Big Issues with Food and Water Watch’s Latest Issue Brief on Earthquakes

A new “Issue Brief” from the anti-fracking activist group, Food & Water Watch (F&WW), seeks to link hydraulic fracturing with earthquakes, going as far as to claim that it puts “countless people’s lives at stake.” Of course, F&WW has a reputation for distorting the facts to fit its agenda, which is a national ban on fracking. And a review of its latest paper shows this is just more of the same.

Fracking and Earthquakes

F&WW opens its paper with the eye-grabbing definition of hydraulic fracturing as a process that intentionally causes thousands of “microearthquakes” when the rock containing oil or gas is fractured apart, is shaking things up — literally.” Except that it doesn’t actually shake things up – literally. F&WW cites the USGS to make this claim, but what it leaves out is the fact that USGS is clear that “microearthquakes” are not (except in exceedingly rare instances) even felt on the surface. From that U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) article:

“While hydraulic fracturing works by making thousands of extremely small “microearthquakes,” they are, with just a few exceptions, too small to be felt; none have been large enough to cause structural damage.”

In fact, study after study has shown that the risk of induced seismicity from hydraulic fracturing itself is extremely low. The National Research Council has looked into the claim and come to this conclusion:

“The process of hydraulic fracturing a well as presently implemented for shale gas recovery does not pose a high risk for inducing felt seismic events.”

Yet those studies by credible institutions are conspicuously left out of F&WW’s paper.

Notably, this week at an Energy Resources Committee hearing in Austin scientists from Southern Methodist University (SMU), pushed back against activists and the media for claiming that “fracking” is causing earthquakes in North Texas. “We’re not talking at all about fracking,” the scientists noted, in reference to their recent study on earthquakes in the Azle/Reno area. “In fact, it’s been driving us crazy, frankly, that people keep using it in the press.”

Wastewater Injection Wells and Induced Seismicity

F&WW then proceeds to make a number of dubious claims about seismicity linked to wastewater injection wells. While F&WW approaches the topic with the goal of banning hydraulic fracturing, a growing body of research exists that has brought industry, scientists and regulators together to address this important issue through best practices and updated regulations. Further, as EID has previously highlighted, out of the tens of thousands of wastewater injection wells operating across the United States, only a fraction of them have been linked to seismic activity. As the USGS has pointed out:

“Of more than 150,000 Class II injection wells in the United States, roughly 40,000 are waste fluid disposal wells for oil and gas operations. Only a small fraction of these disposal wells have induced earthquakes that are large enough to be of concern to the public.” (emphasis added)

The National Research Council has concluded:

“Injection for disposal of wastewater derived from energy technologies into the subsurface does pose some risk for induced seismicity, but very few events have been documented over the past several decades relative to the large number of disposal wells in operation.” (emphasis added)

F&WW says Texas “is no stranger to the precarious effect of induced seismicity,” but an EID analysis of the number of wells linked to seismicity in the Barnett Shale, using data from the Railroad Commission of Texas, found that more than 99 percent of injection wells have not been associated with felt seismic events.  In other words, only one-tenth of one-percent of injection wells across the Barnett Shale have any plausible connection to earthquakes.

F&WW also charges that “Ohio has had its fair share of induced seismic activity.” Yet, the research that F&WW cites actually confirms that seismic activity from hydraulic fracturing is exceedingly rare. As EID has also previously pointed out, out of the 275,000 total oil and gas wells already developed in Ohio, and out of the millions of wells that have been drilled across the United States, the report cited by F&WW, shows “the first evidence of positive magnitude earthquakes” that “can be related to a hydraulic fracture operation.”

F&WW tries to suggests that there is a high risk for induced seismicity in California, claiming:

“The threat of increased earthquake activity is also of concern for the seismically active state of California, where the Monterey Shale overlaps the San Andreas Fault.”

The reality is that there have been zero cases of disposal wells in California causing seismic events. There are a variety of factors including geology that contribute to this, but the bottom line is regulators have figured out what works and developed the state’s regulations to mitigate the risks. As the California Department of Conservation has said:

“In California, existing Underground Injection Control regulations already address sustained injection pressures in waste fluid disposal wells that would exceed the natural fracture limit of the formation. Therefore, induced seismicity has not been an issue in California.” (emphasis added)

California State Geologist John Parrish has also addressed the issue:

“Not only have there been no felt seismic events linked to hydraulic fracturing in California, there have also been no earthquakes linked to wastewater disposal in California. Not one!”

F&WW also devotes an entire section to Illinois, claiming that “drilling and fracking and the subsequent wastewater injection wells” could put “millions of people at risk,” in Illinois. But the facts are clear: Illinois currently has nearly 8,000 Class II wastewater injection wells, yet the state didn’t make the USGS list of areas with induced seismicity.

Perhaps that is why Art McGarr of the USGS was not concerned about the issue when asked about induced seismicity by the Southern Illinoisan:

“McGarr said he “wouldn’t lose any sleep” over the possibility of a triggered earthquake in Southern Illinois.”

“I wouldn’t be too concerned about it as long as there is regulatory oversight and knowing the agencies in Illinois, there will be and in an environmentally sensitive way,” he said.”

What F&WW Leaves Out: Much is Being Done to Address the Issue

As activist groups like F&WW seize on reports of “earthquakes” linked to wastewater injection wells, they typically gloss over or ignore completely the work being done by industry, scientists and regulators to address and mitigate the risk associated with the fraction of wells that have experienced induced seismicity. USGS geophysicist William Ellsworth with the USGS recently addressed the issue:

“We think society can manage the hazard. We don’t have to stop production of oil and gas, but we think we can do so in a way that will minimize the earthquake hazard.”

To do so, states like Oklahoma, created an induced seismicity working group, which brings together state regulators and geological surveys, along with the Ground Water Protection Council, to share science and research. The oil and gas industry has also been forthcoming with sharing data to assist in these efforts and it has helped to fund new seismic monitors across Texas and Oklahoma.

This kind of collaboration has happened in conjunction with major regulatory and operational changes. In Texas and Oklahoma, regulators have increased their scrutiny of new injection wells in seismically active areas. Oklahoma also works under a “traffic light system,” recommended by the National Academy of Sciences.

Another example where states are taking action is Ohio where the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) recently imposed new permitting requirements on operators developing resources near faults or in areas of known seismic activity. EID reported on the event and the permitting changes shortly thereafter.

With industry, environmental groups, scientists and policymakers continuing to study this issue, it is important that all interested parties focus on identifying solutions that will address concerns, and avoid overreaching measures that may do more harm than good. F&WW’s rhetoric clearly shows it has no interest in playing a role in those discussions.

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