Fracking and earthquakes: The real risk is injecting liquid underground

The National Research Council published a report today, reviewing and analyzing peer-reviewed literature, federal and state documents, data requested from private companies, and more ... all in an effort to better understand the link between earthquakes and natural gas fracking techniques.

Because this is the National Research Council, you can read the whole thing online for free. But here are the three key takeaways:

First: The actual process of hydraulic fracturing—injecting fluid into the ground to break rocks and release trapped natural gas—doesn't seem to come with a serious seismic risk. This process has been definitively linked to small earthquakes—no greater than 2.8 magnitude—at one location.

Second: Injecting wastewater from fracking back into the ground has a much more noticeable seismic effect. What's more, this effect goes far beyond fracking. Injecting liquids into the ground is part of advanced recovery for oil, conventional drilling for oil and gas, carbon capture and storage, and geothermal electricity generation. This should not be a surprise. We've known that human can induce small earthquakes since the 1920s and injecting large amounts of liquids into a space that previously didn't hold much liquid—what the NRC calls a fluid imbalance—is part of that.

The strongest induced earthquakes are related to hydrocarbon withdrawl—basically, oil drilling—in California, Illinois, Oklahoma, Texas, and Nebraska. Some of those events have reached magnitudes of 6.5.

But the highest frequency of events seems to be associated with a California geothermal site called The Geysers, which has experienced 300-400 events a year since 2005, some of them reaching a magnitude of 4.6.

Basically, whether we should be really worried about this effect or not is up for debate. None of these human-induced earthquakes have led to significant property damage or loss of life and, historically, human-induced earthquakes have been on the small side, magnitude wise. Also, we've been injecting liquid into the Earth for decades and the overall number of induced earthquakes remains small. But, if we are going to be concerned, we have to understand that this is not just a fracking problem. It's going to come into play any time you're extracting or injecting a large quantity of liquid from the earth without counterbalancing that liquid loss or gain.

Finally: The thing to keep your eye on is carbon capture and storage. There's only one commercial scale project in the whole world right now. So we really don't have enough data to know what's going on here. But, the paper points out, CCS involves injecting very large quantities of liquid. Larger than the quantities involved in, say, storage of wastewater from fracking. So while we don't know what will happen with CCS, there's definitely a potential for those sites to cause some earthquakes at the larger end of the human-induced-earthquake scale.

Read the full report (Executive Summary and Summary are particularly useful if you want a quick overview.)

Read a summary at Scientific American

Read a story I wrote last year about human-induced earthquakes

Image:Seismograph, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from fboyd's photostream


  1. Occidental Petroleum has been injecting liquified CO2 into depleted wells out in West Texas for more than ten years. They bring in millions of barrels via pipeline from New Mexico. 

  2. For decades we’ve seen supervillains in movies and comics causing earthquakes and controlling weather. For about a decade, skeptics have been shooting down unsubstantiated claims about govt weather control projects. Now we apparently have real evidence of earthquakes caused by human action, on a regular basis, and the PR machine is all like, “Nothing to see here, they’re pretty small, no reason to stand in the way of profits, I mean progress.”

    Who needs supervillains when we have corporations?

    1. Yes, the National Research Council, which has been pretty outspoken about global warming and the need to reduce C02 emissions is totally in the pocket of big oil.  Ya know, because they issued a report that said what anyone from a seismically active part of the world could tell you, which is that 2.0 earthquakes are pretty meaningless.  Yep, corporate villainy on a grand scale.

      1. I’m guilty of not always reading full posts, or the links they point to, before commenting on them. But I did read the post in this case. Did you see where Maggie wrote, “The strongest induced earthquakes are related to hydrocarbon withdrawl—basically, oil drilling—in California, Illinois, Oklahoma, Texas, and Nebraska. Some of those events have reached magnitudes of 6.5”?

    2. It isn’t just a problem with the supervillainous oil corporations. This happened with geothermal power as well.

      1. How so?  Instead of compromising the area by building a geothermal plant, I see it as more a case of risking your geothermal plant by building it in a geologically active area, yet by definition, that’s where it must be built.

        1. No, it is certain that the water injection is causing earthquakes (usually lots and lots of very small ones) and the process has been recognized and studied for decades. It has even forced stopping some projects like the one in Basel, Switzerland.

  3. About a decade ago I was doing a college internship with a conservation outfit here in Montana that was suing the gas companies to force  them to re-inject the waste water, because they were previously just dumping it because doing so is cheaper.  It’s warm and salty and royally screws up surface water and everything that depends on that water.  Not to mention being seriously bad for any cropland irrigated with that water.  

    Last year, they too jumped on this insane panic about earth quakes along with the rest of the left.  Just hair-pulling levels of frustration.  Especially given that just a few years before that we were explaining why the earthquakes caused by geothermal and carbon capture projects weren’t a big deal.

