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Photo by Pat Sullivan/AP https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Fracking-research-hits-roadblock-with-Texas-law-6812820.php

California regulators need to protect groundwater from oil and gas waste this time around

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

California’s 2nd Largest Waste Stream

Every year the oil and gas industry in California generates billions of gallons of wastewater, also known as produced water. According to a study by the California Council on Science and Technology, in 2013, more than 3 billion barrels of produced water were extracted along with some 0.2 billion barrels of oil across the state. This wastewater is usually contaminated with a mixture of heavy metals, hydrocarbons, naturally occurring radioactive materials, and high levels of salts. Yet, contaminated wastewater from oil-field operations is exempt from the hazardous waste regulations enforced by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).

Operators are, therefore, not required to measure or report the chemistry of this wastewater. Even with these unknowns, it is legally re-injected back into groundwater aquifers for disposal. Once an aquifer is contaminated it can be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to clean up again. Particularly in California, where water resources are already stretched thin, underground injection of oil and gas wastewater is a major environmental and economic concern.

Regulatory Deficiency

Under the Underground Injection Control program, wastewater is supposed to be injected only into geologic formations that don’t contain usable groundwater. However, a loophole in the Safe Drinking Water Act allows oil and gas companies to apply for what’s called an aquifer exemption, which allows them to inject wastewater into aquifers that potentially hold high-quality drinking water. To learn more about aquifer exemptions, see FracTracker’s summary, here.

The California department responsible for managing these aquifer exemption permits – the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) – has for decades failed in its regulatory capacity. In 2015, for example, DOGGR admitted that at least 2,553 wells had been permitted to inject oil and gas waste into non-exempt aquifers – aquifers that could be used for drinking water. Independent audits of DOGGR showed decades of poor record-keeping, lax oversight, and in some cases, outright defiance of the law – showing the cozy relationship between regulators and the oil and gas industry. While 176 wells (those that were injecting into the cleanest drinking water) were initially shut down, most of the rest of the 2,377 permits were allowed to continue injecting into disputed wells through the following two years of the regulatory process.

The injection wells targeted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), including those that were shut down, are shown in the map below (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Map of EPA-targeted Class II Injection Wells


View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work | Map Data (CSV): Aquifer Exemptions, Class II Wells

The timeline of all this is just as concerning. The State of California has known about these problems since 2011, when the EPA audited California’s underground injection program and identified substantial deficiencies in its program, including failure to protect some potential underground sources of drinking water, a one-size-fits-all geologic review, and inadequate and under-qualified staffing for carrying out inspections. In 2014, the Governor’s office requested that the California EPA perform an independent review of the program. EPA subsequently made a specific remediation plan and timeline for DOGGR, and in March of 2015 the State finalized a Corrective Action Plan, to be completed by February 2017.

Scientific Review of CA Oil and Gas Activities

Meanwhile, in 2013, the California Senate passed SB-4, which set a framework for regulating hydraulic fracturing in California. Part of the bill required an independent scientific study to be conducted on oil and gas well stimulation, including acid well stimulation and hydraulic fracturing. The California Council on Science and Technology organized and led the study, in collaboration with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories, which combined original technical data analyses and a review of relevant literature, all of which was extensively peer-reviewed. The report argues that both direct and indirect impacts of fracking must be accounted for, and that major deficiencies and inconsistencies in data remained which made research difficult. They also recommended that DOGGR improve and modernize their record keeping to be more transparent.

Figure 2. Depths of groundwater total dissolved solids (a common measure of groundwater quality) in five oil fields in the Los Angeles Basin. Blue and aqua colors represent protected groundwater; the heavy black horizontal line indicates the shallowest hydraulically fractured well in each field. In three of the five wells (Inglewood, Whittier, and Wilmington), fracking and wastewater injection takes place directly adjacent to, or within, protected groundwater.

Figure 2*. Depths of groundwater total dissolved solids (a common measure of groundwater quality) in five oil fields in the Los Angeles Basin. Blue and aqua colors represent protected groundwater; the heavy black horizontal line indicates the shallowest hydraulically fractured well in each field. In three of the five wells (Inglewood, Whittier, and Wilmington), fracking and wastewater injection takes place directly adjacent to, or within, protected groundwater.

A major component of the SB-4 report covered California’s Class II injection program. Researchers analyzed the depths of groundwater aquifers protected by the Safe Drinking Water Act, and found that injection and hydraulic fracturing activity was occurring within the same or neighboring geological zones as protected drinking water (Figure 2*).

*Reproduced from California Council on Science and Technology: An Independent Scientific Assessment of Well Stimulation in California Vol. 3.

More Exemptions to be Granted

Now, EPA is re-granting exemptions again. Six aquifer exemptions have been granted, and more are on the docket to be considered. In this second time around, it is imperative that regulatory agencies be more diligent in their oversight of this permitting process to protect groundwater resources. At the same time, the 2015 California bill SB 83 mandates the appointment of an independent review panel to evaluate the Underground Injection Control Program and to make recommendations on how to improve the effectiveness of the program. This process is currently in the works and a panel has been assembled, and FracTracker Alliance will be working to provide data, maps and analyses for this panel.

Stay tuned for more to come on which aquifers are being exempted, why, and what steps are being taken to protect groundwater in California.


Feature image by Pat Sullivan/AP

Northeast Ohio Class II injection wells taken via FracTracker's mobile app, May 2015

What are aquifer exemptions? Permitted exemptions from the Safe Drinking Water Act

We’d like to give our readers a bit of background on aquifer exemptions, because we’re going to be covering this topic in a few upcoming blog posts. Stay tuned!

Liquid Waste Disposal

Drilling for oil and gas produces both liquid and solid waste that must be disposed of. The liquid waste from this industry is considered a “Class II waste” according to the US EPA. Aquifers are places underground capable of holding or transmitting groundwater. To dispose of Class II waste, operators are granted aquifer exemptions, by the EPA based on the state’s recommendations. The term “exemption,” specifically, refers to the Safe Drinking Water Act, which protects underground sources of drinking water (USDWs).

Therefore, these exemptions grant oil and gas operators the right to contaminate groundwaters, albeit many of the groundwater formations used for disposal in Class II wells are very deep.

Learn more about disposal well classes and aquifer exemptions on this story map by the US EPA

Aquifer Exemption Criteria

There are several qualifiers for a USDW to be granted exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Aquifer exemptions are granted for underground formations that are not currently used as a source of drinking water and meet one of the following criteria:

  • The formation contains commercially producible minerals or hydrocarbons;
  • The formation is so deep that recovery of water for drinking water purposes is economically or technologically impractical; or,
  • The formation is so contaminated that it would be economically or technologically impractical to render the water fit for human consumption.
  • In some states, aquifer exemptions are not approved for formations with Total Dissolved Solids (TDS*) equal to or less than 3,000 mg/l TDS.

If an underground formation qualifies for an exemption, it does not mean that groundwater cannot be used for drinking water, just that it is not currently a source of drinking water. The most precarious criteria requirement, therefore, is the determination that a USDW is simply not “economically viable” or it is “technologically impractical,” meaning that the cost of drilling a groundwater well to the depth of the aquifer (under the condition of the current need for water) may make the investment impractical. In the near future, this water may be needed and highly valued, however.

TDS = Total dissolved solids are inorganic salts (e.g. calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, bicarbonates, chlorides, and sulfates), as well as some organic matter, dissolved in water.

The Lay of the Land

Below, we have put together a map of aquifer exemptions in the U.S. Click on the dots and shaded areas to learn more about a particular aquifer.

