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 »
BUT WHITE HOUSE MAY USE AGAINST HIM ANYWAY
Ethics Cops Clear Mueller to Work on Trump Case
8 hours ago
THE LATEST

"Former FBI Director Robert Mueller has been cleared by U.S. Department of Justice ethics experts to oversee an investigation into possible collusion between then-candidate Donald Trump's 2016 election campaign and Russia." Some had speculated that the White House would use "an ethics rule limiting government attorneys from investigating people their former law firm represented" to trip up Mueller's appointment. Jared Kushner is a client of Mueller's firm, WilmerHale. "Although Mueller has now been cleared by the Justice Department, the White House may still use his former law firm's connection to Manafort and Kushner to undermine the findings of his investigation, according to two sources close to the White House."

Source:
BUSINESSES CAN’T PLEAD FIFTH
Senate Intel to Subpoena Two of Flynn’s Businesses
9 hours ago
THE LATEST

Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) and ranking member Mark Warner (D-VA) will subpoena two businesses owned by former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Burr said, "We would like to hear from General Flynn. We'd like to see his documents. We'd like him to tell his story because he publicly said he had a story to tell."

SAYS THEY CHEATED TESTS
Government Sues Fiat Chrysler Over Emissions
10 hours ago
THE LATEST

The government alleges the company put eight “software-based features” on diesel engines in nearly 104,000 Ram pickups and Jeep Grand Cherokees from the 2014 to 2016 model years, which allowed the vehicles to emit fewer pollutants during EPA lab tests than during normal driving conditions.

Source:
DETAILS ARE CLASSIFIED
Brennan Saw Russia Intelligence “Worthy” of Investigation
14 hours ago
THE LATEST

At an open hearing of the House Intelligence Committee, former CIA chief John Brennan said he saw information on Trump-Russia contacts that were worth a further look. "Having been involved in many counterintelligence cases in the past, I know what the Russians do. They try to suborn individuals," Brennan said. "And they try to get individuals, including U.S. persons, to act on their behalf, whether wittingly or unwittingly. And I was worried by a number of the contacts that the Russians had with U.S. persons, and so therefore by the time I left office ... I had unresolved questions in my mind."

Source:
STAFF HAS COMPILED A SHORT LIST
Trump Enlisting Help of Outside Counsel
15 hours ago
THE LATEST

"President Trump is moving rapidly toward assembling outside counsel to help him navigate the investigations into his campaign and Russian interference in last year’s election, and in recent days he and his advisers have privately courted several prominent attorneys to join the effort. By Monday, a list of finalists for the legal team had emerged, according to four people briefed on the discussions."

Source:
×
×

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.

Login