*UPDATE VI* On Shaky Ground
Activists opposed to responsible shale development have seized on an as-yet-unreleased U.S. Geological Survey report as "proof" that the hydraulic fracturing process causes the earth to shake off its axis. The problem, though, is that the U.S. Geological Survey didn't actually make that link.
UPDATE VI (3/28/13, 10:36am ET): New research published in the journal Geology draws a link between a November 2011 earthquake near Prague, Okla., and wastewater injection wells, which in this instance began receiving wastewater from oil wells in the Hunton field during the 1990s. Those facts alone have been enough for many in the media and blogosphere to leap to the conclusion that hydraulic fracturing was responsible, even though — as we’ve detailed extensively — hydraulic fracturing is not the same thing as wastewater injection.
But the other, much bigger problem for those who clearly chose not to read the report they were reporting on is this: The wastewater from the Hunton oil wells was not a result of hydraulic fracturing. Instead, it was wastewater produced from so-called “conventional” oil wells that were not hydraulically fractured. It may be news to some who try so hard to report accurately on oil and gas development, but wastewater is actually produced from oil and gas wells even if “fracking” is not involved.
Thankfully, some folks who are tasked with covering the energy industry actually took the 20 seconds of research necessary to recognize that fact. The headline at Scientific American explicitly read “not fracking” in relation to what the scientists determined as the cause of the earthquake. The write-up at ScienceDaily carefully explained that wastewater is produced from all kinds of oil and gas production, whether the wells are hydraulically fractured or not, and that the wastewater pumped into the Oklahoma wells was not a byproduct of fracking.
NBC News also ran its own report, which included this careful observation:
Now, a new study published Tuesday in the journal Geology confirms that wastewater injected into the ground after oil extraction caused the quake. The quake is the largest wastewater-induced earthquake ever recorded. The wastewater was from traditional drilling, not the controversial hydraulic fracturing method. (emphasis added)
In that same story, NBC added that “the process that caused the Oklahoma earthquake didn’t involve hydraulic fracturing.”
Bloomberg News also separated fact from fiction: “The wastewater behind the earthquakes came from conventional wells in the Hunton formation, said Katie Keranen, assistant professor at Oklahoma and co-author of the report.” (Bloomberg’s original headline said the research linked the earthquakes to “fracking,” but — much to their credit — it was changed immediately.)
Also of note: The Oklahoma Geological Survey has done research of its own, working with state regulatory officials to determine the cause of the seismic activity. Here’s OGS’s main conclusion:
“The interpretation that best fits current data is that the Prague Earthquake Sequence was the result of natural causes.”
Not that it matters to folks who have an insatiable need to shoehorn the word “fracking” into literally every story about oil and gas development, but that makes two separate reports released in the course of a week that show no link between hydraulic fracturing and the Oklahoma earthquakes. Keep that in mind as you search Google for news on this subject.
UPDATE V (6/18/12, 11:57am ET): The National Research Council, part of the prestigious National Academies, delivered yet another nail in the coffin to the idea that hydraulic fracturing poses a serious risk of causing earthquakes. Late last week, the NRC issued a report that concluded “hydraulic fracturing a well as presently implemented for shale gas recovery does not pose a high risk for inducing felt seismic events.” Instead, the researchers found — like the USGS did a few months ago — that injection wells were more commonly the culprit for induced seismicity (as well as underground carbon capture and storage, or CCS). The other good news is that “only a very small fraction of injection and extraction activities among the hundreds of thousands of energy development sites in the United States have induced seismicity at levels noticeable to the public,” according to the NRC.
The upshot? Hydraulic fracturing does not pose a serious risk of inducing earthquakes, and the seismic events triggered by other processes are typically small and certainly not uprooting trees or shaking office buildings off their foundations.
