World’s Biggest Fracking Quake?

“Did Alberta Just Break a Fracking Earthquake World Record?” This is the headline in The Tyee, an online independent magazine focused on western Canada, and it seems the paper thinks so. The Tyee’s coverage of a big fracking earthquake in northern Alberta is mostly accurate, although a larger quake was reported in Oklahoma in September 2014. The Canadian shake measured 4.4 while the Sooner State’s quake was 4.5. An even larger one is alleged and implicated in an injury lawsuit in Oklahoma. I’ll have more about that in a moment.

Readers of this blog are aware of fracking. Hydraulic fracturing forces reluctant oil and gas out of the ground. The technology was invented half a century ago (1947, actually) but grew out of much earlier fracturing schemes, dating back to at least 1865 when nitroglycerin torpedoes were dropped into shallow Pennsylvania wells to “loosen up” the rocks, encouraging oil to flow. Recently a refined system of hydraulic fracturing became widespread.  The big leap in modern fracking is that it is not limited to enhancing existing conventional wells. Instead, it is used to extract petroleum from previously worthless shale. This is a really big deal.

Marcellus Shale - Photo credit: PD by Lvklook

Previously worthless Marcellus Shale:   Photo credit to Lvklook

Shale is black sedimentary rock that forms in slowly moving or stationary water, in lakes, lagoons, river deltas, sedimentary basins or the deep quiet water sometimes edging continents. Fine particles – mostly muddy clay with specks of quartz – remain suspended in water long after sand and gravel have deposited. Eventually they also sink, compact, and solidify. This makes shale. Bits of organic material are often mixed in with the mud. Those bits of former life then decay, generating oil and natural gas. In the past, oil rigs drilled through the shale, scorning it as an expensive delay; hydrocarbons were too solidly locked within the impermeable shale. All that changed around 2008 when oil patch tricks enabled ways of fracturing the shale and releasing its oil and gas. At the right price and with the right technology, the USA may recover 5 trillion barrels of shale oil. That’s enough to outlast the human species.

Instead of drilling through the shale, a well’s bit is directed to snake inside the shale layer. Pressurized water (along with caustic chemicals) are shot through the pipes and blasted into the previously impermeable shale, fracturing it and connecting all the morsels of hydrocarbon so they can be pumped to the surface. Heat, pressure, caustic chemicals, morsels of hydrocarbons – what’s not to like?

Some day, the United States may again be independent of imported fuel. If petroleum production from shale (and conventional and offshore sources) continues as it has in the past, America will eventually be liberated of its dependency on the whims of tin-pot dictators and the various caliphs feeding the American oil habit. It would be better if the country would simply use less of the stuff, but since that doesn’t look likely, home-grown fuel is the next best option. This has huge global political implications. As Thomas Friedman of the New York Times evinced,  human rights are at stake.

Thomas Friedman’s First Law of Petropolitics limned that as the price of oil increases, so does repression in Russia, Iran, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia. It was, in part, the lofty price of oil that encouraged Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine. It is oil wealth that funds the religious fervor and terror that is ISIS. Oleaginous money in non-democratic states placates powerless citizens while their leaders strut about in military exercises and bolster domestic secret police, tyranny, oppression, and ethnic and religious extremism. On the other hand, weaker oil prices weakens the oppressors. Friedman points out that rogue nations may attempt brutal misbehaviour without oil wealth, but the pressure on them to reform is greater when they are confronted by soft oil prices. As the price of oil goes down, the pace of freedom goes up,says Friedman.  Brutality is linked to the price of oil. When an energy hog like the USA imports monstrous quantities of petroleum, the price of oil goes up.

Increased energy production in North American has a positive impact on liberty, freedom, and democratic stability around the world, simply by lowering the price of oil. Meanwhile, domestic production leads to domestic jobs. American and Canadian oil workers buy local tofu (produced from North American soy beans) and send their daughters to piano lessons taught by retired school teachers in their home towns. The money stays home – those petrodollars line the pockets of neither oligarch nor theocrat.  Human rights and domestic prosperity. What’s not to like?

