Wednesday, August 8, 2012

New UT Study Finds Association Between Earthquakes & Deep Well Injection: All States Should Follow Ohio's Lead In Strengthening Regulation

A main purpose of this blog is to separate the real environmental impacts caused by gas drilling from demagogic attacks and to compare the strengths and weaknesses of natural gas to all our other energy choices.  In the category of genuine environmental issues posed by gas production, put the siting of deep well injection facilities to dispose of drilling wastewater.

Indeed, the evidence is growing that injecting fluids deep underground can cause earthquakes.  The latest study was done by University of Texas researcher Cliff Frohlich and focused on disposal wells in the Barnett Shale from 2009 to 2011.  Frolich's study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Using seismic monitoring equipment, Frolich identified a series of earthquakes, many too small to feel at the surface, that he concluded were associated with the disposal of drilling wastewater in the area. Frolich's work builds on other research and experience.  For example, data from Arkansas and Ohio were sufficient to convince regulators there to close a small number of drilling waster water disposal wells.

To be clear, Frolich found that hydraulic fracturing itself was not causing the earthquakes he measured and recorded.  Instead the seismic activity was associated with the permanent disposal of drilling wastewater deep underground in certain locations.

America has approximately 144,000 injection wells, where fluids are permanently disposed.  Of that total, Pennsylvania has less than 10.

In Pennsylvania the Environmental Protection Agency administers the basic permit required to operate an injection well, but EPA has delegated this responsibility and authority to most states so that state agencies generally regulate injection wells.

Given that the seismicity risk associated with injecting fluids underground is sufficiently documented, regulators, industry, and the public should review siting regulations for these facilities.  That is what Ohio's state officials exactly did after the Youngstown earthquake.  And after the review, Ohio tightened regulations on deep well injection siting.

All states would be well advised to follow Ohio's example.


  1. thank you for this post! The issue are asking an industry that denies responsibility and accountability ALWAYS to accept the science connecting them to negative consequences. You know first hand that when a gas company is determined to be responsible for defective wells or other impacts, they deny all responsibility. Until the day they admit they know there will be impacts and that they will accept responsibility, many of us will go on mistrusting them. Just like a 12 step program-you have to admit their is a problem first before you can really "fix it". I would like to see this info on EID's site.

    1. Concerned ScientistAugust 8, 2012 at 2:12 PM

      I have never met anyone in industry who denies that this happens. It is widely accepted that this can happen.

      These are mainly magnitude 1 and 2 earthquakes. The smallest earthquakes that can be felt are around a magnitude 3. The Richter scale is done on a log scale with a 3 being 10 times more intense than a 2 (and therefore a 2 being about 1/10 the intensity of a 3). There are roughly 1.3 million natural earthquakes that are in the range between 2 and 2.9 globally each year. There are 130,000 natural earthquakes between 3 and 3.9. These never make the news unless they are related to injection. These are an issue but let's not make a mountain out of a mole hill.

      That said, I agree with your suggestion that all states improve their regulations for this and all aspects of the industry. The best solution here is probably to mandate or create incentives for 100% wastewater recycling for development wells. It makes maximum use of the water and cuts down on truck traffic and it would cut a big percentage of the disposal activity.

  2. I am wondering why your successor thinks deep injec­tion wells are not “an issue that the Com­mon­wealth needs to grap­ple with at this time.” Could it be that he is beholden to the industry? Or that he is being pressured by Governor Corbett to remove any obstacle to natural gas development and wastewater disposal?