UPDATE IV (4/23/12, 9:25am ET): The lead author of the USGS report is now directly addressing incorrect media characterizations of the report (like this one, for example), which have all-too-often leaped to the conclusion that the earthquakes observed were linked to hydraulic fracturing. E&E News has a great story (subs. req’d) explaining that frustration, partially excerpted below:
Here are the facts: ‘Fracking’ does not cause big earthquakes. The underground injection of industrial wastewater can, and sometimes does.
Bill Ellsworth is frustrated at how difficult it is getting people to understand this.
The senior U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist is on the cutting edge of new research linking earthquakes to the injection of oil and gas drilling waste (EnergyWire, March 29). But at last week’s earthquake conference here, he seemed to spend as much time trying to resolve the ‘fracking’ confusion as he did explaining his findings.
Earlier this month, he even found himself arguing with a cable news host about what his own research conclusions were.
‘I was greatly surprised to see how words were being used in the press in ways that were inappropriate,’ Ellsworth said as the annual meeting of the Seismological Society of America wrapped up. ‘We don’t see any connection between fracking and earthquakes of any concern to society.’
UPDATE III (4/16/12, 10:59am ET): State geologists from two states have criticized the conclusions made by USGS as a “rush to judgment,” specifically by linking oil and gas development with earthquakes. Colorado state geologist Vince Matthews said in an interview with E&E News (subs. req’d): “It’s unfortunate that they’ve jumped to this conclusion.” Meanwhile, Oklahoma state geologist G. Randy Keller pointed out that opponents of hydraulic fracturing seized on the findings — “There’s not a lot of calm reflection,” he said. In fact, Keller received so many inquiries about the report that he issued a position statement [PDF], which noted that “it is unlikely that all of the earthquakes can be attributed to human activities.” The statement also urged caution in too quickly identifying a link between seismic activity and oil and gas operations: “We consider a rush to judgment about earthquakes being triggered to be harmful to state, public and industry interests.”
UPDATE II (4/12/12, 10:06am ET): The U.S. Department of Interior has weighed in on the topic, according to a story from UPI. Here’s what Interior Department Deputy Secretary David Hayes had to say:
“While it appears likely that the observed seismicity rate changes in the middle part of the United States in recent years are man-made, it remains to be determined if they are related to either changes in production methodologies or to the rate of oil and gas production…We also find that there is no evidence to suggest that hydraulic fracturing itself is the cause of the increased rate of earthquakes.” (emphasis added)
Another part of the UPI story worth highlighting is that Mr. Hayes was not only clear about what is and isn’t causing the earthquakes, but also made sure to ding the media for jumping to conclusions:
Interior Department Deputy Secretary David Hayes said the accuracy of recent media reports on the link between fracking and earthquakes “varied greatly.” The Interior Department notes that, despite recent fervor, temblors associated with wastewater injection were first recorded in the 1960s.
UPDATE (4/12/12, 8:41am ET): A new story from NPR takes a look at the earthquake issue as well, noting in particular that while some people lay the blame for the seismic activity on hydraulic fracturing, the actual source is likely wastewater disposal wells. Bill Ellsworth with the USGS once again slaps down the notion that hydraulic fracturing is causing earthquakes, and quite definitively. Ellsworth says: “We find no evidence that fracking is related to the occurrence of earthquakes that people are feeling. We think that it’s more intimately connected to the wastewater disposal.”
—Original post from April 11, 2012—
Call it a natural consequence of a fundraising and advocacy strategy that’s based on continuously coming up with new and creative ways to scare the hell out of the general public. Last week, the watchword happened to be “earthquakes,” with activists opposed to responsible shale development seizing on an as-yet-unreleased U.S. Geological Survey report as “proof” that the hydraulic fracturing process causes the earth to shake off its axis.
Indeed, for those who are professionals at ginning up scary (and usually false) stories about developing natural gas from shale, the story basically wrote itself. After all, the USGS said the quakes were “almost certainly” man-made, so hydraulic fracturing has to be the culprit… right?