The downside is environmental, of course. Even Alberta’s conservative premier, Jim Prentice, readily acknowledges that production of oil and gas – things that make western Canada wealthy – contributes to global warming. Here, verbatim, is part of a February 1, 2015, nationally televised interview between CBC’s lead anchor, Peter Mansbridge, and Alberta’s Jim Prentice, head of the Conservative Party:

“You believe that climate change is caused, in some part, by human use of fossil fuels?” asked the TV newsman.
“Correct, anthropogenic carbon,” said the Alberta premier.
“You don’t challenge that?” The news anchor pushed.
“I don’t challenge that. I never have,” said Premier Prentice.

The leader of Alberta agrees that consumption of Albertan, Texan, Saudi, and Russian oil contributes to global warming. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, another conservative, has demurringly concurred on various occasions. Global warming, pollution, earthquakes. We have already seen that oil riches correlate disturbingly to terrorism in undemocratic regimes.  Yet, we need oil. Perhaps it’s the unbridled use of the stuff that’s causing the trouble. As George W Bush famously professed, the problem is oil addiction.

rolling coal

Mind if I smoke?

Rather than shutting down North American production while continuing to consume oil at an increasing level, efforts should be directed at reducing consumption and encouraging alternative sources of energy. Legislation can help diminish the environmental impact of production and consumption. The goal is not to reverse progress or impoverish people but instead to enforce clean operating practices at oil projects – as well as at the tail pipes of pickup trucks. As much as I hate to admit it, that requires government involvement.

Tragedy of the Commons

Tragedy of the Commons: The Community Pasture (Source: UN Food and Agriculture Organisation)

When it comes to the community pasture, people and business seldom do the right thing without prompting. Invariably, sheep gnaw the grass to the ground. Although it might seem anti-business to strictly prescribe ethical practices, progressive companies welcome such regulation. In a non-corrupt regime, laws are equally enforced. Corporations with a conscience (and there are many) appreciate a level playing field: it requires their competitors to clean up spills, messes, and exhaust in the same way that a good corporate citizen would.

Nixon, pointing out the advantages of an Evironmental Protection Agency.

Nixon, pointing out the advantages of an Environmental Protection Agency.

Unfortunately, appropriate regulation is trailing the booming fracking business. During the Bush administration, public sentiment encouraged removing the teeth from environmental protection policies. (Surprisingly, it was Republican President Richard Nixon who established an environmental protection agency to clean up the air and water. The EPA did an amazing job. Smog disappeared over L.A. Chemical sewers such as the Monongahela could be fished and swam again, just as in pioneer days.)  Today, however, the EPA and its sister agencies are weak. Public protection fell to the private-sector, using the mechanism of lawsuits.  In other words, companies may make a mess, but if someone is injured or bothered, legal claims are filed. There was some merit to this policy – until recent legislation put ceilings on settlements. With limits to payouts for injuries and punitive damages, the fangs were removed from this new, alternative system of self-regulation. A slap on the wrists does not reform a serial polluter, whether that slap comes from a fine when a law was violated or from proscriptively reduced court settlements.

As a result, the whole field of environmental safeguards in hydraulic fracturing is badly fractured. Government regulations are often weak or nonexistent. Inspectors are sometimes powerless. Legal actions are beginning to be filed against companies alleged to cause injury or damage. You can read one such statement of claim, the first I’ve seen, filed August 3, 2014, in District Court in Oklahoma. Here is some of that claim, and it does not appear captious nor does is seem splenetic:

On or about November 5, 2011, Ms Ladra was at home watching television in her living room with her family. Suddenly, her home began to shake causing rock facing on the fireplace and chimney to fall down and into the living room. Some of the falling rocks struck Ms. Ladra in her lap and onto her legs, and caused her significant injury. She was rushed to an emergency room and was immediately treated for her injuries…