Map of all aquifer exemptions in the U.S.

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work


By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Power Plants & Other Facilities Now on Ohio Oil & Gas Map

Over the last few months we’ve been busy working on some updates to our Ohio Oil & Gas Map. Check out what we’ve added recently and explore the map below!

New: Power Plants & ATEX Pipeline

We now have the locations of eight of the credible natural gas power plants proposed in Ohio, along with the jobs they cite during construction and operations. We also now have a complete inventory of 118 existing power plants, including 25 natural gas facilities. Together, these plants would produce 7,660 megawatts, around 957 per facility.

Six of these plants are either in the heart of Ohio’s Utica Shale or within several miles of the 1,200+ mile Appalachia-to-Texas (ATEX) pipeline. ATEX was installed to transport 190,000 barrels per day (BPD) of natural gas liquids (NGLs) from the Marcellus and Utica region to the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Goast refinery corridor. The 360 mile segment of this pipeline that runs from Pennsylvania to south central Jackson County, Indiana is also now shown on the Ohio Oil & Gas Map.

Late Permitting Increases

Cumulative and Monthly Ohio Utica Hydraulic Fracturing Well Permits

Figure 1. Cumulative and monthly hydraulic fracturing well permits in Ohio’s Utica Shale

While many shale plays across the United States are experiencing a period of contraction (with low gas prices often cited as the primary reason), drilling activity in Ohio’s Utica Shale has been experiencing a slow and steady expansion. The region has seen more than 2,700 permitted wells as of the end of January 2017. Incidentally, roughly 59% of these wells are producing either oil or gas as of Q3-2016. For more information on that subject, explore our production map.

The permitting trajectory hit a low of 13-16 permits per month between February and January of 2016. Since the presidential election in November, however, permitting rates have more than doubled (Figure 1).

Ohio Oil & Gas Map

Ohio sits on the western edge of both the Utica and Marcellus Shale formations, but conditions are such that the Marcellus Shale is all but being ignored in Ohio. Explore our updated map of OH drilling activity and related facilities below:


View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Map Layers

The map above is made up of various datasets, from the location of permits to compressor stations. These “map layers” make up the legend. Below we describe each layer on the map, as well as the data source and date range.


Horizontal Marcellus Permits, Laterals
There have been 40+ permits issued for horizontal wells in Ohio’s Marcellus Shale.

Source:   Ohio Department of Natural Resources
Date Range:  December 2009 – Present


Horizontal Utica Permits
An aggregate of ODNR’s monthly cumulative Utica and Marcellus permits as well as a more detailed weekly Risk Based Data Management System (RBDMS) Microsoft Access inventory. At the present time Ohio is home to 2,160+ permitted Utica Wells with the wells broken out by status. Additionally this layer contains depth, water usage, sand usage, HCl, and Gelling Agent percentage for 249 wells based on data provided to FracFocus. Finally, we have incorporated production in various units from individual industry press releases and the ODNR annual report.

Source:   Ohio Department of Natural Resources
Date Range:  December 2009 – Present


Horizontal Utica Permits actual and straight line laterals
An aggregate of ODNR’s monthly cumulative Utica and Marcellus permits as well as a more detailed weekly Risk Based Data Management System (RBDMS) Microsoft Access inventory. At the present time we have straight line laterals for all drilled, drilling, and producing wells as well as actual PLAT laterals for 341 of the wells.

Source:   Ohio Department of Natural Resources
Date Range:  December 2009 – Present


High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing Gathering Lines
All gathering lines servicing Ohio’s inventory of High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing (HVHF) wells.

Source:   Herbert Hoover Foundation grant
Date Range:  December 2009 – 2015


High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing Well Pads
The well-pads of all Ohio’s drilled or producing High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing (HVHF) wells.

Source:   Herbert Hoover Foundation grant
Date Range:  December 2009 – 2015


High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing Well Pad’s Limits Of Disturbance (LOD)
Limits Of Disturbance (LOD) for all Ohio’s drilled or producing High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing (HVHF) well-pads.

Source: Herbert Hoover Foundation grant
Date Range:  December 2009 – 2015


Compressor Stations and Cracking Facilities
Boundaries of several confirmed High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing (HVHF) servicing cracking and compressor station facilities.

Source:   Herbert Hoover Foundation grant
Date Range:  December 2009 – 2015


Ohio Active Class II Injection Wells
This data speaks to the state’s “Active” Class II Injection wells able to accept hydraulic fracturing waste. There are 240+ Active Wells with 51 having yet to receive waste from hydraulic fracturing. For more on Ohio’s Class II Inventory in depth refer to our recent Ohio Fracking Waste Transport & Disposal Network article.

Source:   Ohio Department of Natural Resources
Date Range:  Historical to October, 2015


Earthquakes of >2.0 Magnitude
This data speaks to the state’s 258 earthquakes with current updates from the Ohio Seismic Network and historical quakes – all >2.0 magnitude. These data come from the department’s inventory. Additionally, we present Ohio earthquakes with <2.0 magnitude courtesy of Environment Canada’s Search the Earthquake Database platform.

Source: Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Geological Survey, The Ohio Seismic Network
Date Range:  Historical to Present

Oklahoma and Kansas Class II Injection Wells and Earthquakes

By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance
In collaboration with Caleb Gallemore, Assistant Professor in International Affairs, Lafayette University

The September 3rd magnitude 5.8 earthquake in Pawnee, Oklahoma, is the most violent example of induced seismicity, or “man-made” earthquakes, in U.S. history, causing Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin to declare a state of emergency. This was followed by a magnitude 4.5 earthquake on November 1st prompting the Oklahoma Corporation Commission (OCC) and U.S. EPA to put restrictions on injection wells within a 10-mile radius of the Pawnee quake.

And then on Sunday, November 6th, a magnitude 5.0 earthquake shook central Oklahoma about a mile west of the Cushing Hub, the largest commercial crude oil storage center in North America capable of storing 54 million barrels of crude. This is the equivalent of 2.8 times the U.S. daily oil refinery capacity and 3.1 times the daily oil refinery capacity of all of North America. This massive hub in the North American oil landscape also happens to be the southern terminus of the controversial Keystone pipeline complex, which would transport 590,000 barrel per day over more than 2,000 miles (Fig. 1). Furthermore, this quake demonstrated the growing connectivity between Class II injection well associated induced seismicity and oil transport/storage in the heart of the US version of Saudi Arabia’s Ghawar Oil Fields. This increasing connectivity between O&G waste, production, and processing (i.e., Hydrocarbon Industrial Complex) will eventually impact the wallets of every American.

North American Oil Refinery Capacity, Pipelines, and Cushing, OK

Figure 1. The Keystone Pipeline would transport 590,000 bpd over more than 2,000 miles.

This latest earthquake caused Cushing schools to close. Magellan Midstream Partners, the major pipeline and storage facility operator in the region, also shut down in order to “check the integrity of our assets.” Compounding concerns about induced seismicity, the Cushing Hub is the primary price settlement point for West Texas Intermediate that, along with Brent Crude, determines the global price of crude oil and by association what Americans pay for fuel at the pump, at their homes, and in their businesses.