Alarmists certainly thought so. The environmental blog Grist ran with the headline: “Shale shocked: USGS links ‘remarkable increase’ in earthquakes to fracking.” Meanwhile, Earthworks activist Sharon Wilson wrote about the “fracking earthquakes” on her blog, linking directly to an Environmental Working Group “analysis” of the USGS findings.
The problem, though, is that the U.S. Geological Survey didn’t actually make that link.
In fact, the lead author of the USGS report, Bill Ellsworth, has made it pretty clear that the findings do not link hydraulic fracturing to earthquakes. As the Associated Press reported earlier this week: “Ellsworth said Friday he is confident that fracking is not responsible for the earthquake trends his study found, based on prior studies.”
To make sure that point was made loud and clear, Ellsworth also appeared on CNBC this week to discuss the question of whether there is a link between hydraulic fracturing and seismic activity. Again, his answer was an unequivocal ‘no’ (start at the 10:23 mark):
BRIAN SULLIVAN: Bill Ellsworth, looking at a very reputable site right now on the web, I’m not going to say it by name because, listen, we all make mistakes. His executive summary point is geologists have made direct links between fracking and recent earthquakes. That sounds like you’re saying that is completely an incorrect statement.
BILL ELLSWORTH: It is incorrect. What we’ve found is there is a link between disposal of waste water and earthquakes. And in many of these cases, it’s been fixed by either shutting down the offending well or reducing the volume that’s being produced. So there are really straight-forward fixes to the problem when earthquakes begin to occur. (emphasis added)
(For his part, former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson (D) said earlier in that CNBC segment: “That connection [between hydraulic fracturing and earthquakes] has not been established.” Richardson, who also served as Secretary of the Department of Energy under President Bill Clinton, also criticized opponents of simply trying to find a “gotcha statement” to advance a political agenda. Well said, Governor.)
This follows what Bill Leith — with the Earthquake Hazards Program in the U.S. Geological Survey — said in an NPR interview late last year and as reported by the Washington Times: “The fracking itself probably does not put enough energy into the ground to trigger an earthquake,” Leith said, who has also noted that the culprit appears to be wastewater wells. For some additional context, wastewater wells aren’t just used by the oil and gas industry, but by just about every other significant industry in the country.
But why let such inconvenient facts get in the way of spinning yet another frightening narrative about hydraulic fracturing upending the natural order of the world? Indeed, as the largest newspaper in Oklahoma observed, the opposition didn’t even need the USGS to issue a “gotcha statement,” because their premise is that correlation trumps causation:
“For the anti-fossil fuel activists, the two things can’t be separated. Earthquakes are increasing. Fracking is increasing. Ergo, fracking is causing earthquakes. To stop the earthquakes, we must stop the fracking!”
Indeed, it may be a lot of things to use the recent USGS findings to link hydraulic fracturing and earthquakes — convenient, sensational, and even scary.
Factual, however, is something it definitely is not.
Cutting Through the Internet Echo Chamber
Have you seen all the reports out there on the Internet about how Tulsa, Okla. -- a town that oil and gas built -- recently passed a ban on the use of hydraulic fracturing technology? Turns out, it's a complete falsehood. But don't tell that the reporters who picked up the piece on social media and ran with it like they stole something. Guess they just thought it was too good a story not to be true.
There’s a commercial for a big insurance company making the rounds right now poking fun at the veracity of some of the things you find online. In the ad, a woman tells her State Farm agent that if something appears on the Internet, well then, that means it must be true. “Where did you hear that?” the agency asks. “The Internet,” she says. The commercial ends with the lady walking away with a (rather slovenly) gentleman on their way to a date — someone whom she had met online, and who had claimed to be a French model.
We were reminded of that commercial recently, when “news” started to circulate around the Internet that Tulsa, Okla. had passed a ban on the use of hydraulic fracturing within its city limits. Almost immediately, the item was picked up on Twitter, and from there, it was off-and-running. No one really bothered to check it out, of course. It was too good to fact-check. None of the articles even cited a source.