…injection wells have caused and contributed to numerous earthquakes occurring in Oklahoma, and have specifically caused the damages sustained by Ms. Ladra…

The 5.0, 5.7. and 5.0 Prague [Oklahoma] earthquakes destroyed many homes, damaged many buildings, and injured many people. These earthquakes buckled pavement on the streets and highways…

Ms Ladra is seeking at least $75,000 in compensation plus punitive damages. The suit is brief, just 7 pages, and is worth reading. It succinctly outlines the allegations against the resource companies involved and their injection wells. It cites that the US Geological Survey has issued a statistical analysis showing the recent increase in Oklahoma’s earthquakes is not the result of natural seismic changes, but rather is most likely caused by wastewater injection wells. The lawsuit states that the USGS has warned that the rise in seismic activity “has significantly raised the chance of a damaging magnitude 5.5 earthquake or greater in the state [Oklahoma].”  The statement of claim also points out that  “So far this year, Oklahoma has had more than twice the number of earthquakes as California, making it the most seismically active state in the continental United States.”

The lawsuit brought by Ms Ladra in Lincoln County District Court was dismissed by the local judge. He cited lack of jurisdiction. What he probably meant was that the jurisdiction is much bigger than a single county in east central Oklahoma. The state’s Supreme Court is taking the case instead. This obviously points to the significance of the issue for the entire state, and indeed, the country.

Readers of this blog may recall the piece I assembled last year about the increase in seismic activity in Oklahoma. It recounted the USGS warnings that the rumbles were unusual, were man-made, and would continue. The chart below says more than anything I could write about the increase in Oklahoma earthquakes. The numbers began to jump in 2009, just as fracking in the state began to expand. Until then, only one or two earthquakes over 3.0 Magnitude occurred in the state. This chart’s stats end in May 2014, but the earthquakes continued and the year ended with over 400.

Oklahoma quake graphI am not one to put undue reliance on correlations. But both the Oklahoma and US Geological Surveys have been pinpointing the sources of these earthquakes – most are shallow and can be traced by triangulation to injection wells. Cracked concrete in basements, pictures knocked from walls, and fireplaces landing atop ladies are not necessarily the activities of man-made earthquakes, however few natural earthquakes misbehave like this in Oklahoma. The earthquakes in question could conceivably be due to God’s malevolence and not man’s ignorance, but most likely they are fracking disasters. It will be left to the judicious wisdom of a jury to determine whether specific companies should be held accountable.

Meanwhile, in a state with 3,200 active injection wells that smashed over a billion barrels of water into subsurface fractures, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission directed that one such injection well be shut down Tuesday, due to continuing earthquakes. This is only the second of the 3,200 Oklahoma wells to be stopped, but it does indicate awakening concern for quakes caused by these injectors.

Here in Alberta – a place where the world’s largest fracking earthquake did not occur – oil companies and government agencies are expanding networks of seismic monitors so they can precisely locate the sources of the increased earthquake activity. Others are working on a mechanical remedy, some system or technique that will allow fracking to continue without damage to homes and home dwellers. While they are at it, they might as well find ways to mitigate the damage done when these small earthquakes rupture subsurface seals and allow caustic injection fluids to leak into fresh-water aquifers.

As I tried to show earlier, North America needs to produce its own fuel, not import the stuff from corrupt undemocratic regimes a hemisphere away. Fracking will continue, but rather than accept insouciance and parsimonious behaviour from the developers, fracking will need to continue with greater oversight. The real battle for this will be courtrooms in the USA. It may be true that Alberta almost tied Oklahoma in producing the largest fracking earthquake, but my instinct tells me that the hardy Americans will continue to hold the trophy for the noisiest cracking of rock and shaking of soil.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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3 Responses to World’s Biggest Fracking Quake?

  1. GeoKnow says:

    Reblogged this on GeoKnow Blog and commented:
    An excellent article on fracking, providing clarity of an issue mired in politics, innuendo and misinformation.


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