Fracking earthquakes

Human activities can cause earthquakes. It sounds a little crazy to say, but it's something we've known about for a while. For instance, seismologists say that a 6.3 magnitude quake that struck India's Maharashtra state in 1967 was directly caused by the 1963 construction of a major dam and reservoir project in that region.

Basically, fault lines exist. When we start messing with them—applying very heavy weights, taking very heavy weights away, or lubricating the fault line with various liquids—we can trigger movement. Usually, these are not large earthquakes. But they can be felt. And they are something we want to avoid.

Now, a study done by the Ohio State Department of Natural Resources has concluded that a series of small quakes in that state were directly caused by improper disposal of wastewater from a natural gas fracking operation.

Fracking, as a reminder, is a process of freeing up trapped natural gas by injecting liquid into the Earth. The force of the water cracks rocks so the gas can flow through. This is not the part of the process that's been implicated in the Ohio earthquakes, however. Instead, it's about what happens to that liquid once the fracking is done.

Fracking liquid is called "brine" and it's often referred to as being water, but it's actually water mixed with a lot of other stuff, some of it toxic. Wastewater treatment plants aren't set up to deal with this kind of contamination, so the standard way of disposing of this liquid is to pump it into the ground. In Ohio, regulators say, the site chosen for wastewater disposal wasn't vetted carefully enough. Instead of being geologically inert, it turned out to be the site of a fault line. The liquid lubricated the fault line and helped it move. The result: Earthquakes.

Now, according to the Associated Press, fracking operations disposing of wastewater in Ohio are going to have to follow much more stringent rules and provide a lot more geologic data to the regulators before they'll be allowed to pump any more liquid into the ground. The report states that this process can be done safely. It just wasn't being done that way.

Image: Earthquake damage - Bridge Street., a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from 23934380@N06's photostream


  1. Maggie, some addendums:

    1.  Fracking is not only useful in natural gas, it can be used on Oil wells as well.  It just depends upon the viscosity of the petrocarbon being sought.

    2.  The earthquakes in this instance were indeed tied to frack fluid, but it would be more appropriate to state that the source of the fluid isn’t really important — just that it was pumped into a fault zone.   This is an important point because in many instances where fracking is not used, the drilling mud is still disposed of by pumping it into the ground (not yet that common in the USA).  Basically, going forward and backward, this has been and  always will be an issue with wells, it’s just that there hasn’t been a link yet.  The frack part of the story is a red herring, in many ways.

    3.  Fracking has its problems nonetheless.  It is exceedingly difficult to stay on course in a previously fracked formation when drilling;  this means that re-entry wells are a lot harder and more costly to drill — and much of our domestic production in the USA is from re-entry.  We’re simply going to old places with new technology, to get the leftovers.The net effect of this is that we are lowering the total amount of retrievable  petro-carbons in exchange for a higher production rate NOW.

    I work in the directional drilling sector, and have spent many an hour on a rig.

    1. Those aren’t corrections so much as addendums.  Anyway, thanks for the extra info. It’s always nice to hear from someone with some real world insight.

      1. True.  I’ll correct that.  

        It IS a correction to the general public sense of fracking though.  Everyone is nervous about the disposal of frack fluids, which is really not the part they should be excessively concerned with — such is a problem for most any well.  Concern should be with the fact that we do not yet have any methadone to match our heroin-like addiction to petrocarbons.   Dealing with frack fluid is like treating track marks –sure they suck, but there are far more pressing issues than just the single symptom.

    2.  I didn’t think it was a “red herring,” I thought it was Maggie doing her part to avoid misunderstandings that “fracking caused this earthquake” by being more precise about what actually happened.  Otherwise people looking for reasons to oppose fracking might pick up on this and spread it around as a consequence of fracking when that really isn’t the case.  Misleading headline in this case though.

      1. I wasn’t meaning that she had made a mistake, or was failing in any way– just that, due to the current excitement over fracking, the layperson would be led to assume that this is a problem caused by fracking jobs and the disposal of the fluids, instead of a problem that many other drilled wells might have as well, that were not even fracked..

  2. Remember a few years ago when there were a series of quakes here and in Europe related to geothermal power projects?  And the right winger ran around talking about how human hating hippies were gonna kill us with this crazy green energy nonsense, and leftists patiently explained that the earthquakes were small and gonna happen due to pressure built-up in the faults anyways?  

    It’d be nice if there were some consistency from folks one half decade to the next.

  3. Wouldn’t the earthquakes have happened anyway?  As as a result of the disturbance aren’t they lesser in magnitude?

    FWIW, I live in Ohio.

