Earthworks Study Makes Shaky Assumptions on California Earthquakes

In recent months we’ve seen activist group Earthworks botch reports on air quality in the Eagle Ford and water consumption in the Marcellus. A spokesperson for the group, Sharon Wilson, has also tried her hand at organizing Texans based on fear by blaming earthquakes in the state on nearby oil and gas operations.

In continuing with this trend of misinformation, the group recently partnered up with Clean Water Action (CWA) and the Center for Biologic Diversity (CBD) to create a report—titled “On Shaky Ground”—seeking to tarnish the industry. This report’s focus: California earthquakes. It should be noted, however, that they aren’t actually referring to any earthquakes that have been caused by “fracking” in California – because there haven’t been any.

Like Earthworks’ past reports, this one misinterprets needed data, and the omitted information tells a more revealing story than what the activist groups selectively chose to include. That’s not very shocking, considering that Earthworks is pretty open about its agenda in the report (emphasis added):

“In sum, the findings highlight the lack of assurance that fracking and the injection of oil and gas wastewater can be conducted safely, and demonstrate the need for a halt to fracking, acidizing, and other forms of well stimulation.” (p. 5)

What is most fascinating about this particular report is that it manages to come to its conclusion about a high-risk of earthquakes in California without ever providing any seismic data for the state.  Yes, you read that correctly. The entire report is based on the proximity of active injection wells and other operations to fault lines—some of which have been there for decades—without discussing any actual earthquakes originating from those faults.

This raises a pretty important question: If these activities pose such a high risk of causing felt seismic events, then why couldn’t the activist authors produce any evidence of those events occurring during the many decades that these wells have been operating? The obvious answer would seem to be that this report wasn’t about advancing a scientific debate; it was about accusing the industry of wrongdoing, even in the absence of evidence, to try to instill doubt and fear in the public’s mind. In other words, it was “classic Earthworks.”

Here’s a look at some of the other “key findings” in the report:

KEY FINDING 1: “A majority of California’s active oil and gas wastewater injection wells are close to faults. Our analysis shows that 54 percent of California’s 1,553 active and new wastewater injection wells are within 10 miles of a recently active fault (active in the past 200 years), 23 percent are within 5 miles, and 6 percent are within 1 mile. Because the distance from a wastewater injection well to a fault is a key risk factor influencing whether a well may induce an earthquake, these findings raise significant concerns.”

FACT: It’s no secret California leads the country in earthquakes each year. Just looking at the data for today — there have already been many earthquakes, one of which was greater than a magnitude 4. In fact, there have been more than 240 earthquakes in just the past week with close proximity to The Geysers in Northern California, the world’s largest geothermal field. Meanwhile, the oil and gas industry has been operating in the state for decades, and precautions are in place to ensure their operations do not impact seismic activity.

As described recently in the Bakersfield Californian (emphasis added):

“Rock Zierman, CEO of the California Independent Petroleum Association trade group, noted that oil companies are required by federal law to examine how injected water will react with any nearby fault lines, and that their analysis is reviewed by state oil engineers.

“That is probably why in CA we have re-injected billions of gallons of water without any negative impact on seismicity,” he wrote in an email.”

The report’s authors cited research from other states showing injection wells near fault lines, which have led some to theorize a link between disposal and small seismic events. But as E&E News reported recently, the report’s comparison is a dubious one, because the wells in California are not the same thing:

“But many of those wells are not the type of injection disposal wells that have been linked to earthquakes in other states, such as Arkansas, Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas.

Instead, they’re reinjecting water back into the same formation after separating out oil, said Craig Nicholson, a geophysicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

‘Very little of the state’s earthquake activity can be tied in any way to reinjection,’ Nicholson said. ‘There’s not a connection like there is in the central and eastern United States.’” (emphasis added)

And, again, it’s worth stressing: If you’re going to suggest that wells operating in the proximity of fault lines pose a significant risk of causing earthquakes, then at the very least you should be able to explain why decades of operations have yielded none. Instead, Earthworks, CBD, and CWA rested their laurels essentially on a mantra of “be scared, people” – even without any evidence to suggest why.

KEY FINDING 2: “Millions of Californians live in areas at risk for induced earthquakes. Some of California’s major population centers, such as Los Angeles and Bakersfield, are located in regions where high densities of wastewater injection wells are operating very close to active faults.”

