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Oklahoma Scientist to Test if Fracking Causes Earthquakes

By John Daly | Tue, 05 November 2013 23:01 | 0

Oklahoma is a leading U.S. energy producer with an economy increasingly concentrated on the oil and gas industry. Economist and Dean of the University of Central Oklahoma’s College of Business Administration, Dr. Mickey Hepner, notes that roughly 25 percent of all employment in Oklahoma is either directly or indirectly connected to the energy industry.

The good news is that much of Oklahoma’s output increasingly comes from releasing subterranean hydrocarbons via hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a controversial technique that involves injecting liquids containing a variety of substances deep underground to break up geological formations to release trapped deposits of natural gas.

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The bad news in Tulsa is that since fracking began, the state has experienced a rise in seismic events. In a report entitled “Earthquake Swarm Continues in Central Oklahoma,” released on 22 October in partnership with the Oklahoma Geological Survey, the U.S. Geological Survey noted, “Since January 2009, more than 200 magnitude 3.0 or greater earthquakes have rattled Central Oklahoma, marking a significant rise in the frequency of these seismic events… Studies show one to three magnitude 3.0 earthquakes or larger occurred yearly from 1975 to 2008, while the average grew to around 40 earthquakes per year from 2009 to mid-2013. ‘We've statistically analyzed the recent earthquake rate changes and found that they do not seem to be due to typical, random fluctuations in natural seismicity rates. Bill Leith, USGS seismologist noted, ‘These results suggest that significant changes in both the background rate of events and earthquake triggering properties needed to have occurred in order to explain the increases in seismicity. This is in contrast to what is typically observed when modeling natural earthquake swarms.’"

Oklahoma’s largest recorded earthquake, measuring 5.7 on the Richter scale, occurred on 5 November 2011, injured two people, damaged more than a dozen homes, and was the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Oklahoma. More than 10,000 underground injection wells were active in Oklahoma as of January 2013, according to data from the state Corporation Commission.

Understating the obvious, determining whether or not fracking causes increased seismic activity is a question of immense importance for both proponents and those opposed to the practice. On the financial side, potentially billions of dollars are involved, from profits to class action lawsuits.

Enter into the fray Oklahoma Geological Survey research seismologist Austin Holland, who has spent the last four years looking into central Oklahoma's ongoing swarm of earthquakes, who proposes a study that could actually trigger more earthquakes.

Holland is hoping to establish with scientific backing as to whether testing a lone disposal well in south central Oklahoma, on the land of Dick Pieper’s ranch north of Marietta in Love County, where seismic monitoring equipment recorded 142 regional earthquakes occurred between 13 September and 3 October, can resolve the question. Holland hope to convince the operator of the well on Pieper’s ranch to begin operating the well at a minimal level of about 1,000 barrels a day to see if increased seismic activity occurs.

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Holland commented that science has already shown that, in rare instances, injection wells, even hydraulic fracturing, can cause earthquakes, but, up to now, very small ones and believes, with careful analysis of the data, he could establish if the Love County quakes are also a caused by induced seismicity, noting “that's what we're trying to get to, is this actionable data set that can allow us to make decisions about these things."

Given the stakes, Holland’s research will be closely watched by not only by Oklahoma’s oil and gas industry, but producers throughout the U.S. as well.

In the interim, the advice of Oklahoma Insurance Commissioner John Doak to those at risk from increased seismic activity? Buy earthquake insurance, which can cost $100-$150 a year, as, “With an average 40 earthquakes per year, we feel very strongly that this is something we need to be talking about in Oklahoma.”

By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com

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