have felt two in the 2.0 range).

    • Joe, you are right about the additional stress, or change of stress siting, not being a significant issue in producing earthquakes. However, there have been some articles suggesting that the lubrication of a fault plane might lower the friction enough to allow the stress to alleviate, ie, move and produce an earthquake. See the Louis Hoffsstetter comment above about lubricating the San Andreas Fault. A great idea as the tendency would be a thousand small quakes instead of one big one. However, if the initial lubrication PRODUCED THE REALLY BIG ONE somebody would be in trouble.

  7. The full article is paywalled so I am left wondering if this study may suffer from statistical shotgunning. I have no specific reason to doubt the conclusion, and ristivan’s comment above provides some plausible reasons why Oklahoma would be the most influenced, but I am still curious how they determined the relationship in Oklahoma was causal rather than chance. As the number of sites goes up, the more likely you are to find a spurious correlation. If the geology in Oklahoma explains the different response, could/was that added in as a covariate? Or am I showing my rudimentary understanding of stats?

    • MJB, some causality untangling explanations. I wrote Arkansas Fayetteville and West Virginia Marcellus injection wells up as an example in ebook The Arts of Truth. First part is depth of seismicity. Injection wells tend to be shallow (1-2km deep), and most earthquakes are deeper. That is how the earthquake swarm around Guy AR and the earthquake at Gassaway WV were proven to be natural, not injection well induced. In Oklahoma, the quakes originate in the injection formation (Arbuckle), they originate close to the injection wells, when the injection volume is lower there are fewer, when higher there are more, and if injection is stopped (about 70 injection wells too close to faults have been shut in), the quakes at that location subside then stop. All pretty suggestive of direct causality via increased lubricity along already stressed NE/SW running strike/slip Arbuckle faults. But only in central north Oklahoma.

      • ristvan,

        I have not studied this in detail, but from my limited observations I don’t think you are correct about all of the quakes originating in the injection formation (Arbuckle). On the limited occasions where I have looked up the data for earthquakes that have occurred near injection wells, the hypocenters have been well below the Arbuckle formation. (Sometimes quite deep in the Precambrian basement rock.)

        Oklahoma may be a unique problem. Commercial saltwater disposal wells appear to be causing some quakes without injecting into the fault. It may be that the shear volume of water is enough to change the stress field above the fault in some circumstances.

        (Please feel free to correct me if you have more detailed information on this topic.)

      • ristvan June 27, 2017 at 1:56 pm

        That is how the earthquake swarm around Guy AR and the earthquake at Gassaway WV were proven to be natural,

        That earthquake at Gassaway WV was the first and only earthquake that I had ever “sensed”. And I said “sensed” simply because I never felt any shaking, quaking or movement of the ground (or floor) underneath me.

        I live about 36+- miles from the epicenter of that Gassaway, WV, earthquake …… and was sitting here in front of my PC, in my office chair, which has five (5) caster wheels on its base, intensely engrossed in reading verbiage on a website, …… when all of a sudden it seemed like my PC monitor had moved back and forth a couple times, like 1/4 to 1/2 inch, right in front of my eyeballs.

        And “Yes”, it literally surprised me and I sat back in my chair and asked myself ….. “What the hell was that?”

        And after pondering that question for a few minutes I said to myself, ….. “Holy feces, I just witnessed an earthquake”. It was my office chair, with me in it, that had rolled back and forth, ….. not my PC monitor.

        I immediately told my wife about the earthquake, …… which of course she didn’t believe me. So I said to her, ….. “OK, then you just wait until the Channel 8 (Charleston, WV) “noon” News comes on and see if they don’t report an earthquake occurring somewhere in central WV”. And that is what the “noon” News reported.


  8. Fracking has been directly linked to, at most, a couple of barely palpable induced tremors. Produced water disposal, can and has triggered palpable minor quakes, some of which have caused some damage.

    The two procedures are unrelated.

    • Yes. And for conventional reservoirs, coproduced salt water is reinjected into the reservoir to maintain pressure. That is not possible for fracked shales, which is why alternative formation saltwater injection wells are almost exclusively associated with horizontally fracked shales.

  9. Has anyone else posted recent articles here to Facebook? The last ones I have done have a generic Watts Up With That graphic rather than anything specific to the article.

  10. Injecting fracking wastewater under extreme pressure underground is most unfortunate. They really should be more responsible and clean up their pollution. Also let’s hope that they never follow through with the proposed use of depleted uranium as shaped-charge explosives for fracking.

    • Misconception. The actual frack freshwater is usually either cleaned and discharged or more commonly reused. It has expensive stuff in it like guar gum to suspend the proppant. It coild be injected, but very small volumes. The water being injected in disposal wells is coproduced with the oil/gas from previously fracked shale source rocks. (In conventional reservoirs, this water is reinjected intomthe reservoir. That is not possible with fracked shales.) It is salty, and often also has heavy metal contaminants. Safest and cheapest solution is to reinject it into a porous formation at least 1 km down. (No freshwater aquifers/wells below about 300 meters; lower water will always be salty/mineral loaded from underground residence time. The 1/2 km clearance provides a geological safety margin for the freshwater aquifers above.) These porous strata are quite common above or below the marine shale source rocks. Just make sure they are not also under tectonic stress like central north Oklahoma’s Arbuckle.