In the most recent article on the topic, James Burgess with Oil Price wrote that “some cities, even those in the heart of oil and gas country have moved to ban fracking within their limits. Tulsa, Oklahoma (once the self-proclaimed oil capital of the world) has completely banned fracking within the city limits.” Suzanne Goldenberg echoed the same inaccurate statement in London’s The Guardian. With a few words changed here and there, each article regurgitates the same sentences and point. And fortunately, the point couldn’t be farther from the truth.
You want to know the truth? Here it is:
In 2010, Tulsa City Council voted (see item 7) to lift the 104 year old moratorium on drilling within the city limits, under certain circumstances. District 7 City Councilor John Eagleton led the charge to propose the moratorium be lifted, much to the praise of many local oil and gas leaders. According to the Tulsa World, the council began researching the moratorium two years prior to the January 2010 vote as an answer to budget concerns and a possible increased revenue stream option. The proposed ordinance was mirrored after a similar ordinance passed in Oklahoma City, which has proven to be very successful. Lifting the ordinance was unanimously approved by the city council.
Eagleton points out that the moratorium on drilling in the city of Tulsa was set in place over 100 years ago when the process of drilling was not what it is today, when “drilling activity was toxic, and many wells literally were explosive”. Advanced technology and sophisticated safety measures have allowed the oil and gas industry to advance by leaps and bounds in protecting the environment and public safety, and Eagleton argued that the drilling business is “environmentally friendly and compatible with city life”. With that in mind, the concept of drilling within the city limits was an “out of the box-idea” and one Eagleton said was imperative to combat the city’s budget concerns. Tulsa chose to lift the ban and open up exploration and drilling options for private companies, hoping to see results.
In a November 2012 article in E&E News, the reporter focuses on the fight between local and state governments across the country, the issue being local governments bringing tighter regulations and restrictions to the oil and natural gas community, state governments empathizing with industry groups, and the lack of uniformity that is a result. The article appears to be the genesis for the misinformation in the OilPrice.com and Guardian articles, stating “And in Oklahoma, where the fervor for drilling is no less intense, some cities flat-out ban drilling within their city limits. Among them is Tulsa, which once billed itself as the Oil Capital of the World.” The issue and controversy of a lack of uniformity is not present in Tulsa. Like Oklahoma City, Tulsa chose to embrace the oil and gas industry to boost its economy, and develop the city’s own mineral rights. And while the process took some time, along with a handful of sensible restrictions, Tulsa devised a plan that works best for them.
This continuous recurrence of such inaccurate information proves how the Internet echo chamber can erroneously impact an issue. The least we can do is observe the truth – a city council vote lifted a 104 year-old moratorium on drilling within the city limits of Tulsa, Oklahoma and proved that city and state governments can see eye to eye, and work together to promote safe and responsible energy development across the nation.
For two new reports linking earthquakes and shale gas production, there’s more than meets the eye.
There have been countless stories this week about two new reports – one from the United Kingdom and the other from the state of Oklahoma – drawing a connection between seismic activity and hydraulic fracturing. The headlines paint a bleak picture for such a safe and important technology: Reuters says, “UK firm says shale fracking caused earthquakes.” Rolling Stone asks rhetorically, “Wait, Now Fracking Causes Earthquakes?” By the time the Natural Resources Defense Council chimed in, the message was that hydraulic fracturing triggered two “relatively large earthquakes, with magnitudes 2.3 and 1.5.”
But were these seismic events “relatively large” as the NRDC claimed? Not really. In fact, in both the U.K. and Oklahoma the seismic activity measured was less than a magnitude 3. The U.S. Geological Survey – filled with people who actually study such things for a living – states that even magnitudes as high as 3.9 are often unnoticeable to those in the area.
So we’re not talking about roads being twisted or buildings and houses slipping off their foundations. Heck, we’re not even necessarily talking about your cup of coffee rattling on the table. What we are discussing is, according to the USGS, “similar to the passing of a truck.”
