*UPDATE VII* On Shaky Ground

UPDATE VII (8/27/13, 5:58pm ET):  A new research paper from the University of Texas at Austin examined seismicity in the Eagle Ford of South Texas and – contrary to what you may have read – the authors concluded unequivocally that it was not due to hydraulic fracturing.  As lead author Cliff Frohlich put it, “Although there is a considerable amount of hydraulic fracturing activity in the Eagle Ford, we don’t see a strong signal associated with that and earthquakes.” The authors emphasized that the seismicity appeared to be more closely linked to oil and fluid extraction, as opposed to injection (i.e. “fracking” and/or wastewater disposal).

The researchers also importantly emphasized that the seismic events should not trigger anything approaching red alert levels of fear. Again, according to author Cliff Frohlich, “I don’t think people should be hugely concerned because of the huge amount of production and injection we’ve had in Texas. If it were a big problem, Texas would be famous for all its earthquakes.”  He added that “this is a phenomenon that we need to understand, but it’s not appropriate to say it’s vastly dangerous.”

Of note, San Antonio Express-News reported that there were no injuries or significant damage, and most of the tremors in South Texas have been “too small to feel.”

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.


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