Misinformation pushed by media reports continue to exacerbate misunderstanding of induced seismicity, a very complicated issue
By Seth Whitehead, EnergyInDepth
Experts really could not be clearer: They have said over and over that the fracking process is not the cause of earthquakes in Oklahoma.
The United States Geological Survey (USGS) states in the very first sentence of its list of myths and misconceptions regarding induced seismicity that “Fracking is NOT causing most of the induced earthquakes,” further clarifying that “Wastewater disposal is the primary cause of the recent increase in earthquakes in the central United States.”
Still, the false notion that fracking causes earthquakes prevails — and many media outlets’ coverage of the 5.6-magnitude earthquake near Pawnee, Okla., over Labor Day weekend is the prime example why.
Headlines such as Newsweek’s “Oklahoma’s 5.6 Magnitude Earthquake Sparks Fracking Fears” and the Dallas Morning News’ “Oklahoma shuts down fracking water wells after quake rattles Dallas to Dakotas” stand out. Bloomberg even had three separate articles in which erroneous headlines and claims abound.
To their credit, some reporters such as Mike Soraghan of E&E News, Doug Stanglin of USA Todayand Jim Malewitz from the Texas Tribune made a point to emphasize that fracking is not the cause. As E&E News even reported:
“Scientists have not linked the earthquake swarms to “hydraulic fracturing,” in which chemical-laced water is forced downhole at high pressure to crack rock and release oil and gas. Fracturing creates wastewater, but studies have indicated that flowback from the “fracking” process is only a small part of the water being disposed of. Instead, most of the water comes from ongoing production from shale, conventional and other types of production.” (emphasis added)
Here is a look at the most erroneous claims made by several media outlets, followed by the facts.
Dallas Morning News Claim: “The state ordered operators to significantly reduce the volume of wastewater from production that they pump into wells. The process, known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking, involves injecting wells with water, sand and chemicals at high pressure to fracture rock and release oil and natural gas. That also brings up fracking fluid and salty groundwater.”
Here the Dallas Morning News clearly doesn’t know the difference between injection and fracking – even though they are completely different processes – and is determined to make fracking the culprit. But the overwhelming consensus of actual experts is that this is simply not true. We highlighted a pair of examples earlier, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Here’s what leading geologists, geophysicists, and engineers — rather than click-bait happy media outlets looking for any excuse to get the word “fracking” in a headline — have stated with regard to fracking causing earthquakes.
- Former Interior Department Deputy Secretary David Hayes has said “We also find that there is no evidence to suggest that hydraulic fracturing itself is the cause of the increased rate of earthquakes.”
- University of Texas at Austin Geophysicist Cliff Frohlich has said “Although there is a considerable amount of hydraulic fracturing activity in the Eagle Ford, we don’t see a strong signal associated with that and earthquakes.”
- A 2012 Inglewood oil field study concluded “High-volume hydraulic fracturing…had no detectable effects on vibration, and did not induce seismicity (earthquakes)
- A Durham University study found ““…after hundreds of thousands of fracturing operations, only three examples of felt seismicity have been documented. The likelihood of inducing felt seismicity by hydraulic fracturing is thus extremely small…”
- The National Research Council – part of the prestigious National Academies —has similarlyfound: “The process of hydraulic fracturing a well as presently implemented for shale gas recovery does not pose a high risk for inducing felt seismic events.”
- And, as USGS noted in a separate report than the one referenced earlier: “USGS’s studies suggest that the actual hydraulic fracturing process is only very rarely the direct cause of felt earthquakes. While hydraulic fracturing works by making thousands of extremely small ‘microearthquakes,’ they are, with just a few exceptions, too small to be felt; none have been large enough to cause structural damage.” (emphasis added)
Zoback has put the latter in point in proper perspective, saying “It is important to note that the extremely small microseismic events occur during hydraulic fracturing operations. These microseismic events affect a very small volume of rock and release, on average, about the same amount of energy as a gallon of milk falling off a kitchen counter.”
ABC News Claim: Operators were asked to shut down “wells that gather wastewater from a process called hydrofracturing or fracking.”
FACT: Some outlets would have readers believe that wastewater from the actual fracking process — known as fracking flowback water — is the only wastewater that is disposed of in injection wells. But the near polar opposite is true.
The overwhelming majority of oil and gas-related wastewater disposed in Oklahoma injection wells is from day-to-day production — not the fracking process.
A recent Zoback study on Oklahoma’s induced seismicity actually found that more than 95 percent of wastewater disposed of in Oklahoma’s most seismically active areas is produced water, or brine, from day-to-day production. The study’s press release states,
“We know that some of the produced water came from wells that were hydraulically fractured, but in the three areas of most seismicity, over 95 percent of the wastewater disposal is produced water, not hydraulic fracturing flowback water.”