But don’t just take our word for it. We’ve read through the reports and gathered the key facts, so you can now see for yourself what these reports actually say about hydraulic fracturing.
U.K. GEOMECHANICAL STUDY ON SEISMICITY (November 2011)
NO RISK TO PUBLIC SAFETY OR PROPERTY
- “These events were reportedly felt by a small number of people but neither had any structural impact on the surface above.” (p. 1, Executive Summary)
- “If these factors were to combine again in the future local geological limits seismic events to around magnitude 3 on the Richter scale as a worst-case scenario.” (p. 2, Executive Summary) — [NOTE: What does a magnitude 3 seismic event feel like? According to the U.S. Geological Survey, "many people do not recognize it as an earthquake" and vibrations are "similar to the passing of a truck."]
- “Even the theoretical maximum seismic event of magnitude 3 would not present a risk to personal safety or damage to property on the surface.” (p. 3, Executive Summary)
- “In the past, mining induced earthquakes in the UK with magnitudes up to ML=3 caused no or only minor damage (Bishop et al., 1993). The associated earthquakes were located at shallower depth compared to the induced seismicity in the Bowland Shale.” (p. 44, Full Report)
- “Even the maximum seismic event is not expected to present a risk. In the UK area near Lancashire there have been many seismic events induced by mining induced seismicity that caused events up to magnitude ML=3.1.” (p. 52, Full Report)
SEISMIC ACTIVITY IS ‘RARE,’ OCCURRENCE DUE TO ‘UNUSUAL COMBINATION OF FACTORS’
“There have been more than a million similar treatment operations in the world over the last 50 years or so and there are only two cases where similar seismic reactions occurred.”
–Stefan Baisch, German seismologist and one of the report’s authors (Nov. 3, 2011)
- Although the report concludes that it is “highly probable” that hydraulic fracturing “triggered the recorded seismic events,” the report also notes that this was due to “an unusual combination of factors including the specific geology of the well site, coupled with the pressure exerted by water injection.” The report finds that this “combination of geological factors was rare and would be unlikely to occur together again at future well sites.” (p. 2, Executive Summary)
- “[I]t is unlikely that another well in the Bowland basin will encounter a similar fault with the same critical stresses and high permeability into which fluid can be pumped.” (p. 2, Executive Summary)
- “[T]he probability of a repeat occurrence of a fracture-induced seismic event is very low due to the unlikelihood of specific factors combining in the same way again.” (p. 3, Executive Summary)
- “Since the chance for any single factor to occur is small, the combined probability of a repeat occurrence of a fracture induced seismic event with similar magnitude is quite low.” (p. iii, Full Report)
- “[I]t is quite likely that the new wells will show no strong seismicity at all.” (p. 48, Full Report)
- “Since earthquakes in Lancashire are rare we can be confident that the chance of triggering large earthquakes [with hydraulic fracturing] is negligible.” (p. 49, Full Report)
- “[I]t cannot be concluded that all stimulation treatments are likely to cause unusual seismicity. We deal with just a single case and it is possible that this was just a very unlikely event that happened in the first try.” (p. 50, Full Report)
CONFIRMS HYDRAULIC FRACTURING DOES NOT CONTAMINATE GROUNDWATER
- The study evaluated the potential for groundwater contamination and found that hydraulic fracturing operations in the area “occurs at a depth of around 3km, whereas groundwater aquifers do not exist beyond a depth of around 300m. There is a very thick, impermeable formation of rock above the Bowland shale with acts as a confinement layer. There is another rock barrier above this impermeable layer that will prevent any fluid migrating upward. The confinement layer and the barrier prevent any fluid getting into permeable layers of rock above.” (p. 3, Executive Summary)
- “[T]here is negligible risk of fluid breaching into permeable layers.” (p. v, Full Report)
- “[I]t can be concluded that it is very unlikely that the fluid would ever leave the Containment Layer.” (p. 41, Full Report)
OKLAHOMA GEOLOGICAL SURVEY REPORT (August 2011)
AREA WELL-KNOWN FOR NATURAL SEISMIC ACTIVITY, ‘IMPOSSIBLE’ TO LINK TO HF WITH ANY CERTAINTY
