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
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.”

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