Given the significant increase in seismic activity across the U.S. Great Plains, along with the potential environmental, public health, and economic risks at stake, we thought it was time to compile an inventory of Class II injection well volumes. Because growing evidence points to the relationship between induced seismicity and oil and gas waste disposal, our initial analysis focuses on Oklahoma and Kansas. The maps and the associated data downloads in this article represent the first time Class II injection well volumes have been compiled in a searchable and interactive fashion for any state outside Ohio (where FracTracker has compiled class II volumes since 2010). Oklahoma and Kansas Class II injection well data are available to the public, albeit in disparate formats and diffuse locations. Our synthesis makes this data easier to navigate for concerned citizens, policy makers, and journalists.

Induced Seismicity Past, Present, and Future

inducedseismicity_figure

Figure 2. Central U.S. earthquakes 1973-August 15, 2015 according to the U.S. Geological Survey (Note: Based on our analysis this exponential increasing earthquakes has been accompanied by a 300 feet per quarter increase in the average depth of earthquakes across Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas).

Oklahoma, along with Arkansas, Kansas, Ohio, and Texas, is at the top of the induced seismicity list, specifically with regard to quakes in excess of magnitude 4.0. However, as the USGS and Virginia Tech Seismological Observatory (VTSO)[1] have recently documented, an average of only 21 earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or greater occurred in the Central/Eastern US between 1973 and 2008. This trend jumped to an average of 99 between 2009 and 2013. In 2014 there were a staggering 659 quakes. The exponential increase in induced seismic events can be seen in Figure 2 from a recent USGS publication titled “High-rate injection is associated with the increase in U.S. mid-continent seismicity,” where the authors note:

“An unprecedented increase in earthquakes in the U.S. mid-continent began in 2009. Many of these earthquakes have been documented as induced by wastewater injection…We find that the entire increase in earthquake rate is associated with fluid injection wells. High-rate injection wells (>300,000 barrels per month) are much more likely to be associated with earthquakes than lower-rate wells.”

hydraulic-fracturing-freshwater-demand

Figure 3. Average freshwater demand per hydraulically fractured well across four U.S. shale plays and the annual percent increase in each of those plays.

This trend suggests that induced seismicity is the new normal and will likely increase given that: 1) freshwater demand per hydraulically fractured well is rising all over the country, from 11-15% per year in the Marcellus and Bakken to 20-22% in the Denver and Midland formations, 2) the amount of produced brine wastewater parallels these increases almost 1-to-1, and 3) the unconventional oil and gas industry is using more and more water as they begin to explore the periphery of primary shale plays or in less productive secondary and tertiary plays (Fig. 3).

Oklahoma

The September, 2016, Pawnee County Earthquake

This first map focuses on the September, 2016 Pawnee, OK Magnitude 5.8 earthquake that many people believe was caused by injecting high volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF) waste into class II injection wells in Oklahoma and Kansas. This map includes all Oklahoma and Kansas Class II injection wells as well as Oklahoma’s primary geologic faults and fractures.

Oklahoma and Kansas Class II injection wells and geologic faults


View map fullscreenHow FracTracker maps work

Pawnee, Oklahoma 5.8 magnitude earthquake, September, 2016 & Active Class II Injection Wells

Figure 4. The September, 2016 Pawnee, Oklahoma 5.8M earthquake, neighboring active Class II injection wells, underlying geologic faults and fractures.

Of note on this map is the geological connectivity across Oklahoma resulting from the state’s 129 faults and fractures. Also present are several high volume wells including Territory Resources LLC’s Oldham #5 (1.45 miles from the epicenter, injecting 257 million gallons between 2011 and 2014) and Doyle #5 wells (0.36 miles from the epicenter, injecting 61 million gallons between 2011 and 2015), Staghorn Energy LLC’s Hudgins #1 well (1.43 miles from the epicenter, injecting 11 million gallons between 2011 and 2015 into the Red Fork formation), and Cooke Co Production Co.’s Laird #3-35 well (1.41 miles from the epicenter, injecting 6.5 million gallons between 2011 and 2015). Figure 4 shows a closeup view of these wells relative to the location of the Pawnee quake.

Class II Salt Water Disposal (SWD) Injection Well Volumes

This second map includes annual volumes of disposed wastewater across 10,297 Class II injection wells in Oklahoma between 2011 and 2015 (Note: 2015 volumes also include monthly totals). Additionally, we have included Oklahoma’s geologic faults and fractures for context given the recent uptick in Oklahoma and Kansas’ induced seismicity activity.

Annual volumes of class II injection wells disposal in Oklahoma (2011-2015)


View map fullscreenHow FracTracker maps work | Download map data

Oklahoma statistics for 2011 to 2015 (Table 1):

  1. Maximum volume to date (for a single Class II injection well): 105,979,598 barrels, or 4,080,214,523 gallons (68,003,574 gallons per month), for the New Dominion, LLC “Chambers #1” well in Oklahoma County.
  2. Total Volume to Date: 10,655,395,179 barrels or 410,232,714,392 gallons (6,837,211,907 gallons per month).
  3. Mean volume to date across the 10,927 Class II injection wells: approximately 975,144 barrels per well or 37,543,044 gallons (625,717 gallons per month).
  4. This map also includes 632 Class II wells injecting waste into the Arbuckle Formation which is believed to be the primary geological formation responsible for the 5.0 magnitude last week in Cushing.

Kansas

Below is an inventory of monthly oil and gas waste volumes (barrels) disposed across 4,555 Class II injection wells in Kansas between 2011 and 2015. This map will be updated in the Spring of 2017 to include 2016 volumes. A preponderance of this data comes from 2015 with a scattering of volume reports across Kansas between 2011 and 2014.

Monthly Class II injection wells volumes in Kansas (2011-2015)


View map fullscreenHow FracTracker maps work | Download map data

Kansas statistics for 2015 (Table 1):

  1. Maximum volume to date (for a single Class II injection well): 9,016,471 barrels, or 347,134,134 gallons (28,927,845 gallons per month), for the Sinclair Prairie Oil Co. “H.J. Vohs #8” well in Rooks County. This is a well that was initially permitted and completed between 1949 and 1950.
  2. Total Volume to date: 1,060,123,330 barrels or 40,814,748,205 gallons (3,401,229,017 gallons per month).
  3. Mean volume to date across the 4,555 Class II injection wells: approximately 232,738 barrels per well or 8,960,413 gallons (746,701 gallons per month).

Table 1. Summary of Class II SWD Injection Well Volumes across Kansas and Oklahoma

 

 

Sum Average Maximum
No. of Class II
SWD Wells
Barrels Sum To Date Per Year Sum To Date Per Year
Kansas* 4,555 1.06 BB 232,738 9.02 MB
Oklahoma** 10,927 10.66 BB 975,143 195,029 105.98 MB 21.20 MB

* Wells in the counties of Barton (279 wells), Ellis (397 wells), Rooks (220 wells), Russell (199 wells), and Ness (187 wells) account for 29% of Kansas’ active Class II wells.

** Wells in the counties of Carter (1,792 wells), Creek (946 wells), Pontotoc (684 wells), Seminole (476 wells), and Stephens (1,302 wells) account for 48% of Oklahoma’s active Class II wells.

Conclusion

If the U.S. EPA’s Underground Injection Control (UIC) estimates are to be believed, the above Class II volumes account for 19.3% of the “over 2 billion gallons of brine…injected in the United States every day,” and if the connectivity between injection well associated induced seismicity and oil transport/storage continues to grow, this issue will likely impact the lives of every American.

Given how critical the Cushing Hub is to US energy security and price stability one could easily argue that a major accident there could result in a sudden disruption to fuel supplies and an exponential increase in “prices at the pump” that would make the 240% late 1970s Energy Crisis spike look like a mere blip on the radar. The days of $4.15 per gallon prices the country experienced in the summer of 2008 would again become a reality.

