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National study suggests that 5.7-magnitude quake was caused by wastewater injection (manmade)

A report by a team of prestigious scientific experts has rebuked an Oklahoma state-sponsored report claiming that wastewater injection over the last few decades had nothing to do with a record-setting earthquake centered in Prague, Oklahoma.

I. Paid-Off State Officials: Injection is Harmless

Fracking and pressurized injections of wastewater from traditional wells in Oklahoma's Wilzetta oil fields began in the 1990s.  The controversial resource extraction technique involves injecting pressurized sand, water, and chemicals into shale formations, triggering the release of oil and natural gas that otherwise would be hard to extract.

Energy giants like Chesapeake Energy Corp. (CHK), OGE Energy Corp. (OGE) Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM), NextEra Energy, Inc. (NEE), and Devon Energy Corp. (DVN) have made billions in revenue from the process.  However, critics -- including some prominent scientists -- have criticized the process, claiming it creates seismic instability and may contaminate local water supplies.  Those claims seemed prophetic when Oklahoma, a top fracking/wastewater injection state, was hit with a rash of uncharacteristic earthquakes which culminated in a magnitude 5.7 earthquake in 2011 which destroyed 14 homes.

Still, Oklahoma politicians and state-appointed scientists have defended the process.  In a 2011 report entitled "Response to Attacks on Hydraulic Fracturing", the Oklahoma Corporation Commission (OCC) and Oklahoma Geological Survey (OGS) defend the process of fracking/wastewater injection.  

And in a separate study, dubbed the "OGS Prague Statement" [PDF], they directly address claims that pressurized injections into sealed wells caused the quake, suggesting instead that it was caused by a segment of the Wilzetta Fault which was "favorably orientated for earthquakes."  They cite other studies suggesting that such "swarms" of earthquakes are often naturally occurring along fault lines.

II. Following the Monetary Stench

But state politicians who appoint the OGS scientists and OCC officials may have a bit of a vested interest.  Chesapeake Energy, OGE Energy, Devon Energy, and others have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to roll both state and federal Republicans in Oklahoma into office.

Thanks in part to their deep pockets, Republicans own a healthy majority in Oklahoma's legislature.  And the oil industry's "hired help" appears eager to repay the favor.

U.S. Rep. James Lankford received $24,300 USD from Devon Energy, $22,250 USD from OGE Energy, and an additional $113,800 from other oil and natural gas extraction companies, according to OpenSecrets. Sen. James M. Inhofe received a whopping $537,750 USD from oil and natural gas firms.

Oklahoma

Here's the contact info for those gentlemen:

U.S. Rep. James Lankford:
Local Phone 405-234-9900 / D.C. Phone 202-225-2132
Email https://lankford.house.gov/contact-me/email-me
U.S. Sen James M. Inhofe
Local Phone 405-608-4381 / D.C. Phone (202) 224-4721
Email http://inhofe.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Contact.ContactForm

Here's a summary of the special interest payouts to the top state-level politicians from the Republican majority:

Oklahoma state republicans
(Click to enlarge)

Notice that every major leader in the state house and senate was paid off by the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Assoc. (OIPA)-- a pro-oil industry group -- and every politician also received healthy contributions from several other oil and natural gas firms.  (Source: VoteSmart.org)

Here's the contact info for those gentlemen:
Sen. Brian Bingman (R, president pro tempore)
Local phone (405) 521-5528 / State capital phone (918) 227-1856
Email: bingman@oksenate.gov
Sen. Mike Schulz (R, majority floor leader)
Local phone (405) 521-5612 / State capital phone N/A
Email: schulz@oksenate.gov 
Rep. T.W. Shannon (R, speaker of the house)
Local phone (405) 557-7374 / Asst. Phone (405) 557-7374 
Email: tw.shannon@okhouse.gov
Rep. Mike Jackson (R, speaker pro tempore)
Local phone (405) 557-7317/ Asst. Phone (405) 557-7317
Email: mikejackson@okhouse.gov

The OIPA's mission statement basically acknowledges that its mission is to pay off polticians, writing:

The OIPA is committed to promoting the interests and welfare of independent oil and gas operators, working interest owners, royalty owners, and those businesses who provide services for the energy industry. Specifically, the association strives to provide its members with outstanding legislative and regulatory representation. 

In a recent post it gripes, "Since President Obama’s election to office in 2008, the nation’s oil and natural gas producers have faced constant scrutiny from the federal regulatory agencies under White House control."

III. Unbiased Research Contradicts Oil-Industry Funded Findings

So the oil companies paid the politicians, and the politicians hired scientists and appointed officials who were willing to claim fracking/wastewater injection is safe.  But what do unbiased national scientists say?

The answer came in a peer-reviewed study published [abstract] in the journal Geology, which rebukes the biased reports from state-sponsored researchers.  The new article entitled "Potentially induced earthquakes in Oklahoma, USA: Links between wastewater injection and the 2011 Mw 5.7 earthquake sequence' was written by Prof. Katie M. Keranen of the Univ. of OklahomaProf. Heather M. Savage and Prof. Geoffrey A. Abers of Columbia Univ., and Dr. Elizabeth S. Cochran of the US Geological Survey (USGS).

