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Rachel Maddow on her show tonight showed a statistic that in 2011 when Pruitt became attorney general of Oklahoma, there were 34 earthquakes stronger than 3.0 on the Richter scale, and that grew to over 600 due to and that was later linked to fracking (injection of waste water).

Is it true that fracking (waste water injection) has caused significant increase of strong earthquakes (3.0 and higher) over the last, let's say 7 years, in Oklahoma.

  • I'm sure that part of the show will be soon available on youTube, I'll post a link then. – ventsyv Jan 25 '17 at 3:24
  • Well fracking is the process of extracting natural gas and oil by injecting high pressure water. – ventsyv Jan 25 '17 at 3:47
  • I'll try to get a link but the show just aired so it might be a while – ventsyv Jan 25 '17 at 3:47
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    @rjt Wastewater is produced at all oil wells, not just fracking sites. As per the USGS and quoted in my answer: "The majority of the earthquakes in Oklahoma since 2011 occur in areas where oil is being produced by pumping massive volumes of water out of naturally fractured formations to extract much smaller volumes of oil. Most of the wells used to access the oil are completed without being fracked." – ff524 Jan 25 '17 at 6:07
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    This question conflates fracking and waste water injection. These are two very different things. Fracking (hydrological fracturing) involves injecting a mix of sand, water, and various chemicals into low permeability gas or oil formations so as to cause small fractures in the formation, enabling extraction of the otherwise tightly held gas and oil from the formation. Every oil and gas well produces water as well as the desired oil and gas. Waste water injection disposes of this water by injecting it into high permeability rock formations. – David Hammen Jan 25 '17 at 12:48
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There is induced seismicity in Oklahoma. There were 623 earthquakes above magnitude 3.0 in 2016. Some of these have been much stronger than 3.0, including a 5.8 magnitude earthquake in September 2016.

The induced earthquakes appear to have begun around 2009, and the problem has grown since then:

OK eathquakes

However, according to the US Geological Survey and other geologists, Oklahoma's induced seismicity is mainly caused by wastewater injection, not by fracking. The distinction is important because:

  • there are oil extraction sites that use fracking but don't produce much wastewater, and don't contribute much (or at all) to the earthquake cluster.
  • there are oil extraction sites that don't use fracking and produce a lot of wastewater, that are major contributors to the earthquake cluster.

The distinction also matters because wastewater can be disposed of in a different state than the one in which the oil was extracted (see e.g. this, this), which raises a whole bunch of new issues for policymakers and legislators.

Per USGS:

Oklahoma now has more earthquakes on a regular basis than California. Are they due to fracking?

In a few cases, yes, but in most cases no. The majority of the earthquakes in Oklahoma since 2011 occur in areas where oil is being produced by pumping massive volumes of water out of naturally fractured formations to extract much smaller volumes of oil. Most of the wells used to access the oil are completed without being fracked. The natural formation water that comes to the surface with the oil is too saline to be released into the environment. Disposal by injection into deep formations is currently the most common method of disposal. Injecting large volumes of water into the deep sedimentary formations raises the pore pressure over large areas that can induce earthquakes.

And Myths and Facts on Wastewater Injection, Hydraulic Fracturing, Enhanced Oil Recovery, and Induced Seismicity:

Hydraulic fracturing does not play a key role in the increase in that (1) hydraulic fracturing does not typically induce felt earthquakes; (2) in Oklahoma, the location of the largest increase in seismicity, spent hydraulic fracturing fluid does not represent a large percentage of the fluids comprising disposed wastewater; and (3) oil produced from many fields with large volumes of produced water did not involve any hydraulic fracturing.

Sites that use the same method of oil extraction may produce different amounts of wastewater due to geological differences. For example, in Oklahoma:

the Bakken formation is also hydraulically fractured, but requires less wastewater disposal, has seen few to no induced earthquakes.

Almost every method of oil extraction produces some wastewater:

Most wastewater currently disposed of across the nation is generated and produced in the process of oil and gas extraction. As discussed above, saltwater is produced as a byproduct during the extraction process. This wastewater is found at nearly every oil and gas extraction well.

and in Oklahoma in particular, produced water is a major issue:

In many locations, wastewater has little or nothing to do with hydraulic fracturing. In Oklahoma, less than 10% of the water injected into wastewater disposal wells is used hydraulic fracturing fluid. Most of the wastewater in Oklahoma is saltwater that comes up along with oil during the extraction process.

And the USGS explains why:

Wastewater disposal wells typically operate for longer durations and inject much more fluid than hydraulic fracturing, making them more likely to induce earthquakes. Enhanced oil recovery injects fluid into rock layers where oil and gas have already been extracted, while wastewater injection often occurs in never-before-touched rocks. Therefore, wastewater injection can raise pressure levels more than enhanced oil recovery, and thus increases the likelihood of induced earthquakes.

This USGS Myths and Misconceptions page explains some of the differences between fracking and wastewater injection, and why wastewater injection and not fracking is the cause of most of the recent induced earthquakes in the central United States. You may also be interested in the video What's Behind the Earthquakes in Oklahoma? by Stanford geophysicist Mark Zoback (spoiler alert: it's wastewater injection, not fracking).

  • What is the role of "Enhanced Oil Recovery"? – rjt Jan 25 '17 at 6:22
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    @rjt The key issue is not necessarily the method of extracting the oil, but how much wastewater it produces, and where the wastewater is injected. Two sites using the same method of extraction might produce dramatically different amounts of wastewater due to geological differences. – ff524 Jan 25 '17 at 6:30
  • @rjt That is why the distinction is important: efforts to mitigate this problem should focus on reducing or eliminating oil extraction sites that produce a lot of wastewater, developing technology to reduce the amount of wastewater produced, identifying safer ways to dispose of wastewater - these are likely to be much more effective at mitigating this particular problem than a focus on reducing fracking or any other extraction method across the board. – ff524 Jan 25 '17 at 6:32
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    They're not all due to fracking but they are all to fossil fuel extraction, then. – gerrit Jan 25 '17 at 10:52
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This answer is slightly tangential (as it's specific to Texas and not Oklahoma; which the cited research specifically noted as being geologically different). The main conclusion seems similar to @ff542's answer; in that yes there was increased amount of earthquakes but no the increase isn't attributable to fracking (but to fluid disposal in Class II disposal wells).

The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas (TAMEST) 2017 pre-publication study "ENVIRONMENTAL AND COMMUNITY IMPACTS OF SHALE DEVELOPMENT IN TEXAS" says in chapter on earthquakes:

  • There has been an increase in the rate of recorded seismicity in Texas over the last several years. Between 1975 and 2008 there were, on average, one to two earthquakes per year of magnitude greater than M3.0. Between 2008 and 2016, the rate increased to about 12 to 15 earthquakes per year on average.
  • Under certain unique geologic conditions, faults that are at or near critical stress may slip and produce an earthquake if nearby fluid injection alters the effective subsurface stresses acting on a fault.
  • Mechanisms of both natural and induced earthquakes in Texas are not completely understood, and building physically-complete models to study them requires the integration of data that always will have irreducible uncertainties.
  • To date, potentially induced earthquakes in Texas, felt at the surface, have been associated with fluid disposal in Class II disposal wells, not with the hydraulic fracturing process.
  • The TexNet goals address an integrated research portfolio that considers seismicity analysis, geologic characterization, fluid-flow modeling, and geomechanical analysis.

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