In sum, the risks posed by Class II injection wells and are not just a problem for insurance companies and residents of rural Oklahomans and Kansans, induced seismic activity is a potential threat to our nation’s security and economy.

Downloads

FracTracker Induced Seismicity Infographic (print quality)

Oklahoma Class II SWD Injection Well Annual Volumes 2011 to 2015 (Barrels)

Kansas Class II SWD Injection Well Monthly Volumes 2011 to 2015 (Barrels)

Footnotes

[1] To learn more about Induced Seismicity read an exclusive FracTracker two-part series from former VTSO researcher Ariel Conn: Part I and Part II. Additionally, the USGS has created an Induced Earthquakes landing page as part of their Earthquake Hazards Program.

Koontz Class II Injection Well, Trumbull County, Ohio, (41.22806065, -80.87669281) with 260,278 barrels (10,020,704 gallons) of fracking waste having been processed between Q3-2010 and Q3-2012 (Note: Q1-2016 volumes have yet to be reported!).

OH Class II Injection Wells – Waste Disposal Trends and Images From Around Ohio

By Ted Auch, PhD – Great Lakes Program Coordinator

Hydraulic Fracturing "Fracking" at a well-pad outside Barnesville, Ohio operated by Halliburton

Hydraulic Fracturing “Fracking” at a well-pad outside Barnesville, Ohio operated by Halliburton

The industrial practice of disposing of oil and gas drilling waste into Class II injection wells causes a lot of strife for people on both sides of the fracking debate. This process has exposed many “hidden [geologic] faults” across the US as a result of induced seismicity. It has been linked in recent months and years with increases in earthquake activity in states like Arkansas, Kansas, Texas, and Ohio.

Locally, there is growing evidence in counties – from Ashtabula to Washington – that Ohio Class II injection well volumes and quarterly rates of change are related to upticks in seismic activity (Figs. 1-3). But exactly how much waste are these sites receiving, and where is it coming from? Since it has been a little over a year since last we looked at the injection well landscape here in Ohio, we decided to revisit the issue here.

Figures 1-3. Ohio Class II Injection Well disposal during Q3-2010, Q2-2012, and Q2-2015

The Class II Landscape in Ohio

In Ohio 245+ Class II Salt Water Disposal (SWD) Disposal Wells are permitted to accept unconventional oil and gas waste. Their disposal capacity and number of wells served is by far the most of any state across the Marcellus and Utica Shale plays.

Ohio’s Class II Injection wells have accepted an average of 22,750 barrels per quarter per well (BPQPW) (662,632 gallons) of oil and gas wastewater over the last year. In comparison, our last analysis uncovered a higher quarterly average (29,571 BPQPW) between the initiation of frack waste injection in 2010 and Q2-2015 (Fig. 4). This shift is likely due to the significant decrease in overall drilling activity from 2012 to 2015. Between Q3-2010 and Q1-2016, however, OH’s Class II injection wells saw an exponential increase in injection activity.  In total, 109.4 million barrels (3.8-4.6 billion gallons) of waste was disposed in Ohio. From a financial perspective this waste has generated $3.4 million in revenue for the state or 00.014% of the average state budget (Note: 2.5% of ODNR’s annual budget).

The more important point is that even in slow times (i.e., Q2-2015 to the present) the trend continues to migrate from the bottom-left to the top-right, with each of Ohio’s Class II injection wells seeing quarterly demand increases of 972 BPQPW (34,017-40,821 gallons). This means that the total volume coming into our Class II Wells is increasing at a rate of 8.2-9.8 MGs per year, or the equivalent to the water demand of several high volume hydraulically fractured wells.

With respect to the source of this waste, the story isn’t as clear as we had once thought. Slightly more than half the waste came from out-of-state during the first two years for which we have data, but this statistic plummeted to as low as 32% in the last year-to-date (Fig. 5). This change is likely do to the high levels of brine being produced in Ohio as the industry migrates towards the perimeter of the Utica Shale.

Figures 4 and 5

Freshwater Demand and Brine Production

Map of Ohio Utica Brine Production and Class II Injection Well Disposal

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work | Download map data | Related OH Shale Gas Viewer

Ohio Class II injection well disposal and freshwater demand

Figure 6. Ohio Class II Injection Well disposal as a function of freshwater demand by the shale industry in Ohio between Q3-2010 and Q1-2015

To gain a more comprehensive understanding of what’s going on with Class II wastewater disposal in Ohio, it’s important to look into the relationship between brine and freshwater demand by the hydraulic fracturing industry. The average freshwater demand during the fracking process, accounts for 87% of the trend in brine disposal in Ohio (Fig. 6).

As we mentioned, demand for freshwater is growing to the tune of 405-410,000 gallons PQPW in Ohio, which means brine production is growing by roughly 12,000 gallons PQPW. This says nothing for the 450,000 gallons of freshwater PQPW increase in West Virginia and their likely demand for injection sites that can accommodate their 13,500 gallons PQPW increase.

Conclusion

Essentially, the seismic center of Ohio has migrated eastward in recent years; originally it was focused on Western counties like Shelby, Logan, Auglaize, Darke, and Miami on the Indiana border, but it has recently moved to injection well hotbed counties like Ashtabula, Trumbull, and Washington along the Pennsylvania and West Virginia borders. This growth in “induced seismicity” resulting from the uptick in frack waste disposal puts Ohio in the company of Oklahoma, Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, and Texas. Each of those states have reported ≥4.0 magnitude “man-made” quakes since 2008. Between 1973 and 2008 an average of 21 earthquakes of ≥M3 were reported in the Central/Eastern US. This number jumped to 99 between 2009 and 2013, with 659 of M3+ in 2014 alone according to the USGS and Virginia Tech Seismological Observatory (VTSO). This “hockey stick moment” is exemplified in the below figure from a recent USGS publication (Fig. 7). Figure 8 illustrates the spatial relationship between recent seismic activity and Class II Injection well volumes here in Ohio. The USGS even went so far as to declare the following:

An unprecedented increase in earthquakes in the U.S. mid-continent began in 2009. Many of these earthquakes have been documented as induced by wastewater injection…We find that the entire increase in earthquake rate is associated with fluid injection wells. High-rate injection wells (>300,000 barrels per month) are much more likely to be associated with earthquakes than lower-rate wells.
– From USGS Report High-rate injection is associated with the increase in U.S. mid-continent seismicity

Figures 7 and 8

The sentiment here in Ohio regarding Class II Injection wells is best summed up by Dr. Ray Beiersdorfer, Distinguished Professor of Geology, Youngstown State University and his wife geologist Susie Beiersdorfer who jointly submitted the following quote regarding the North Star (SWIW #10) Class II Injection Well in Mahoning County, which processed 555,030 barrels (21,368,655 gallons) of fracking waste between Q4-2010 and Q4-2011[1].

The operator, D&L, and the ODNR denied the correlation in space and time between the injection of toxic fracking fluids into the well and earthquakes for over eight months in 2011. The well was shut down on December 30 and the largest seismic event, a 4.0 happened at 3:04 p.m. on December 31, 2011. Though the rules say that a “shut-in” well must be plugged after 60 days, this well is still “open” after 1656 days (July 12, 2016). This well must be plugged [and abandoned] to prevent further risks to the health and safety of the Youngstown community… According to Rick Simmers, the only thing holding this up is bankruptcy procedures. It was drilled into a fault, triggered over five hundred earthquakes, including a Magnitude 4.0 that caused damage to homes. [It is likely] that any other use of this well would trigger additional hazardous earthquakes.