FACT: Again this goes back to proximity being linked to seismic activity, which the data do not demonstrate in California and the authors never offer any evidence to support. The reality is that these injection wells have been operated for decades, without causing earthquakes.

EID has reported on the lack of seismic activity connected to oil and gas development previously:

“There has never been a felt seismic event related to hydraulic fracturing in our state — even though the process has been used thousands of times over more than five decades. In fact, California’s state geologist, John Parrish, said last year that “we have a lot of information about the seismicity that is caused by hydraulic fracking,” adding that “the magnitudes of these are all less than magnitude 1.” To put that in perspective, the U.S. Geological Survey describes magnitude 1 as being the low end of seismic events that are “not felt except by a very few under especially favorable conditions.”

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!”

KEY FINDING 3: “Research and monitoring are dangerously inadequate. No studies to date have evaluated the increased risk of induced earthquakes from California’s existing wastewater injection wells. There are fundamental knowledge gaps in understanding the risks of induced seismicity from these wells.

FACT: Studies have looked at the risk of hydraulic fracturing and injection wells pose to seismic activity. EID looked extensively at one such peer-reviewed report issued in 2013.

“Of 198 instances of human-caused earthquakes since 1929, the authors observed only one that was indirectly related to hydraulic fracturing, and this wasn’t in California. Other sources cite three other seismic events potentially related to the process, but the two in the United States were linked to wastewater injection, a process common to many industries.”

But those two events weren’t in California, either. A National Research Council report from June 2012 also found injection wells have the possibility to induce seismic activity, but this is unlikely:

“Injection for disposal of waste water 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.”

The 2012 NRC report goes on to describe change in pore pressure as being a major factor, which is why in California experts have said that failing to reinject water from current production may actually increase seismic risks.

Conveniently, Earthworks et al. fail to answer for how their “remedy” to the situation could actually result in earthquakes, unlike California’s injection wells.

KEY FINDING 4: “Regulations do not protect Californians from the risk of induced earthquakes. California has no plan to safeguard its residents from the risks of earthquakes induced by Class II injection wells or oil and gas production. Due to significant knowledge gaps, California’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) cannot safely regulate the risk of induced seismicity from oil and gas production and wastewater disposal.”

FACT: Oil and gas operations and disposal wells are not new concepts for California, nor are they for state and federal regulators across the country. It’s worth noting again that these processes are not only regulated at the state level by regulators most familiar with the unique seismic activity and fault lines in California, but also at a federal level. The authors cited the California Department of Conservation a few times, but must have missed this from that same agency:

“Class II injection wells provide a viable and safe method to enhance oil and gas production and dispose of produced fluids and other fluids associated with oil- and gas-production operations. In California, Class II injection wells have an outstanding record for environmental protection. A peer review conducted by a national organization, the Ground Water Protection Council, found the Division has an excellent program that effectively protects underground sources of drinking water.”

Due to the unique nature of California’s fault lines and very active seismic history, the guidelines for developing and maintaining injection wells are more stringent than in many other states. There are more requirements, and the multiple regulatory agencies—including the federal Environmental Protection Agency—that oversee these operations have had decades to improve upon them to ensure these injection sites are not increasing seismic activity. To learn more about California’s permitting process for Class II injection wells, visit the Department of Conservation website.

KEY FINDING 5: “Oil industry wastewater disposal poses unacceptable risks. In light of the known environmental and health risks from drilling, well stimulation and wastewater disposal, the link between wastewater injection wells and earthquakes in other states, the potential for a massive expansion of drilling and wastewater production in the Monterey Shale, and the gaps in scientific knowledge regarding induced seismicity, the best way to protect Californians is to halt hydraulic fracturing, acidizing, and other unconventional oil and gas recovery techniques.”

FACT: Nowhere in the report did the authors provide data, evidence, or even anecdotal information to suggest that halting oil and gas operations would be a viable solution for anything. California is the nation’s largest consumer of petrochemical products, and it has supported responsible oil and natural gas development for many decades. Outside agencies have deemed the regulatory system for injection wells “excellent,” and there is no history of any significant seismic activity attributed to “fracking” or disposal wells.

California does have the most comprehensive seismic monitoring system in the country to better understand and alert residents of activity, however. Does it really make sense that a problem would exist without the scientists monitoring this activity being aware, as Earthworks et al. allege? No, it doesn’t.

This is just another Earthworks report based on shaky assumptions that falls short on actual facts, all carefully designed to push an agenda—and one is not in the best interest of Californians.

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