The USGS induced seismicity fact sheet concurs with the Zoback study’s findings:
“In many locations, wastewater has little or nothing to do with hydraulic fracturing. In Oklahoma, less than 10 percent of the water injected into wastewater disposal wells is used hydraulic fracturing fluid. Most of the wastewater in Oklahoma is saltwater that comes up along with oil during the extraction process.”
Fact is, high volumes of wastewater injection far pre-date fracking in the Sooner State. Wastewater injection wells have been widely used in Oklahoma for more than a half a centuryand are in no way a new technology that has somehow been made necessary by the rise of high volume, horizontal hydraulic fracturing in the 2000s.
Bloomberg Claim: “Oklahoma, a region not known for seismic activity, began having earthquakes in 2009, the same year area oil companies began using fracking to shatter deep rock layers to extract oil and gas.”
Fact: Bloomberg suggests fracking is the cause when overwhelming expert consensus has determined wastewater injection is the likely culprit. And the notion that fracking directly resulted in more wastewater doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, either.
Produced wastewater volumes in Oklahoma were actually about 30 percent higher in the 1980s than they have been in recent years, yet there were only a handful of recorded earthquakes in Oklahoma during that earlier time.
Data are sparse for that period, and some scientists have suggested that much of the water may have been injected into wells used for enhanced oil recovery (EOR). Regardless, this underscores the fact that any link between wastewater injection and seismicity is highly complex, and due to a variety of factors that are often site-specific.
This is one reason experts have been somewhat mystified regarding the sudden spike in induced seismicity in a state in which high volumes of wastewater have long been disposed of via injection wells.
Tim Baker, director of the Oil and Gas Conservation Division of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, alluded to this fact in this recent YouTube video regarding induced seismicity in Oklahoma stating “close to 10,000 wells” were injecting wastewater in Oklahoma before high volume fracking was used in the state. Roughly 4,200 injection wells are being used today.
On that point, it’s worth remembering that experts are still working to determine if there is a link between injection wells and the quake that happened over Labor Day weekend. As the USGSexplained,
“Without studying the specifics of the wastewater injection and oil and gas production in this area, the USGS cannot currently conclude whether or not this particular earthquake was caused by industrial-related, human activities,” the USGS said in a statement. “However, we do know that many earthquakes in Oklahoma have been triggered by wastewater fluid injection.”
The USGS will continue to process seismic data in the coming days and weeks “that will help answer this question,” it added.
Though significant and certainly worthy of concern, the earthquake near Pawnee over Labor Day weekend should not overshadow the fact that earthquakes in Oklahoma were down 52 percent between January and April of this year, according to data from the Oklahoma Geological Survey.
It’s also important to note that this decline occurred while oil and gas production in Oklahoma remained relatively unchanged — and the recent drop in seismicity has come without a ban or moratorium on wastewater disposal in the state — something many activists have argued would be the only solution.
Since last summer, the OCC has implemented more than a dozen directives and other measures in response to earthquake activity. The plans have included increased monitoring, well plugging, and volume reductions for hundreds of injection sites near seismic events.
And the Oklahoma Corporation Commission immediately took action after the Pawnee-area quake, indefinitely shutting down 37 disposal wells in a 500-square miles area of interest surrounding the epicenter over a 10-day period (wells within a five-mile radius in five days), continuing the proactive approach that has yielded declines in seismic activity so far this year.
The OCC’s firm yet proactive actions have been rooted in the fact that wastewater injection is a process that has been used safely since the 1930s and deemed safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
For good reason: induced seismicity has been linked to a very small percentage of wastewater injection wells — Oklahoma included — and such a ban would effectively shut down all oil and gas production in any state with significant oil and gas production.
If activists had their way, a ban on all wastewater injection would be particularly devastating to Oklahoma, a state in which the oil and natural gas industry has accounted for nearly two-thirds of all jobs created in the state since 2010, according to an economist at Oklahoma City University.
The industry is also the “largest single source of tax revenue” in the state, according to a 2014 report prepared for the State Chamber of Oklahoma. Over 20 percent of all state taxes come from the oil and natural gas industry.
Understanding these realities is key to understanding the issue of wastewater injection and induced seismicity — particularly with how they relate to the actual fracking process, which is why Zoback has said,
“I really think bans on hydraulic fracturing are political statements rather than risk management tools.”
Unfortunately, the sort of misinformation being pushed by media reports continue to exacerbate the general misunderstanding of the very complicated issue of induced seismicity — which has been inaccurately linked directly to fracking — prompting Southern Methodist University (SMU) professor Matthew Hornbach to say the following,
“We’re not talking at all about fracking. In fact, it’s been driving us crazy, frankly, that people keep using it in the press.”