Images From Across Ohio

Click on the images below to explore visual documentation and volumes disposed (as of Q1-2016) into Class II Injection wells in Ohio.

Footnote

  1. This is the infamous Lupo well which was linked to 109 tremors in Youngstown by researchers at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University back in the Summer of 2013. The owner of the well Ben W. Lupo was subsequently charged with violating the Clean water Act.
Injection wells in OH for disposing of oil and gas wastewater

Threats to Ohio’s Water Security

Ohio waterways face headwinds in the form of hydraulic fracturing water demand and waste disposal

By Ted Auch, PhD – Great Lakes Program Coordinator, and Elliott Kurtz, GIS Intern and University of Michigan Graduate Student

In just 44 of its 88 counties, Ohio houses 1,134 wells – including those producing oil and natural gas and Class II injection wells into which the industry’s waste is disposed. Last month we wrote about Ohio’s disturbing fracking waste disposal trend and the disproportionate influence of neighboring states. (Prior to that Ariel Conn at Virginia Tech outlined the relationship between Class II Injection Wells and induced seismicity on FracTracker.) This time around, we are digging deeper into how water demand is related to Class II disposal trends.

Ohio’s Utica oil and gas wells are using 7 million gallons of freshwater – or 2.4-2.8 million more than the average well cited by the US EPA.1 Below we explore the inter-county differences of the water used in these oil and gas wells, and how demand compares to residential water demand and wastewater production.

Please refer to Table 1 at the end of this article regarding the following findings.

Utica Shale Freshwater Demand

Data indicate that there may be serious threats to Ohio’s water security on the horizon due to the oil and gas industry.

OH Water Use

The counties of Guernsey and Monroe are next up with water demand and waste water generation at rates of 14.6 and 10.3 million gallons per year. However, the 11.4 million gallons of freshwater demand and fracking waste produced by these two counties 114 Utica and Class II wells still accounts for roughly 81% of residential water demand.

The wells within the six-county region including Meigs, Washington, Athens, and Belmont along the Ohio River use 73 million gallons of water and generate 51 million gallons of wastewater per year, while the hydraulic fracturing industry’s water-use footprint ranges between 48 and 17% of residential demand in Coshocton and Athens, respectively. Class II Injection well disposal accounts for a lion’s share of this footprint in all but Belmont County, with injection well activities equaling 77 to 100% of the industry’s water footprint (see Figure 1 for county locations and water stress).

Primary Southeast Ohio Counties experiencing Utica Shale and Class II water stress

Figure 1. Primary Southeast Ohio counties experiencing Utica Shale and Class II water stress

The next eight-county cohort is spread across the state from the border of Pennsylvania and the Ohio River to interior Appalachia and Central Ohio. Residential water demand there equals 428 million gallons, while the eight county’s 92 Utica and 90 Class II wells have accounted for 15 million gallons of water demand and disposal. Again the injection well component of the industry accounts for 5.8% of the their 7.7% footprint relative to residential demand. The range is nearly 10% in Vinton and 5.3% in Jefferson County.

The next cohort includes twelve counties that essentially surround Ohio’s Utica Shale region from Stark and Mahoning in the Northeast to Pickaway, Hocking, and Gallia along the southwestern perimeter of “the play.” These counties’ residents consume 405 million gallons of water and generate 329 million gallons of wastewater annually. Meanwhile the industry’s 69 Class II wells account for 53 million gallons – a 2.8% water footprint.

Finally, the 11 counties with the smallest Utica/Class II footprint are not suprisingly located along Lake Erie, as well as the Michigan and Indiana border, with water demand and wastewater production equalling nearly 117 billion gallons per year. Meanwhile the region’s 3 Utica and 18 Class II wells have utilized 59 million gallons. These figures equate to a water footprint of roughly 00.15%, more aligned with the 1% of total annual water use and consumption for the hydraulic fracturing industry cited by the US EPA this past June.

Future Concerns and Projections

Industry will see their share of the region’s hydrology increase in the coming months and years given that injection well volumes and Utica Shale demand is increasing by 1.04 million gallons and 405-410 million gallons per quarter per well, respectively. The number of people living in these 42 counties is declining by 0.6% per year, however, 1.4% in the 10 counties that have seen the highest percentage of their water resources allocated to Utica and Class II operations. Additionally, hydraulic fracturing permitting is increasing by 14% each year.2

Table 1. Residential, Utica Shale, and Class II Injection well water footprint across forty-two Ohio Counties (Note: All volumes are in millions of gallons)

Table1

Footnotes & Resources

1. In their recent “Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources” (Note: Ohio’s hydraulically fractured wells are using 6% reused water vs. the 18% cited by the EPA).

2. Auch, W E, McClaugherty, C, Gallemore, C, Berghoff, D, Genshock, E, Kurtz, E, & Jurjus, R. (2015). Ramification of current and future production, resource utilization, and land-use change in the Ohio Utica Shale Basin. Paper presented at the National Environmental Monitoring Conference, Chicago, IL.

Northeast Ohio Class II injection wells taken via FracTracker's mobile app, May 2015

OH Class II Injection Wells – Waste Disposal and Industry Water Demand

By Ted Auch, PhD – Great Lakes Program Coordinator

Waste Trends in Ohio

Map of Class II Injection Volumes and Utica Shale Freshwater Demand in Ohio

Map of Class II Injection Volumes and Utica Shale Freshwater Demand in Ohio. Explore dynamic map

It has been nearly 2 years since last we looked at the injection well landscape in Ohio. Are existing disposals wells receiving just as much waste as before? Have new injection wells been added to the list of those permitted to receive oil and gas waste? Let’s take a look.

Waste disposal is an issue that causes quite a bit of consternation even amongst those that are pro-fracking. The disposal of fracking waste into injection wells has exposed many “hidden geologic faults” across the US as a result of induced seismicity, and it has been linked recently with increases in earthquake activity in states like Arkansas, Kansas, Texas, and Ohio. Here in OH there is growing evidence – from Ashtabula to Washington counties – that injection well volumes and quarterly rates of change are related to upticks in seismic activity.

Origins of Fracking Waste

Furthermore, as part of this analysis we wanted to understand the ratio of Ohio’s Class II waste that has come from within Ohio and the proportion of waste originating from neighboring states such as West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Out of 960 Utica laterals and 245+ Class II wells, the results speak to the fact that a preponderance of the waste is coming from outside Ohio with out-of-state shale development accounting for ≈90% of the state’s hydraulic fracturing brine stream to-date. However, more recently the tables have turned with in-state waste increasing by 4,202 barrels per quarter per well (BPQPW). Out-of-state waste is only increasing by 1,112 BPQPW. Such a change stands in sharp contrast to our August 2013 analysis that spoke to 471 and 723 BPQPW rates of change for In- and Out-Of-State, respectively.

Brine Production

Ohio Class II Injection Well trends In- and Out-Of-State, Cumulatively, and on Per Well basis (n = 248).

Figure 1. Ohio Class II Injection Well trends In- and Out-Of-State, Cumulatively, and on Per Well basis (n = 248).

For every gallon of freshwater used in the fracking process here in Ohio the industry is generating .03 gallons of brine (On average, Ohio’s 758 Utica wells use 6.88 million gallons of freshwater and produce 225,883 gallons of brine per well).