It finds:

We use the aftershocks to illuminate the faults that ruptured in the sequence, and show that the tip of the initial rupture plane is within ∼200 m of active injection wells and within ∼1 km of the surface; 30% of early aftershocks occur within the sedimentary section. Subsurface data indicate that fluid was injected into effectively sealed compartments, and we interpret that a net fluid volume increase after 18 yr of injection lowered effective stress on reservoir-bounding faults. Significantly, this case indicates that decades-long lags between the commencement of fluid injection and the onset of induced earthquakes are possible, and modifies our common criteria for fluid-induced events. The progressive rupture of three fault planes in this sequence suggests that stress changes from the initial rupture triggered the successive earthquakes, including one larger than the first.

In other words, it traces the earthquakes to sealed well sites near their epicenter, which were injected with toxic pressurized wastewater from the oil extraction process.  

Fracking
The study finds that wastewater injection-- injecting pressurized liquid to extract deep oil/natural gas deposits -- destabilizes local sediments and likely caused seismic activity.

Note, that while the study does not directly implicate fracking (which involves fluid injection as well), it does raise concerns about the the process, as it implicates similar wastewater injections in creating seismic activity.

The authors determined that the volume of the sealed wells changed over time, causing stress that appears to have triggered at least two quakes of magnitude of 5.0, and then the biggest quake -- a magnitude of 5.7.  These quakes were felt in 17 states.

Fluid injection in the wastewater wells began after 1993, according to the current paper and the authors suggest the risk could have been adverted if the well owners had followed the criteria for injection established by Davis and Frohlich (1993), which suggests locating injection wells away from seismic faults.

The findings correspond to a previous 2011 report [PDF] by the US National Research Council (NRC), which showed that fracking caused smaller quakes (although failing to definitively show whether or not it caused larger quakes).  A 2012 USGS report also links fracking to earthquakes.

Note that the difference between fracking injection and wastewater injection is that fracking typically injects the pressurized fluid deeper under the ground, so more research is needed to determine just how much commonality in seismic risk there is between the two practices.

IV. Lawsuits, Legal Challenges to Future Fracking Loom

The study raises serious questions.

First, given the blatant payouts to state politicians by oil and gas interests, it seems pretty interesting that an unbiased team of experts would come to the conclusion that wastewater injection did cause the earthquakes, while a team of state-sponsored researchers whose pay is dependent on politicians paid by special interests would claim that it wasn't the cause.

Aside from questions of scientific integrity regarding the researchers at the OGS/OCC, the report also raises questions of liability.  If the quakes were indeed directly correlated to the wastewater injection processes and the causative mechanism was properly determined in the new report, then homeowners or business owners whose properties were damaged could (in theory) sue NextEra Energy, Chesapeake Energy, Exxon Mobil, Devon Energy, OGE Energy, et al. for damages.

Fracking regions
Fracking projects are being considered in a number of states.
[Image Source: U.S. Energy Information Agency]

Of course don't be surprised if state politicians try to author some sort of legislation to exempt their energy industry "sponsors" from such litigation, given that they already appear to have tried to cover up the damage done.

The report is also of keen interest as various other states, such as Illinois and Pennsylvania are considering new fracking or wastewater injection projects or expanding existing ones.  Overseas in England, fracking/wastewater injection is also a major topic of debate, where special interests are similarly trying to sway the discussion.

The new study is critical as it's the most definitive, clear, and detailed document to date indicating that fluid injection can cause seismic activity.  Citizens in states with fracking or wastewater injection projects should consider this carefully.  

If earthquakes occur, consider suing your local oil and gas companies for damages -- science supports you.  And in the meantime look into (on VoteSmart or other sources), which of your local politicians are taking money from big oil and gas companies -- the results may surprise and disturb you.

In all though, this shouldn't be terribly surprising -- a recent University of Kansas School of Business study [PDF] revealed that for $1 given to a federal politician as a business, you get $243 USD in kickbacks -- either indirectly (via lesser taxation) or directly siphoned off citizens taxes.

Edit:
An earlier version of the story erroneously refered to the wastewater as being from fracking, where as the wastewater that researchers suggest caused the quakes was, in fact, from traditional drilling.  Several other publications -- including a Wired piece on the topic make similar errors or offer somewhat ambiguous statements -- and remain uncorrected.  

Nonetheless, the issue of cash payments to state legislators to allow injection/fracking remains, as does the issues surrounding special-interest endorsed research that suggested the quakes to have occurred naturally (when they appear to be energy-industry/wastewater caused).

