Friday, April 24, 2015

U.S. Maps Pinpoint Earthquakes Linked to Quest for Oil and Gas
New York Times
APRIL 23, 2015

The United States Geological Survey on Thursday released its first comprehensive assessment of the link between thousands of earthquakes and oil and gas operations, identifying and mapping 17 regions where quakes have occurred.

The report was the agency’s broadest statement yet on a danger that has grown along with the nation’s energy production.

By far the hardest-hit state, the report said, is Oklahoma, where earthquakes are hundreds of times more common than they were until a few years ago because of the disposal of wastewater left over from extracting fuels and from drilling wells by injecting water into the earth. But the report also mapped parts of eight other states, from Lake Erie to the Rocky Mountains, where that practice has caused quakes, and said most of them were at risk for more significant shaking in the future.

“Oklahoma used to experience one or two earthquakes per year of magnitude 3 or greater, and now they’re experiencing one or two a day,” Mark Petersen, the chief author of the report, said. “Oklahoma now has more earthquakes of that magnitude than California.”

The report came two days after Oklahoma’s state government acknowledged for the first time the scientific consensus that wastewater disposal linked to oil and gas drilling was to blame for the huge surge in earthquakes there. The state introduced an interactive map showing quake locations and places where wastewater is injected into the ground, and the state-run Oklahoma Geological Survey said it “considers it very likely” that the practice is causing most of the shaking.

Hydraulic fracturing, a drilling technique that injects a high-pressure mix of water and chemicals into the ground to break rock formations and release gas, has drawn widespread attention. But injecting water to dispose of waste from drilling or production is a far greater contributor to earthquakes. The federal report excluded human activity, like mining, that can cause quakes but does not involve large-scale fluid injection.

The maps below show where there has been seismic activity, caused mostly by oil and gas operations. Northern Oklahoma and southern Kansas have been especially hard hit, with an exponential growth in the number of human-caused earthquakes.

In one of the 17 areas identified in the report, around Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Arsenal, injections of chemical waste set off earthquakes starting in the 1960s. But the vast majority of the quakes since then have involved oil and gas production.

Many scientific reports, published over decades, have said that pumping fluids into the ground at high pressure can set off earthquakes. But until fairly recently, energy companies and regulators in some energy-producing states insisted that the link was still in doubt.

Most affected states have now acknowledged it, but Oklahoma had not until the recent statements by officials there. Still, state regulators around the country have not gone as far in controlling industry practices as environmental groups have asked, and there is little sign that the new federal findings will goad them to go farther.

Matt Skinner, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, the state’s top regulatory body for oil and gas exploration, said Oklahoma already required a “seismicity review” for proposed wells. “Any tool we can use in response to triggered seismicity,” he said of the new report, “would be important to us.”

Asked about the report, Lawrence E. Bengal, director of the Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission, also pointed to what his state had already done, after a surge in earthquakes north of Little Rock in 2010 that made the state second only to Oklahoma in induced quakes.

The commission imposed a moratorium “prohibiting the drilling of any new disposal wells in the area where the earthquake activity had occurred,” Mr. Bengal said, ordered the four active wells in the area plugged and ruled that seismic activity must be taken into account when allowing new disposal wells in other parts of the state.

Tanks hold contaminated water in Texas from hydraulic fracking, a practice believed to have contributed to elevated rates of earthquakes. Credit Jerod Foster for The Texas Tribune
Last year, the Railroad Commission of Texas and the oil and gas industry there agreed to new rules allowing the commission to shut down old wells and deny permission for new ones based on earthquake risks.

The issue has serious political, economic and environmental implications, particularly in the nation’s midsection, where energy production and related jobs have soared. The American Petroleum Institute did not respond to a request for comment on the report.

The report said two adjacent regions were most affected: one largely in northern Oklahoma but extending into southern Kansas, and the other stretching from central Oklahoma to the Texas border, where seismic activity has soared in the last six years.

It also mapped parts of Texas where it said wastewater injection wells had produced quakes, including the heavily populated Dallas-Fort Worth area. Other risk areas named were in Colorado, including one that extends into Utah, and in Alabama, Arkansas, New Mexico and Ohio.

“We’re seeing these induced earthquakes much more often than we ever used to, in multiple parts of the country, and we need to try to understand the risks and how to deal with them,” Mr. Petersen said.

Thousands of small quakes occur every year around the country, noticed only by the jittering needles of seismographs; a magnitude 3 temblor is felt by some people relatively close by, but the only harm is to their nerves. But the scale used to measure earthquakes is logarithmic, meaning that a magnitude 4 quake is 10 times as powerful as a magnitude 3, and a magnitude 5 — strong enough to do some structural damage — is 10 times as powerful as a magnitude 4.

In 2011, central Oklahoma experienced the most powerful earthquake recorded in the state, a 5.6-magnitude shock that scientists have also called the nation’s biggest human-induced quake. By comparison, the major quake that struck Los Angeles in 1994 measured 6.7, and the one that hit the San Francisco Bay Area in 1989 measured 6.9.

The highly technical report was a step toward predicting the risk from human-caused quakes, which it conceded was extremely hard to do. “Difficulties in assessing seismic hazard arise from a lack of relevant technical information on human industrial activity (that is, pumping data for injection wells),” the report said.

Mr. Petersen noted that wastewater disposal and related earthquakes “fluctuate year by year based on economic and policy decisions, which are very difficult to predict.” In fact, the report shows that in places where wastewater injection stopped, earthquake frequency fell to near zero — notably, in central Arkansas since 2011 and in an area north of Denver in the 1970s.

Predicting risk is also hard, the report noted, because there is no scientific consensus on just how powerful such quakes can be. The report estimated the effects of shocks up to magnitudes 6 and 7, while noting that some scientists have speculated that the catastrophic 7.9-magnitude earthquake in China in 2008 was caused by human activity.

“I’m not necessarily saying that we’re going to have a 7 in Oklahoma,” Mr. Petersen said. “But I don’t think we can rule that out.”

Scientists have also posited that human-caused quakes could lead to additional ones on naturally occurring faults nearby.

The agency’s assessments of naturally occurring earthquake risks are often used to help determine building codes and set insurance rates. Buildings in the middle of the country, unlike those on the West Coast, generally do not have to meet seismic safety standards.

John Schwartz and Michael Wines contributed reporting.

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