Back in August of 2013 the rate at which brine volumes were increasing was approaching 150,000 BPQPW (Learn more, Fig 5), however, that number has nearly doubled to +279,586 BPQPW (Note: 1 barrel of brine equals 32-42 gallons). Furthermore, Ohio’s Class II Injection wells are averaging 37,301 BPQPW (1.6 MGs) per quarter over the last year vs. 12,926 barrels BPQPW – all of this between the initiation of frack waste injection in 2010 and our last analysis up to and including Q2-2013. Finally, between Q3-2010 and Q1-2015 the exponential increase in injection activity has resulted in a total of 81.7 million barrels (2.6-3.4 billion gallons) of waste disposed of here in Ohio. From a dollars and cents perspective this waste has generated $2.5 million in revenue for the state or 00.01% of the average state budget (Note: 2.5% of ODNR’s annual budget).

Freshwater Demand Growing

Ohio Class II Injection Well disposal as a function of freshwater demand by the shale industry in Ohio between Q3-2010 and Q1-2015.

Figure 2. Ohio Class II Injection Well disposal as a function of freshwater demand by the shale industry in Ohio between Q3-2010 and Q1-2015.

The relationship between brine (waste) produced and freshwater needed by the hydraulic fracturing industry is an interesting one; average freshwater demand during the fracking process accounts for 87% of the trend in brine disposal here in Ohio (Fig. 2). The more water used, the more waste produced. Additionally, the demand for OH freshwater is growing to the tune of 405-410,000 gallons PQPW, which means brine production is growing by roughly 12,000 gallons PQPW. This says nothing for the 450,000 gallons of freshwater PQPW increase in West Virginia and their likely demand for injection sites that can accommodate their 13,500 gallons PQPW increase.

Where will all this waste go? I’ll give you two guesses, and the first one doesn’t count given that in the last month the ODNR has issued 7 new injection well permits with 9 pending according to the Center For Health and Environmental Justice’s Teresa Mills.

Earthquake damage photo from Wikipedia

The Science Behind OK’s Man-made Earthquakes, Part 2

By Ariel Conn, Seismologist and Science Writer with the Virginia Tech Department of Geosciences

Oklahoma has made news recently because its earthquake story is so dramatic. The state that once averaged one to two magnitude 3 earthquakes per year now averages one to two per day. This same state, which never used to be seismically active, is now more seismically active than California. In terms of understanding the connection between wastewater disposal wells and earthquakes, though, it may be more helpful to look at other states first. Let us explore this issue further in Man-made Earthquakes, Part 2.

How other states handle induced seismicity

In 2010 and 2011, Arkansas experienced a swarm of earthquakes near the town of Greenbrier that culminated in a magnitude 4.7 earthquake. Officials in Arkansas ordered a moratorium on all disposal wells in the area, and earthquake activity quickly subsided.

In late 2011, Ohio experienced small earthquakes near a disposal well that culminated in a magnitude 4 earthquake that shook and startled residents. The disposal well was shut down, and the earthquakes subsided. Subsequent research into the earthquake confirmed that the disposal well in question had, in fact, triggered the earthquake. A swarm of earthquakes last year in Ohio shut down another well, and again, after the wastewater injection ceased, the earthquakes subsided.

Similarly in Kansas, after two earthquakes of magnitudes 4.7 and 4.9 shook the state in late 2014, officials ordered wells in two southern counties to decrease the volume of water injected into the ground. Again, earthquake activity quickly subsided.

A seismologist’s toolbox

A favorite saying among scientists is that correlation does not equal causation, and it’s easy to apply that phrase to the correlations seen in Ohio, Arkansas, and Kansas. Yet scientists remain certain that wastewater disposal wells can trigger earthquakes. So what are some of the techniques they use to come to these conclusions? At the Virginia Seismological Observatory (VTSO), two of the tools we used to determine a connection were cross-correlation programs and beach ball diagrams.

Cross-correlation

The VTSO research, which was funded by the National Energy Technology Laboratory, looked specifically at earthquake swarms that have popped up a couple times near a wastewater disposal well in West Virginia. We used a cross-correlation program to distinguish earthquakes that were likely triggered by the nearby well from events that might be natural or related to mining activity.

A seismic station records all of the vibrations that occur around it as squiggly lines. When an earthquake wave passes through, its squiggly lines take on a specific shape, known as a waveform, that seismologists can easily recognize (as an example, the VTSO logo in Fig. 1 was designed using a waveform from one of West Virginia’s potentially induced earthquakes.)

Virginia Tech Seismological Observatory logo

Figure 1. Virginia Tech Seismological Observatory logo w/waveform

For naturally occurring earthquakes, the waveforms will have some variation in shape because they come from different faults in different locations. When an injection well triggers earthquakes, it typically activates faults that are within close proximity, resulting in greater similarities between waveforms. A cross-correlation program is simply a computer program that can run through days, weeks, or months of data from a seismometer to find those similar waveforms. When matching waveforms indicate that earthquake activity is occurring near an injection well – and especially in regions that don’t have a history of seismic activity – we can conclude the earthquakes are triggered by human activity.

Beach Balls

Any earthquake fault, whether it’s active or ancient, is stressed to its breaking point. The difference is that, in places like California that are active, the natural forces against the faults often change, which triggers earthquakes. Ancient faults are still highly stressed, but the ground around them has become more stabilized. However at any point in time, if an unexpected force comes along, it can still trigger an earthquake.

Beach ball diagrams of 16 of the largest earthquakes in Oklahoma in 2014, all showing similar focal mechanisms, which is indicative of induced seismicity.

Figure 2. Beach ball diagrams of 16 of the largest earthquakes in Oklahoma in 2014, all showing similar focal mechanisms, which is indicative of induced seismicity.

Earthquake faults don’t all point in the same direction, which means different forces will affect faults differently. Depending on their orientation, some faults might shift in a north-south direction, some might shift in an east-west direction, some might be tilted at an angle, while others are more upright, etc. Seismologists use focal mechanisms to describe the movement of a fault during an earthquake, and these focal mechanisms are depicted by beach ball diagrams (Figure 2). The beach ball diagrams look, literally, like black and white beach balls. Different quadrants of the “beach ball” will be more dominant depending on what type of fault it was and how it moved (See USGS definition of Focal Mechanisms and the “beach ball” symbol).

When an earthquake is triggered by an injection well, it means that the fluid injected into the ground is essentially the straw that broke the camel’s back. Earthquake theory predicts that the forces from an injection well won’t trigger all faults, but only those that are oriented just right. Since we expect that only certain faults with just the right orientation will get triggered, that means we also expect the earthquakes to have similar focal mechanisms, and thus, similar beach ball diagrams. And that’s exactly what we see in Oklahoma.

Cross-correlation programs and beach ball diagrams are only two tools we used at the VTSO to confirm which earthquakes were induced, but seismologists have many means of determining if an earthquake is induced or natural.

Limitations of science?

With so much strong scientific evidence, why can people in industry still claim there isn’t enough science to officially confirm that an injection well triggered an earthquake? In some cases, these claims are simply wrong. In other cases, though, especially in Oklahoma, the problem is that no one was monitoring the disposal wells and the earthquakes from the start. Well operators were not required to publicly track the volumes of water they injected into wells until recently, and no one monitored for nearby earthquake activity. The big problem is not a lack of scientific evidence, but a lack of data from industry to perform sufficient research. Scientists need information about the history, volume, and pressure of fluid injection at a disposal well if they’re to confirm whether or not earthquakes are triggered by it. Often, that information is proprietary and not publically available, or it may not exist at all.