    • It isn’t “fracing wastewater” that is the problem. The producing oil wells also produce a great deal of naturally occurring salt water, along with the oil. That water must be re- injected below the fresh- water table. It isn’t a matter of cleaning up their pollution, it’s a matter of getting rid of the saltwater.

  11. Even the Oklahoma example is based on circumstantial evidence alone — not to mention pseudo-correlation.

    I’ve never found the explanations for why:

    Similar earthquakes weren’t experienced during the 1960s-80s, when more wastewater was actually disposed of into the Arbuckle than today. In fact, cumulative injection rates decreased in OK from 2009-2010 just prior to the start of the quakes.

    The vast majority of the earthquakes are occurring at depths far deeper than injection.

    How the release of energy from a single 5.6 EQ is more energy than the cumulative energy input from injection wells since 2009. The energy released from the cumulative EQs is unequivocally from natural stress buildup in the crust. If the injection water lowered the breaking point of the fault or just nudged it enough to create an earthquake, then why do they continue to occur very frequently. This is evidence that stress is being transferred to this area quite rapidly.

    The earthquake swarms began near Prague in 2010, years after the local oil play started and while injected volumes were actually decreasing. You can see on the following map that the area just east of OKC, near Prague, where this all started is actually in an area of relatively low injection rates.

    Cherry picking where EQ swarms occurred near injection wells while ignoring all areas where they didn’t occur together does not equal a correlation. All OK induced EQ papers have stemmed from this one horrible attempt at correlation. In fact, this association is made nationwide, on the following map you can see that anywhere that EQs and oil fields occur together, they are blamed on the oil fields. Pure sophistry.

    Also note the lack of data on SWD wells in the large county in northern OK, Osage Co. This entire county is regulated by the Osage Indian Tribe and data on injection volumes is hard to get. Ironically, this is where the Mississippi Lime Play started and they do have large disposal wells, just no earthquakes.

    • The Burbank Field in Osage County was at one time the world’s 3rd largest producing oil field. The field underwent a vast water- flood recovery project in the late 50’s/ early 60’s to enhance recovery, with a row of salt water injection wells placed between rows of producing wells, spaced at 1/4 mile intervals. Earthquakes in Osage Co. are more or less regarded as distant exotic events, in other words, the region hasn’t suffered earthquakes, at least in my lifetime. Not much correlation and that isn’t because of Osages keeping mum about quakes.

      As for correlation between injection wells and earthquakes elsewhere: more than 80% of the state is within 15 miles of an injection well site. It would just as easy to correlate earthquakes with Pecan trees and maybe just as meaningful. Or even better still, correlate the earthquakes/injection wells with lawyers and politicians with their hands outstretched.

  12. What one never hears from the Left is concern about the underground voids being created by emptying the aquifers. If one wants to rank risks in creating earthquakes due to man’s manipulation of the environment, one should start there.

  13. It is interesting that only Oklahoma shows any effect from wastewater disposal. That,of course, will not stop the green blob from using the “fracking causes earthquakes” theme generally, as inconvenient little facts rarely deter them.

  14. The greenies better pick their battles carefully, because if they think that underground injections cause earthquakes, so would the underground sequestering of CO2 cause earthquakes.

  15. Plates are gonna move no matter what. Better that they move in small increments. Once again, an unintended beneficial byproduct of fossil fuels.

    • I love how Griff actually thinks his propaganda sites actually do science.
      NewScientist? Are you kidding?

    • More lies, Skanky.

      Do you have no honour, shame or conscience whatsoever when it comes to turning a dishonest quid?

    • Earthquakes directly related to hydraulic fracturing are very rare, but they can happen in very specific circumstances. Yes, the linked article is correct. Cuadrilla Resources experienced some minor tremors in the range of 1.4-2.3 during one of its HF operations in Lancashire,UK. Fox Creek, Alberta and Youngstown,OH are the only other notable occurrences. To say HF definitely causes earthquakes is quite a stretch, considering how many wells have been drilled. I’d say a “hole-in-one” in golf is more common.

  16. Here is a link to what the Oklahoma Geological Survey says about fracking, wastewater injection and earthquakes.

    In the area of Oklahoma I’m familiar with, the gathering system to the horizontal wells consists of three pipelines, one each for oil, gas and produced water. The produced water is salty and cannot be released on the surface.

    Most Oklahoma earthquakes aren’t detectable without a seismograph. The stronger ones are often heard more than felt. Some are a bang followed by a jolt. The 5.8 earthquake that struck 2 or 3 years ago rocked and rolled for about 30 seconds followed by what seemed to be 30 seconds of vibration.

  17. The other possibility that could be causing some of the tremors is the production of the unconventional reservoirs is causing subsidence. In almost all conventional wells, salt water is often flooded in the reservoir to increase the producible reserves. This replacement of one fluid with another (oil) that is being extracted reduces the amount of subsidence. However in unconventional formations there is no fluid being replaced as the oil and or gas is extracted. This undoubtedly will cause subsidence as a substantial amount of hydrocarbons are removed and this subsidence could cause faults above the production zone to move slightly to adjust to the under burden changes that are caused by the fluid extraction.

  18. This is a strawman argument. Improper disposal of waste water in deep wells has lead to numerous small earthquakes and a few modest ones. Fracking produces large amounts of water contained with hydrocarbons from shale, that needs to disposal. Injection in deep wells is one option.

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