Sources: Geology [abstract], VoteSmart, Opensecrets [campaign funding info], OCC [PDF]



Comments     Threshold


This article is over a month old, voting and posting comments is disabled

RE: Source was not fracking
By energyindepth on 3/28/2013 4:20:04 PM , Rating: -1
Thanks for the reply and headline adjustment Jason. However, your story still leads with this:

"National study suggests that 5.7-magnitude quake was caused by fracking"

Again, that's not what the study found or even suggested. Since you're mentioning that specific 5.7 magnitude earthquake, then it's important that you look at the specific events and findings surrounding it. In this case, the scientific study on which you placed so much emphasis observed that wastewater from non-fracked wells was what had been injected. Any connection to fracking is not an accurate representation of what the authors said about that earthquake.

We do not dispute the fact that wastewater injection has been linked to seismic activity. That's been known since at least the 1960s, when a disposal well receiving wastewater from a chemical manufacturing plant triggered some small quakes around Denver. David Hayes from the U.S. Department of Interior made this observation in a blog post recently: http://www.doi.gov/news/doinews/Is-the-Recent-Incr...

Please feel free to read our full coverage of this issue on our website: http://www.energyindepth.org/on-shaky-ground/

I think you'll see that we are not denying what you suggested I was.

As for the hydraulic fracturing process itself (which by definition excludes wastewater disposal, a separate process governed by different rules and regulations), I will offer three quotes for your consideration:

Bill Ellsworth, lead geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey: "We find no evidence that fracking is related to the occurrence of earthquakes that people are feeling." http://www.npr.org/2012/04/11/150440356/quakes-cau...

Ellsworth, again: "We don’t see any connection between fracking and earthquakes of any concern to society." http://www.eenews.net/energywire/2012/04/23/3 (subs. req'd)

National Research Council: "The process of hydraulic fracturing a well as presently implemented for shale gas recovery does not pose a high risk for inducing felt seismic events."
http://dels.nas.edu/Report/Induced-Seismicity-Pote...

Thanks so much for your time and willingness to discuss this, Jason. Really appreciate it.

Best,
-Steve

Steve Everley
EnergyInDepth.org


RE: Source was not fracking
By JasonMick (blog) on 3/28/2013 4:49:38 PM , Rating: 3
quote:
Thanks for the reply and headline adjustment Jason. However, your story still leads with this:

"National study suggests that 5.7-magnitude quake was caused by fracking"

Fixed, thanks!

I appreciate the need for clarity, so I appreciate the clarification regarding fracking injection versus wastewater.

That said, I hope you can appreciate that your comments raise more questions/concerns as to why a practice the industry has long known/considered to be dangerous was done as recently as a decade ago, causing substantial damage.
quote:
We do not dispute the fact that wastewater injection has been linked to seismic activity.
But the study states that the injection occurred between 1993 and 2002 (see graph, page 4 of Geology paper).

If the practice would knowingly create seismic instability, why did the well owner(s) (the paper does not clearly identify them) seek to inject near a seismic fault and why did state officials grant a permit to do so?

You say this has been known since the 1960s to be a destructive process, but as recently as 2002, industry sources were pumping wastewater into the wells in OK. How do you justify that?
quote:
Bill Ellsworth, lead geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey: "We find no evidence that fracking is related to the occurrence of earthquakes that people are feeling." http://www.npr.org/2012/04/11/150440356/quakes-cau...

Ellsworth, again: "We don’t see any connection between fracking and earthquakes of any concern to society." http://www.eenews.net/energywire/2012/04/23/3 (subs. req'd)

National Research Council: "The process of hydraulic fracturing a well as presently implemented for shale gas recovery does not pose a high risk for inducing felt seismic events."
http://dels.nas.edu/Report/Induced-Seismicity-Pote...

Thanks so much for your time and willingness to discuss this, Jason. Really appreciate it.
True, but the recent study suggests that it make take decades for the expansion of sealed deposits.

From my understanding post-fracking, the void is filled with pressurized fluid, correct? So doesn't it stand to reason that fracking (a relatively new process) could potentially pose similar dangers to wastewater injection, years down the road?

Either way it sounds like you agree wastewater injection is a bad idea -- so why are companies applying for wastewater injection permits and injecting near known fault lines?

And why isn't the industry releasing a statement clearly elucidating who the companies/individuals responsible for this known bad practice are, if indeed it is considered as such (as your comment suggests).

Thoughts?


RE: Source was not fracking
By energyindepth on 3/28/13, Rating: 0
RE: Source was not fracking
By taichou on 3/28/2013 6:18:08 PM , Rating: 2
Thank you Steve and Jason. It was a pleasure to read informed debate from both sides of the issue without this devolving into partisan yelling.


RE: Source was not fracking
By Belard on 3/28/2013 10:34:38 PM , Rating: 2
Aa you say...the fracking is fine. But the most profitable industry (which gets handouts) should be 200% responsible for the damage they cause. I'm in Dallas and last year... We had an earthquake.


RE: Source was not fracking
By BRB29 on 3/29/2013 2:26:04 PM , Rating: 2
I'm sure the scientists at USGS will disagree with you. Please feel free to contact the USGS for confirmation.


"A politician stumbles over himself... Then they pick it out. They edit it. He runs the clip, and then he makes a funny face, and the whole audience has a Pavlovian response." -- Joe Scarborough on John Stewart over Jim Cramer














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