Seismologist: Fracking Doesn't Cause Earthquakes
9 September 2013
By The Associated Press
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Human activity associated with oil and gas
production can sometimes cause earthquakes, but the problem is not
hydraulic fracturing, a seismologist from the University of Texas
told researchers gathered for a two-day conference on Marcellus
Shale gas drilling.
When the rare quakes do occur, they're typically linked to the
disposal of drilling fluids in underground injection wells, Cliff
Frohlich said Monday at West Virginia University. And the vast
majority of injection wells don't cause quakes either, he said.
Frohlich cited six earthquakes since 2008 in Arkansas, Colorado,
Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas, ranging from magnitude 3.3 to magnitude
5.7. Their locations show that human-caused earthquakes are
geographically widespread and geologically diverse, but "very
rare," given the amount of petroleum produced and the amount of
waste being disposed of.
Why some injection wells cause earthquakes and others don't
remains unclear, he said. Frohlich hypothesizes that quakes occur
when a "suitably oriented" fault lies near an injection site.
"Hydraulic fracturing almost never causes true earthquakes," he
told the group gathered for the National Research Council
workshop. "It is the disposal of fluids that is a concern."
Texas has 10,000 injection wells, Frohlich said, and some have
been in use since the 1930s. That effectively makes the state a
giant research lab for the shale-gas drilling issues now facing
Appalachian states including New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West
If injection wells were "hugely dangerous," he said, "we would
"Texas would be famous as a state that just rocks with major
earthquakes," Frohlich said. "That is not true."
WVU is hosting the conference (live webcast here)(agenda here)
through Tuesday for the National Research Council, which is the
operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences.
WVU Vice President for Research Fred King said reports the
workshop will generate should be available before the start of
West Virginia's legislative session in January and could help
guide future regulatory discussions.
Frohlich urged policymakers to consider cultural and population
differences if they are weighing regulation aimed at minimizing
the risk of earthquakes through either the spacing between or
monitoring of injection wells.
"There's places in West Texas you could have a 5.2 earthquake and
it wouldn't bother anyone," he said. "If you're going to operate
in urban areas, I think you need to invest in incredibly stringent
regulations. But in other areas, you probably don't."
WVU chief of staff Jay Cole said the university has a special
obligation to help industry and government identify critical
issues as shale-gas development grows and to identify questions
that remain to be answered.
The workshop features representatives of industry and government,
including the National Energy Technology Laboratory, U.S.
Geological Survey and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as
well as researchers from 12 universities.
Ray Boswell, technology manager for natural gas technology
programs at Morgantown's national lab, said drillers tapping the
Marcellus are producing more gas even as they sink fewer wells and
are outpacing production estimates made by the U.S. Energy
The region's reserves, he said, can easily sustain strong
production through 2040.
Joseph Frantz, vice president of engineering for Texas-based oil
and gas producer Range Resources, said technology is allowing
drillers to create more-efficient operations on smaller physical
Deep horizontal wells today disturb only 1 percent of the surface
on a 1,000-acre site, he said, compared with 19 percent disruption
with conventional vertical wells set 1,000 feet apart.
Frantz said drillers in the Appalachian basin are producing nearly
12 billion cubic feet of oil and gas per day from the Marcellus, a
figure that has skyrocketed since 2009 as drillers rapidly embrace
and deploy technology developed in the nation's other shale-gas
Range and other companies are casing their wells with as many as
four layers of steel and cement, redundancies that Frantz said
dramatically reduce any risk of groundwater contamination. Range
is also using rubber containment pads and berms under every piece
of equipment to stop pollution from soaking into the ground or
migrating offsite, he said.
It's an expensive way to do business, Frantz said, but "this is
the right thing to do."
"We talk about this social license to operate," he said. "We
always have to be transparent and honest and open with everybody.
... If we don't do our job, someone's going to come in and tell us
how it should be done, and that may not be a pleasant day."