    1. I am not a geologist, first and foremost, but not necessarily.

      Yes, there was existing tension that, with the addition of the frack lube, was set free to quake.

      Without the lube though, the tension would have had to keep building in order to let loose –something that may not have ever been guaranteed to happen.  Perhaps it was actually lowering, due to the lack of tectonic activity there.

      What the quake DID do, *(I believe, not being a geologist) is lower the force of any resultant quakes that could have happened.  There is now less tension stored, so if a if a quake were guaranteed to have happened in the future, it might be lessened or not even happen at all, now.

      1. It’s important not justify these earthquakes with the notion that a small man-made earthquake may prevent a larger one at a later date. A small earthquake can still have casualties and humans would be directly responsible for them.

        1. I agree.  I was trying to say that the view that these quakes are possibly beneficial is not necessarily true.  It CAN be true,  but is also possible that we’re releasing tigers that otherwise would never have left their cages.

        2. In the 1960s serious work was done at the possibility of injecting water into the San Andreas fault to allow the jammed sections of the fault to move more easily and release its stress through many small earthquakes rather than one catastrophic cataclysm.

          It was then realised that if this was allowed to happen and there was a damaging ‘quake, then it would be possible to claim that humans had caused the damage. Californian lawyers began to salivate.

        3. That, at least according to this site, is an earthquake myth:

          “Small earthquakes keep big ones from happening. Each magnitude level represents about 31.6 times more energy released. It takes 32 magnitude 3s to equal the energy released in a magnitude 4, 1,000 magnitude 3s to equal a magnitude 5 … and a billion magnitude 3s to equal a single magnitude 9. So while a small quake may temporarily ease stress on a fault line, it does not prevent a large temblor.”

      2. It’s not quite lubricating the fault. What happens is the water going into the fault increases the pore pressure between the grains which counteracts the lithostatic pressure of the Earth. The result is called effective pressure. When that falls below a certain level, the fault is free to move.

    2. I am a geologist and have studied this and just wanted to say that @google-45a361614c8b2e06633b968767bb0d4b:disqus is pretty much correct so far as the current consensus goes among seismologists. But I’ll add that this is still a very contentious and little-understood issue and is getting a lot of research thrown at it right now, especially in California.

      Truthfully, we just don’t know – the idea that man-made earthquakes relieve pressure that would have caused a larger natural earthquake is little more than gut instinct at this point. It doesn’t seem like anything should contradict that – it’s so intuitive – but seismologists are very cautious.

      The unfortunate aspect is that considering the time scales these things happen on and the spotty historical earthquake data available, there’s no way to study this that people in other fields would ever consider valid. We really don’t have any data that shows this as being true, and you implicitly can’t collect that data because you can’t re-run an earthquake like you would a typical experiment.

      So seismologists rely heavily on computer models, and even within geology there’s a great tension between modelers and everyone else (see what I did there?).

  4. If you look at a seismic map of Iceland you’ll regularly see swarms of earthquakes near the Hellisheiðavirkjun geothermal power plant where fracking is being used to open new wells and where cold water is being injected into the geothermal reservoir. 

    On occasions there may be upward of a hundred earthquakes in a few hours,mostly Magnitude 0, but occasionally up to Magnitude 3. It’s an inevitable consequence of the power generation process, no harm is done and the Icelanders have plenty of power and heat.

  5. I’m more than a little concerned at the photograph that was used in the story without any caption. It is from New Zealand, and has absolutely nothing to do with the story. It is a photograph of damage from a very large natural earthquake. I think BB can do a bit better than this.
    None of the very small earthquakes that are supposedly linked to fluid injection have caused any damage at all that I am aware of.

  6. I’m not clear on whether the toxic liquids used in frakking are toxic because there are toxic compounds needed to release the gas, or, if there are toxic liquids used in frakking because the company has offered to dispose of other company’s toxic waste by injecting it into our ground and water supply, as a way of offsetting their expense.

    1. definitely the former, never the latter.  

      All sorts of trash is pumped downhole, from newspaper to walnut shells to pure lye, but all of these are because of the unique chemistry downhole, and how the injected materials affect it.

      Honestly, most any hazardous chemical that would be worth disposing of in such a way would be extremely problematic for producing the well, and the amount of money recouped from the disposal would pale in comparison to the cost of the well itself. 

      It would simply never be worth it.

  7. I’ve often wondered the opposite-

    “or lubricating the fault line with various liquids”

    -removing lubrication. Everything that uses oil in my life seizes up once all the oil is removed. 

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