At this point though, two other factors make direct correlations between injection wells and earthquakes in Oklahoma even more difficult:

  1. So many wells have injected signficiant volumes of water in close enough proximity that pointing a finger at a specific well is more challenging.
  2. A large number of wells have injected water for so many years, that the earthquakes are migrating farther and farther from their original source. Again, pointing a finger at a specific well gets harder with time.

What we know

We know what induced seismicity is and why it occurs. We know that if a wastewater injection well disposes of large volumes of fluids deep underground in a region that has existing faults, it will likely trigger earthquakes. We know that if a region previously had few earthquakes, and then sees an uptick in earthquakes after wastewater injection begins, the earthquakes are likely induced. We know that if we want to understand the situation better, we need more seismic stations near disposal wells so we can more accurately monitor the area for seismicity both before and after the well becomes active.

What don’t we know?

We don’t know how big an induced earthquake can get. Oklahoma’s largest earthquake, which was also the largest induced earthquake ever recorded in the United States, was a magnitude 5.6. That’s big enough to cause millions of dollars of damage. Worldwide, the largest earthquake suspected to be induced occurred near the Koyna Dam in India, where a magnitude 6.3 earthquake killed nearly 200 people in 1967.

Can an earthquake that large occur in the central U.S.? The best guess right now: yes.

Seismologists suspect that an induced earthquake could get as big as the size of the fault. If a fault is big enough to trigger a magnitude 7 or 8 earthquake, then that is potentially how large an induced earthquake could be. In the early 1800s, three earthquakes between magnitudes 7 and 8 struck along the New Madrid Fault Zone near St. Louis, Missouri. Toward the end of the 1800s, a magnitude 7 earthquake shook Charleston, South Carolina. In those two areas, injection wells could potentially trigger very large earthquakes.

We have no historic record of earthquakes that large in Oklahoma, so right now, the best guess is that the largest an earthquake could get there would be between a magnitude 6 and 6.5. That would be big enough to cause significant damage, injuries, and possibly death.

The solution

What’s the take-home message from all of this?

  • First, the science exists to back up the conclusion that wastewater injection wells trigger earthquakes.
  • Second, if we want to get a better feel for which wells are more problematic, we need funding, seismic stations, and staff to monitor seismic activity around all high-volume injection wells, along with a history of injection times, volumes and pressures at the well.
  • Third, this is a problem that, if left unchecked, has the potential to result in major damage, incredible expense, and possibly loss of life.

Induced earthquakes are a real phenomenon. While more research is necessary to help us better understand the intricacies of these events and to identify correlations in complex cases, the general cause of the earthquake swarms in Oklahoma and other states is not a mystery. They are man-made problems, backed up by decades of scientific research. They have the potential to create significant damage, but we have the wherewithal to prevent them. We don’t need to go to the extreme of shutting down all wells, but rather, we just need to be able to monitor the wells and ensure that they don’t trigger earthquakes. If a well does trigger an earthquake, then at that point, the well operators can either experiment with significantly decreasing the volume of water that’s injected, or the well can be shut down completely. Understanding and acknowledging the connection between injection wells and earthquakes will make induced seismicity a much easier problem to solve.

The Science Behind OK’s Man-made Earthquakes, Part 1

By Ariel Conn, Seismologist and Science Writer with the Virginia Tech Department of Geosciences

On April 21, the Oklahoma Geological Survey issued a statement claiming that the sharp rise in Oklahoma earthquakes — from only a couple per year to thousands — was most likely caused by wastewater disposal wells associated with major oil and gas plays. This is huge news after years of Oklahoma scientists hesitating to place blame on an industry that provides so many jobs.

Now, seismologists from around the country — including Oklahoma — are convinced that these earthquakes are the result of human activity, also known as induced or triggered seismicity. Yet many people, especially those in the oil industry, still refute such an argument. Just what is the science that has seismologists so convinced that the earthquakes are induced and not natural?

Hidden Faults

Over the last billion years (give or take a couple hundred million), colliding tectonic plates have created earthquake zones, just as we see today in California, Japan, Chile and Nepal. As geologic processes occurred, these zones shifted and moved and were covered up, and the faults that once triggered earthquakes achieved a state of equilibrium deep in the basement rocks of the earth’s crust. But the faults still exist. If the delicate balance that keeps these fault systems stable ever shifts, the ancient faults can still move, resulting in earthquakes. Because these inactive faults are so deep, and because they can theoretically exist just about anywhere, they’re incredibly difficult to map or predict – until an earthquake occurs.

Thanks to historic reports of earthquakes in the central and eastern United States, we know there are some regions, far away from tectonic plate boundaries, that occasionally experience large earthquakes. Missouri and South Carolina, for example, suffered significant and damaging earthquakes in the last 200 hundred years, yet these states lie nowhere near a plate boundary. We know that fault zones exist in these locations, but we have no way of knowing about dormant faults in regions of the country that haven’t experienced earthquakes in the last couple hundred years.

What is induced seismicity?

As early as the 1930s, seismologists began to suspect that extremely large volumes of water could impact seismic activity, even in those regions where earthquakes weren’t thought to occur. Scientists found that after certain reservoirs were built and filled with water, earthquake swarms often followed. This didn’t happen everywhere, and when it did, the earthquakes were rarely large enough to be damaging. These quakes were large enough to be felt, however, and they represented early instances of human activity triggering earthquakes.[1]

Research into induced seismicity really picked up in the 1960s. The most famous example of man-made earthquakes occurred as a result of injection well activity at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal. The arsenal began injecting wastewater into a disposal well 12,000 feet deep in March of 1962, and by April of that year, people were feeling earthquakes. Researchers at the arsenal tracked the injections and the earthquakes. They found that each time the arsenal injected large volumes of water (between 2 and 8 million gallons per month, or 47,000 to 190,000 barrels), earthquakes would start shaking the ground within a matter of weeks (Figure 1).

Rocky Mountain Arsenal fluid injection correlated to earthquake frequency

Figure 1. Rocky Mountain Arsenal fluid injection correlated to earthquake frequency

South Carolina experienced induced earthquakes after filling a reservoir

Figure 2. South Carolina experienced induced earthquakes after filling a reservoir

When the injections ended, the earthquakes also ceased, usually after a similar time delay, but some seismicity continued for a while. The well was active for many years, and the largest earthquake thought to be induced by the injection well actually occurred nearly a year and a half after injection officially ended. That earthquake registered as a magnitude 5.3. Scientists also noticed that over time, the earthquakes moved farther and farther away from the well.

Research at a reservoir in South Carolina produced similar results; large volumes of water triggered earthquake swarms that spread farther from the reservoir with time (Figure 2).

When people say we’ve known for decades that human activity can trigger earthquakes, this is the research they’re talking about.

Why now? Why Oklahoma?

Class II Injection Well. Photo by Lea Harper

Injection Well in Ohio. Photo by Ted Auch

Seismologists have known conclusively and for quite a while that wastewater injection wells can trigger earthquakes, yet people have also successfully injected wastewater into tens of thousands of wells across the country for decades without triggering any earthquakes. So why now? And why in Oklahoma?

The short answers are:

  • At no point in history have we injected this much water this deep into the ground, and
  • It’s not just happening in Oklahoma.

