Can Fracking Cause Earthquakes?

A study confirms a 2011 series of tremors in Ohio were caused by spent hydraulic-fracturing materials injected deep into the ground.

With the skyline of Youngstown, Ohio in the distance, a brine injection well owned by Northstar Disposal Services LLC is seen in Youngstown on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2011.
National Journal
Brian Resnick
Add to Briefcase
Brian Resnick
Sept. 5, 2013, 12:36 p.m.

Be­fore 2011, Young­stown, Ohio, had nev­er ex­per­i­enced an earth­quake. Or at least, the area hadn’t had one since 1776, when re­cord-keep­ing began. So it was strange, dur­ing a nine-month peri­od of 2011, that nine of them shook the town.

At first these were small; none topped 2.7 on the Richter scale — tiny things, not per­ceived much dif­fer­ently than the passing of a heavy truck. But then, the quakes es­cal­ated. On Dec. 31, 2011, at 3:05 p.m., Young­stown was stirred by a 3.9 (a loc­al news­pa­per crowd­sourced its read­ers to re­spond to the ques­tion “Did you feel the boom?” You’ll want to read some of the an­swers.) To be sure, this still wasn’t a huge quake. For some per­spect­ive, the one that hit the D.C. area in Ju­ly 2011 was a stronger 5.8. But still, while earth­quakes in the great­er Ohio area aren’t un­heard of (there have been at least 200 since 1776), hav­ing such a con­cen­trated num­ber was odd for the area, es­pe­cially in a city that had pre­vi­ously ex­per­i­enced none.

Loc­ated sus­pi­ciously near all of this seis­mic activ­ity was the North­star 1 well, which pumped chem­ic­al-laden hy­draul­ic-frac­tur­ing, or frack­ing, flu­id deep with­in the ground, at a rate around 1,300 gal­lons per hour. Right after the 3.9 quake, the Ohio De­part­ment of Nat­ur­al Re­sources dir­ect­or took to a news con­fer­ence to say, “The seis­mic events are not a dir­ect res­ult of frack­ing.” In any case, the well was shut down for in­vest­ig­a­tion. (It had ac­tu­ally been shut down just a few days pri­or in re­sponse to a 2.7 quake. The New Year’s Eve quake turned it off for the long term.)

Now, the data is in, and it ap­pears the Nat­ur­al Re­sources dir­ect­or’s as­sess­ment was flat-out wrong. “We con­clude that the re­cent, 2011-2012, earth­quakes in Young­stown, Ohio were in­duced by the flu­id in­jec­tion at North­star 1 deep in­jec­tion well due to in­creased pore pres­sure along the preex­ist­ing faults loc­ated close to the well­bore,” an art­icle in the most re­cent Journ­al of Geo­phys­ic­al Re­search con­cludes. Pore pres­sure refers to the force ex­er­ted on un­der­ground rock by flu­ids. Fur­ther­more, the re­search finds a cor­rel­a­tion between the quakes and the daily volume of ma­ter­i­al be­ing in­jec­ted in­to the well. After a peak of in­jec­tion pres­sure in­to the well, five days later, seis­mic activ­ity would spike as well.

What seemed to hap­pen was that the high-pres­sure flu­id moved along a preex­ist­ing fault in a west-south­w­est dir­ec­tion (away from the well), in­creas­ing pres­sure on the rock form­a­tions as it pro­gressed. This de­creased the res­ist­ance the rock had to fault­ing, which in­creased the risk of an earth­quake. And the loc­a­tion of the seis­mic activ­ity moved as the the flu­id did, along the fault line. When the pump­ing at the well stopped, the study con­cludes, the earth­quakes waned.

However, it’s not the case that frack­ing flu­id will al­ways cause earth­quakes. In the case of Young­stown, the place­ment of the well over an un­known fault led to the town shak­ing. After all, the North­star 1 “is the only well out of 177 … waste dis­pos­al wells op­er­at­ing in the state of Ohio dur­ing 2011 that has been linked to po­ten­tially in­duced earth­quakes.”

What We're Following See More »
FCC Tightens Internet Privacy Standards
11 hours ago

Along party lines, the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday voted to tighten privacy standards for Internet service providers. "The regulations will require providers to receive explicit customer consent before using an individual’s web browsing or app usage history for marketing purposes. The broadband industry fought to keep that obligation out of the rules."

Clinton Up 9 in USA Today Poll; Up 3 According to Fox
16 hours ago

A new USA Today/Suffolk University poll finds Clinton leads Trump by 9 points nationwide, 47% to 38%. A Fox News national poll has Clinton up just three points, 44% to 41% over Trump.

Cruz: Eight Justices Could Be an Ongoing Situation
18 hours ago

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) said that "there was “precedent” for a Supreme Court with fewer than nine justices—appearing to suggest that the blockade on nominee Merrick Garland could last past the election." Speaking to reporters in Colorado, Cruz said: "I would note, just recently, that Justice Breyer observed that the vacancy is not impacting the ability of the court to do its job. That’s a debate that we are going to have.”

DNC Sues RNC Over Trump’s Rigged Vote Comments
21 hours ago

The Democratic National Committee sued the Republican National Committee in U.S. District Court in New Jersey for aiding GOP nominee Donald Trump as he argues that the presidential election is "rigged." The DNC claims "that Trump's argument is designed to suppress the vote in minority communities."

Clinton Foundation Staffers Steered Biz to Bill
1 days ago

"Two chief fundraisers for the Clinton Foundation pressed corporate donors to steer business opportunities to former President Bill Clinton as well, according to a hacked memo published Wednesday by WikiLeaks. The November 2011 memo from Douglas Band, at the time a top aide to Mr. Clinton, outlines extensive fundraising efforts that Mr. Band and a partner deployed on behalf of the Clinton Foundation and how that work sometimes translated into large speaking fees and other paid work for Mr. Clinton."


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.