- “[T]he uncertainties in the data make it impossible to say with a high degree of certainty whether or not these earthquakes were triggered by natural means or by the nearby hydraulic-fracturing operation.” (p. 1)
- “South-central Oklahoma has a significant amount of historical seismicity” (p. 2)
- “The Eola Field…contains a highly folded and faulted thrust system” (p. 3)
- “Given the analog recording history for most of the Oklahoma Geological Survey’s recording history it is difficult to determine whether the character [of the earthquakes in question] is uniquely different from that of earthquakes previously observed in the area. There have been significant numbers of earthquakes occurring in this area in the past…” (p. 21)
- The authors note that many pieces of evidence “suggest that the earthquakes observed in the Eola field could have possibly been triggered” by hydraulic fracturing, but they further caution: “Simply because the earthquakes fit a simple pore pressure diffusion model does not indicate that this is the physical process that caused these earthquakes. The number of historical earthquakes in the area and uncertainties in hypocenter locations make it impossible to determine with a high degree of certainty whether or not hydraulic-fracturing induced these earthquakes.” (p. 25)
SMALL SEISMIC ACTIVITY POSES NO PUBLIC THREAT
- “The earthquakes range in magnitude from 1.0 to 2.8″ (p. 1) — [Again, the U.S. Geological Survey on magnitude 3 seismicity: "many people do not recognize it as an earthquake," vibrations are "similar to the passing of a truck."]
- Although there is “a clear correlation between the time of hydraulic-fracturing and the observed seismicity in the Eola Field…subsequent hydraulic-fracturing stages at Picket Unit B Well 4-18 did not appear to have any earthquakes associated with them.” (p. 21)
- “Whether or not the earthquakes in the Eola Field were trigged by hydraulic-fracturing these were small earthquakes with only one local resident having reported feeling them.” (p. 25)
What’s the takeaway here? After being used more than 1.2 million times over nearly 65 years in more than 25 states, hydraulic fracturing has a clear record of safety, most notably in the fact that there has not been one confirmed case of groundwater contamination linked to this important well completion technology. Proper modeling and mapping of the subsurface is an ongoing process, and as technology improves so does our understanding of things deep below the ground, including fault lines. This technological advancement allows companies to see things – and in the case of fault lines, avoid things – that previously would have been tough to do.
The industry’s record of safety has not been a static process, but rather the result of a dynamic approach that constantly looks for ways to improve. Although the seismic events described here are minor, these two reports nonetheless include some important recommendations about how best to address subsurface issues in the future, and companies the world over will likely be paying pretty close attention.
UPDATE (Jan. 10, 2012; 2:10pm ET)
According to Bloomberg, scientists in the U.K. have confirmed the safety of hydraulic fracturing, especially as it relates to hydraulic fracturing. From that story:
Drilling for shale gas in the U.K. won’t cause dangerous earthquakes and poses little risk to the environment given appropriate safeguards, scientists said.
“Most geologists think this is a pretty safe activity,” Mike Stephenson, head of energy science at the British Geological Survey, said at a briefing in London today. “We think the risk is pretty low and we have the scientific tools to tell if there is a problem.”
That’s good news, too, because it looks like the U.K. is going to increase its estimate of recoverable natural gas from shale. Also from Bloomberg:
The U.K. could have more shale gas the previously thought, Stephenson said. The British Geological Survey is reviewing its estimates for U.K. onshore shale gas resources. The survey originally estimated that there is about 150 billion cubic meters of shale gas onshore, compared with about 300 billion cubic meters of conventional gas resources…Cuadrilla Resources Ltd. says it’s found more natural gas trapped in the shale rock around Blackpool in northwest England than Iraq has in its entire reserves.