One further point to clarify: General consensus among seismologists is that most of these earthquakes are triggered by wastewater disposal wells and not by hydrofracking (or fracking) wells. That may be a point to be contested in a future article, but for now, the largest induced earthquakes we’ve seen have been associated with wastewater disposal wells and not fracking. This distinction is important when considering high-pressure versus high-volume wells. A clear connection between high-pressure wells and earthquakes has not been satisfactorily demonstrated in our research at the Virginia Tech Seismological Observatory (VTSO) (nor have we seen it demonstrated elsewhere, yet). High-volume wastewater disposal wells, on the other hand, have been connected to earthquakes.

At the VTSO, we looked at about 8,000 disposal wells in Oklahoma that we suspected might be connected to induced seismicity. Of those, over 7,200 had maximum allowed injection rates of less than 10,000 barrels per month, which means the volume is low enough that they’re unlikely to trigger earthquakes. Of the remaining 800 wells, only 300 had maximum allowed injection rates of over 40,000 barrels per month — and up to millions of barrels per year for some wells. These maximum rates are on par with the injection rates seen at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, and our own plots indicate a correlation between high-volume injection wells and earthquakes (Figure 3-4).

Triangles represent wastewater injection wells scaled to reflect maximum volume rates. Wells with high volumes are located near earthquakes.

Figure 3. Triangles represent wastewater injection wells scaled to reflect maximum volume rates. Wells with high volumes are located near earthquakes.

Triangles represent wastewater injection wells scaled to reflect maximum pressure. Wells with high pressures are not necessarily near earthquakes.

Figure 4. Triangles represent wastewater injection wells scaled to reflect maximum pressure. Wells with high pressures are not necessarily near earthquakes.

This does not mean that all high-volume wells will trigger earthquakes, or that lower-volume wells are always safe, but rather, it’s an important connection that scientists and well operators should consider.

Starting in 2008 and 2009, with the big oil and gas plays in Oklahoma, a lot more fluid was injected into a lot more wells. As the amount of fluid injected in Oklahoma has increased, so too have the number of earthquakes. But Oklahoma is not the only state to experience this phenomenon. Induced earthquakes have been recorded in Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Ohio, West Virginia and Texas.

In the last four years, Arkansas, Kansas, Ohio and Texas have all had “man-made” earthquakes larger than magnitude 4, which is the magnitude at which damage begins to occur. Meanwhile, in that time period, Colorado experienced its second induced earthquake that registered larger than magnitude 5. Oklahoma may have the most induced and triggered earthquakes, but the problem is one of national concern.

Footnote

[1] Induced seismicity actually dates back to the late 1800s with mining, but the connection to high volumes of fluid was first recognized in the 1930s. However, the extent to which it was documented is unknown.

Class II Oil and Gas Wastewater Injection and Seismic Hazards in CA

By Kyle Ferrar, CA Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance Shake Ground Cover

In collaboration with the environmental advocacy groups Earthworks, Center for Biological Diversity, and Clean Water Action, The FracTracker Alliance has completed a proximity analysis of the locations of California’s Class II oil and gas wastewater injection wells to “recently” active fault zones in California. The results of the analysis can be found in the On Shaky Ground report, available for download at www.ShakyGround.org.1

Production of oil and natural gas results in a large and growing waste stream. Using current projections for oil development, the report projects a potential 9 trillion gallons of wastewater over the lifetime of the Monterey shale. In California the majority of wastewater is injected deep underground for disposal in wells deemed Class II wastewater injection.  The connection between seismic activity and underground injections of fluid has been well established, but with the current surge of shale resource development the occurrence of earthquakes in typically seismically inactive regions has increased, including a recent event in Ohio covered by the LA Times.   While both hydraulic fracturing and wastewater injection wells have been linked to the induction of seismic activity, the impacts of underground injection wells used for disposal are better documented and linked to larger magnitude earthquakes.

Therefore, while hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells has also been documented to induce seismic activity, the focus of this report is underground injection of waste fluids.

Active CA Faults

A spatial overview of the wastewater injection activity in California and recently active faults can be viewed in Figure 1, below.


Figure 1. California’s Faults and Wastewater Injection Wells. With this and all maps on this page, click on the arrows in the upper right hand corner of the map to view it fullscreen and to see the legend and more details.

The focus of the On Shaky Ground report outlines the relationship between does a thorough job reviewing the literature that shows how the underground injection of fluids induces seismic activity.  The proximity analysis of wastewater injection wells, conducted by The FracTracker Alliance, provides insight into the spatial distribution of the injection wells.  In addition, the report M7.8 earthquake along the San Andreas fault could cause 1,800 fatalities and nearly $213 billion in economic damages.2  To complement the report and provide further information on the potential impacts of earthquakes in California, FracTracker created the maps in Figure 2 and Figure 3.

Shaking Assessments

Figure 2 presents shaking amplification and shaking hazards assessments. The dataset is generated from seismic evaluations.  When there is an earthquake, the ground will amplify the seismic activity in certain ways.  The amount of amplification is typically dependent on distance to the earthquake event and the material that comprises the Earth’s crust.  Softer materials, such as areas of San Francisco built on landfills, will typically shake more than areas comprised of bedrock at the surface.  The type of shaking, whether it is low frequency or high frequency will also present varying hazards for different types of structures.  Low frequency shaking is more hazardous to larger buildings and infrastructure, whereas high frequency events can be more damaging to smaller structure such as single family houses.  Various assessments have been conducted throughout the state, the majority by the California Geological Survey and the United States Geological Survey.


Figure 2. California Earthquake Shaking Amplification and Class II Injection Wells

Landslide Hazards

Below, Figure 3. Southern California Landslide and Hazard Zones expands upon the map included in the On Shaky Ground report; during an earthquake liquefaction of soil and landslides represent some of the greatest hazards.  Liquefaction refers to the solid earth becoming “liquid-like”, whereas water-saturated, unconsolidated sediments are transformed into a substance that acts like a liquid, often in an earthquake. By undermining the foundations of infrastructure and buildings, liquefaction can cause serious damage. The highest hazard areas shown by the liquefaction hazard maps are concentrated in regions of man-made landfill, especially fill that was placed many decades ago in areas that were once submerged bay floor. Such areas along the Bay margins are found in San Francisco, Oakland and Alameda Island, as well as other places around San Francisco Bay. Other potentially hazardous areas include those along some of the larger streams, which produce the loose young soils that are particularly susceptible to liquefaction.  Liquefaction risks have been estimated by USGS and CGS specifically for the East Bay, multiple fault-slip scenarios for Santa Clara and for all the Bay Area in separate assessments.  There are not regional liquefaction risk estimate maps available outside of the bay area, although the CGS has identified regions of liquefaction and landslide hazards zones for the metropolitan areas surrounding the Bay Area and Los Angeles.  These maps outline the areas where liquefaction and landslides have occurred in the past and can be expected given a standard set of conservative assumptions, therefore there exist certain zoning codes and building requirements for infrastructure.


Figure 3. California Liquefaction/Landslide Hazards and Class II Injection Wells

Press Contacts

For more information about this report, please reach out to one of the following media contacts:

Alan Septoff
Earthworks
(202) 887-1872 x105
aseptoff@earthworksaction.org
Patrick Sullivan
Center for Biological Diversity
(415) 632-5316
psullivan@biologicaldiversity.org
Andrew Grinberg
Clean Water Action
(415) 369-9172
agrinberg@cleanwater.org

References

  1. Arbelaez, J., Wolf, S., Grinberg, A. 2014. On Shaky Ground. Earthworks, Center for Biological Diversity, Clean Water Action. Available at ShakyGround.org
  2. Jones, L.M. et al. 2008. The Shakeout Scenario. USGS Open File Report 2008-1150. U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey.

 

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