By February 4, 2015 Read More →

Fox Creek earthquake: Someone tell Brian Mason science is already on it

Alberta Geological Survey investigating Fox Creek earthquake

Alberta NDP MLA Brian Mason is calling for a “robust, science-based examination” after the 4.4 magnitude Fox Creek earthquake Jan. 22, which may be linked to hydraulic fracturing in the area.

Fox Creek earthquake

NDP MLA Brian Mason.

That examination is already underway, as Beacon Energy News reported Friday. Mason, the MLA for Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood, issued a press release Tuesday in which he claimed, “According to experts, it seems very likely that this earthquake was linked to fracking activities in the immediate area.”

In fact, experts never made that claim at all. A media representative of the Alberta Energy Regulator issued a statement that said, “The location of the earthquake is consistent with being induced by hydraulic fracturing operations. The occurrence of a cluster of earthquakes preceding the larger earthquakes suggests that it is an induced earthquake. It is, however, impossible to definitively state that it was not a naturally occurring event.”

With all respect to the hard working media staff of the AER, they are not experts on earthquakes. Those would be seismologists, the folks with PhDs behind their names. Like Dr. Todd Shipman, the scientist at the Alberta Geological Survey I interviewed about the Fox Creek earthquake, which occurred 33 kilometres west of the small community 268 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.

Fox Creek earthquake

Dr. Todd Shipman, manager, landscapes and geological hazards, of the Alberta Geological Survey.

When Mason said in his release that “it is imperative that Alberta Environment and the Alberta Energy Regulator move quickly to develop the required investigation, using the best science and the best independent experts,” surely it was Dr. Shipman he had in mind.

What Dr. Shipman told me is that the research has already been started. The seismology data has been collected by the AGS sensors. And a request has been sent to the service company for the fracturing data – dates and times of pumping, volumes, locations, etc.

Dr. Shipman and his team will then compare the seismology data to the fracturing data and look for correlations. If the correlation between the data sets is strong, the scientists can say there is a strong probability the 4.4 Fox Creek earthquake was caused by fracturing. If the correlation is weak or non-existent, the probability fracturing caused the tremor, which was felt at surface by residents of Fox Creek, is low.

Fox Creek earthquake

4.4 magnitude earthquake felt by residents of Fox Creek, Alta. Photo: Natural Resources Canada.

But as Dr. Shipman explained in our interview, scientists cannot say with absolute certainty that fracturing caused an earthquake.

TheFox Creek earthquake is of interest because it is stronger than quakes usually associated with fracturing.

A 2012 study by the BC Oil and Gas Commission recorded 272 micro-earthquakes in N.E. BC that were strongly correlated to fracturing activities. The majority of the earthquakes registered between 2.3 and 3.1 on the Richter scale. A few were as strong as 3.8, and one was felt as a slight tremor at surface.

None were as high as the Fox Creek earthquake, which Dr. Shipman suggests may be evidence the earthquake was naturally occurring and not caused by fracturing at all.

Until the data-crunching and analysis is completed, we – and that includes Brian Mason – should not be rushing to conclusions.

That said, the Fox Creek earthquake raises legitimate concerns that fracturing may be causing more earthquake activity than was previously thought.

Fox Creek earthquake

Dr. David Suzuki has made exaggerated claims about fracturing-induced earthquakes in NE BC.

In which case, Alberta should follow the example of British Columbia. The 2012 report made seven recommendations, including investing in more testing technology, conducting more studies to better identify pre-existing faults, and drafting better reporting procedures.

In other words, improve the science and data collection in areas where hydraulic fracturing is taking place.

For instance, Dr. Shipman says it takes a month or more for service companies to provide him with their data. Perhaps the AER could compel the fracturing crews to get the numbers to the scientists a few days after requested, thus speeding up the data-crunching?

The BC report made clear that fracturing presented no danger to shallow aquifers and water sources at or close to the surface. Based on that report, there would appear to be no reason to think that fracturing-induced earthquakes are an immediate threat to human health or property in the Fox Creek area or elsewhere in Alberta, where more than 174,000 wells have been fractured since the 1950s.

Hydraulic fracturing injects fluids deep underground to crack or fracture oil and gas-bearing rock. Once the rock is opened by the fluid pressure, proppant (usually sand or ceramics) is introduced into the fluid to prop open the fractures. This allows hydrocarbons to flow to the wellbore.

Mason asserts in his release that earthquakes “are serious threats to life and property.”

Well, yes, if Alberta was California that would be true. But it isn’t, and politicians like Mason and political activists like David Suzuki should stop exaggerating the threat posed by fracturing-induced earthquakes, which are almost always minor and, based on what we know at present, pose little threat to life and property.

But do we know enough? Probably not, which is why Mason should be calling for more resources for the Alberta Geological Survey so it can expand its research and arrive at a clearer picture of the threat – if any – posed by fracturing-induced earthquakes.


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