    1. They were previously just dumping it because doing so is cheaper.

      That’s what bugs me most about fracking:  the frakking pollution. Then there’s the recent PR campaign about how “the coal industry is your friend”… “this message has been brought to you by your friends in the coal industry”.

      1. My benchmark of whether they’re a friend or not is if they’ve ever bought me lunch. No one associated with the coal industry has ever bought me lunch, so they need to stop representing themselves as my friend or I’ll be getting the lawyers involved.

  4. Assuming that the formation hadn’t changed too much, reinjecting fluid into rocks that had previously held fluid might be a pretty plausible idea. It’s when you put back way more than you took out into areas where there are potentially-interesting faults that, well.

  5. This is a boon for civilization. 

    Imagine if we could take a place that we know is overdue for a large quake, then trigger it sunday morning on schedule at 9 am? That could save a lot of lives. 

    The earth is shifting all the time. When you inject stuff in you are merely triggering what would already have to happen. The energy we put into the ground with fracking, etc is tiny compared to the energy released in even a 4. quake.

    1. Yeah I’m with wysinwyg on this one…

      In theory it seems like you could inject liquid into a fault line causing an earthquake and thus releasing some of that pressure.  However given the complexity and size of most of the major faults I don’t really see how you’d trigger a simultaneous reaction along the whole fault, and or not cause more energy to be released than normally would have happened because you have now decreased the overall friction of the fault.

      It seems good in theory, but at the same time so does not building a major city(s) near an active fault line….

    2. What an incredibly misinformed comment. It doesn’t even make logical sense, aside from disregarding all the facts.

      1. What is misinformed about that comment? Aside from the fact that there is no real information regarding the idea, so anyone who comments on it could be called “misinformed”.

        Releasing energy through small human-induced earthquakes is an idea that seismologists have considered and continue to consider. The theory is sound. This is how earthquakes work – pressure is built up along the fault and then released. It can happen catastrophically if built up over a long period of time, or it can happen mildly if it releases more frequently. You can see this varying style of seismicity at various points along the San Andreas, not to mention the thousands of other faults that all act differently around the world.

        The problem is not that the idea of creating small earthquakes to relieve that pressure is misinformed or illogical. @bcsizemo:disqus and @wysinwyg:disqus are right here, it’s all about unintended consequences. Even in the most highly-studied areas of major seismic activity and faulting (such as Southern California, where I studied this stuff in grad school) the details of how everything works are really quite unknown.

        I won’t get into the details but the point is that the idea of releasing pressure along faults is (IMO) a good one, but we’re far from the point of understanding things well enough in order to actually try it.

        The unfortunate thing is that we will probably need to see a major, devastating earthquake in SoCal before truly understanding. The data from that event will provide most of what we need to know in order to try things like creating small earthquakes to relieve pressure.

    3. I think it was a previous Maggie article about fracking that mentioned that the depths at which fracking occurs, are way closer to the surface than naturally occurring, tectonic related earthquakes. Though who knows if triggering a smaller near surface earthquake could actually then trigger one down at the tectonic level..

    4. Not likely…the kinds of earthquakes that cause widespread devastation which are characterized by very deep epicenters located along fault lines where tectonic forces are at work, are distinctly different from the relatively shallow and local quakes caused by injection. That doesn’t mean that small quakes can’t be devastating; they can be when it’s your chimney that falls on your head, or your highway bridge that falls when you’re on it, but the two kinds are at best only tenuously connected in terms of their geophysics. Small quakes are not likely to relieve the kinds of stresses that we presume generate the large scale quakes that are the real problem when we’re talking about regional devastation.

  6. This is great and all, but earthquakes aren’t the primary reason why fracking is a bad idea. I’d put intentionally injecting groundwater with carcinogens and other poisons towards the top of the list. Perhaps this could be followed by the uncaptured methane (a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide) escaping into the atmosphere, the consumption of huge quantities of clean water, and just generally having one more excuse to delay making investments in renewable energy. Those of us who live near fracking sites aren’t generally thrilled by the noise pollution, clear cutting of large areas for conducting the operation, addition of a large quantity of huge trucks on our local road network, or the dumping of any extra contaminated water into our sewage treatment systems which don’t actually have any mechanism for treating it and basically just shove it off directly into the local waterways. But hey, being able to light your tap water on fire is great… right?

    1. I don’t work for a gas or oil company.  I don’t have investments in them either (well perhaps in some mutual fund).  I am a chemist for a consumer products company.  I typically measure things at trace levels to ensure human safety, so environmental contamination is not my expertise.  Still, I have opinions.  I am opposed to fracking, but I dislike inaccuracy in this sort of discussion.

      I’ve looked at a list (perhaps incomplete) of what is being used in fracking fluids.  I wouldn’t consider those chemicals worse than the carboniferous deposits they are being used to mobilize.  To call it “injecting groundwater with carcinogens” is misleading.  Fracking is done thousands of feet below the aquifers.  Contamination of ground water is contamination by “natural” things that have been there for eons.  Fracking is just a big fucking water hammer.  I think the chemicals used in the water are far less important than the geological effects and the chemicals released from the rocks.

      Being able to light a water tap is an indication of released hydrocarbon contamination rather than contamination by fracking fluids.  Most of the list of chemicals used are not flammable.

      Gas blow-back and the uncontrolled release of methane is a real concern.

      Disposal and treatment of fracking water is also a real concern.

      Heavy equipment destroying roads is real.

      Clearing land for fracking is NOTHING compared to mountain top removal.  Please check google maps of eastern Kentucky and West Virginia.  Those light gray areas are dead areas that used to be vibrant, green ecosystems.  Read “Lost Mountain” if you think the immediate effects of fracking are bad.

  7. Los Angeles used to be one of the great oil production regions of the country in the early 1900’s. As the easy stuff disappeared, they experimented with injecting water into the wells to get more oil out, and the technique worked. But in 1963, the ground subsided near a reservoir that was surrounded by oil fields where water was being pumped back in, and it collapsed causing a major disaster. Check out this video, some of the first live disaster footage ever broadcast on TV: .

    It’s been known for a long time that there can be terrible consequences to this kind of thing. I lived through that flood and it was not pleasant; people died. How can we even consider going ahead with fracking when a variety of serious problems are already apparent? Won’t anything stop the bastard oil companies before somebody gets killed? Or even after?

  8. I experienced both earthquakes mentioned in the report about Blackpool, UK as it’s my home town. In terms of tectonics and faults we’re pretty much as stable as you can get, so statistically to get two significant tremors within about a month of each other was astronomical. So all the locals were blaming the fracking going on long before the investigation supported that conclusion.

  9. While we all know that fracking causes earthquakes (but only little ones! don’t worry!) and poisons groundwater (but you were all going to get cancer eventually anyway) and externalizes costs of methane desequestration onto third parties (but they’re all crackers who vote Republican!  Fuck them!), and contributes to global warming (but Al Gore is BORING) there’s another thing about fracking that perhaps y’all haven’t considered.

    Fracking, by driving the cost of methane down, very effectively prevents the creation of a distributed, sustainable domestic biogas industry.  Now, I’m not an expert on the Chicago School, Randian Fuckyouism, or Reaganomics, but I think the only place where they agree with funky old Adam Smith is the law of supply and demand.  When you distort the political regulatory systems so that anti-humanist Armageddonist frackers can kill the price of methane by literally shattering the bedrock of the country, you make damn sure that America gets economically, politically, and socially dicked in the long run.

    1. Actually, driving the cost of methane down makes it much less attractive to investors.  One reason natural gas prices are at an all-time low is because fracking is enabling drillers to get gas out of shale that used to be too difficult to retrieve. Now there’s lot of gas available, so the price goes down.

      Working to make sure that companies pay the full costs of the entire process, including covering future lawsuits due to damage to the environment, would make producing cheap natural gas too expensive to bother with.

      Gotta hit ’em in the pocketbook.

  10. If injecting water might cause earthquakes then what about extracting groundwater for normal household/farm usage? The extraction volumes involved would dwarf injection volumes, I would presume. 

        1. Good question. Most likely the explanation is that the fluid is acting as a lubricant. So pumping water in increases the likelihood of movement and pumping water out decreases it

          This result might have interesting consequences for San Andreas, at some point San Francisco is going to have another big one. Perhaps a regular series of little ones would be a better plan.

  11. Water as a lubricant between porous rock layers sounds improbable but I can see how water volume changes might push or pull sections of the tectonic plates. Then again, I would think that lunar tidal forces would be a bigger factor than even that.

    1. Almost by definition wherever you have oil or gas reservoirs you have some rock that’s porous, some that’s impermeable. Otherwise you wouldn’t have a reservoir. And of course there are degrees and scales of porosity, so something that’s porous (with connected pores) on a scale of millimeters or less will behave way differently form something that’s porous on a larger scale and or disconnectedly (non-percolating) porous.

  12. The argument “because something hasn’t happened yet means it won’t happen in the future” isn’t very scientifically sound. There may well be logical reasons why injecting fluids underground is unlikely to cause a devastating quake (I’m not a geologist), but it’s not enough to say we’ve looked at past data, there haven’t been any big quakes, so no reason to expect them in the future.

  13. Fracking induced irritation of Yellowstone Caldera = next moonbat/wingnut apocalypse scenario.

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