Fracking and earthquakes

Review of Fracking Issues posted on 31 May 2013 briefly commented on a major academic study of the impact of shale gas exploitation on groundwater. The 12 July 2013 issue of Science follows this up with a similar online, extensive treatment of how underground disposal of fracking fluids might influence seismicity in new gas fields (Ellsworth, W.J. 2013. Injection-induced earthquakes. Science, v. 341, p. 142 and doi: 10.1126/science.1225942) plus a separate paper on the same topic (van der Elst, N.J. et al. 2013. Enhanced remote earthquake triggering at fluid-injection sites in the Midwestern United States. Science, v. 341, p.164-167).

English: Map of major shale gas basis all over...

Major shale gas basins (credit: Wikipedia)

It was alarm caused by two minor earthquakes (<3 local magnitude) that alerted communities on the Fylde peninsula and in the seaside town of Blackpool to worrisome issues connected to Cuadrilla Resources’ drilling of exploratory fracking wells. These events were put down to the actual hydraulic fracturing taking place at depth. Such low-magnitude seismic events pose little hazard but nuisance. The two reports in Science look at longer-term implications associated with regional shale-gas development. All acknowledge that the fluids used for hydraulic fracturing need careful disposal because of their toxic hazards. The common practice in the ‘mature’ shale-gas fields in the US is eventually to dispose of the fluids by injecting them into deep aquifers, which Vidic et al.  suggested that ‘due diligence’ in such injection of waste water should ensure limited leakage into shallow domestic groundwater.

The studies, such as that by William Ellsworth, of connection between deep waste-water injection and seismicity are somewhat less reassuring. From 1967 to 2001 the central US experienced a steady rate of earthquakes with magnitudes greater than 3.0, which can be put down to the natural background of seismicity in the stable lithosphere of mid North America. In the last 12 years activity at this energy level increased significantly, notably in areas underlain by targets for shale-gas fracking such as the Marcellus Shale of the north-eastern US. The increase coincides closely with the history of shale-gas development in the US. The largest such event (5.6 local magnitude) destroyed 14 homes in Oklahoma near to such a waste-injection site. Raising the fluid pressure weakens faults in the vicinity thereby triggering them to fail, even if their tectonic activity ceased millions of years ago: many retain large elastic strains dependent on rock strength.

Apart from the mid-continent New Madrid seismic zone associated with a major fault system parallel to the Mississippi, much of the central US is geologically simple with vast areas of flat-bedded sediments with few large faults. The same cannot be said for British geology which is riven with major faults formed during the Caledonian and Variscan orogenies, some of which in southern Britain were re-activated by tectonics associated with the Alpine events far off in southern Europe. Detailed geological maps show surface-breaking faults everywhere, whereas deep coal mining records and onshore seismic reflection surveys reveal many more at depth. A greater population density living on more ‘fragile’ geology may expect considerably more risk from industrially induced earthquakes, should Britain’s recently announced ‘dash’ for shale gas materialise to the extent that its sponsors hope for.

Nicholas van der Elst and colleagues’ paper indicates further cause for alarm. They demonstrate that large remote earthquakes. In the 10 days following the 11 March 2011 Magnitude 9.0 Sendai earthquake a swarm of low-energy events took place around waste injection wells in central Texas, to be followed 6 months later by a larger one (4.5 local magnitude). Similar patterns of injection-related seismicity followed other distant great earthquakes between 2010 and 2012. Other major events seem not to have triggered local responses. The authors claim that the pattern of earth movements produced by such global triggering might be an indicator of whether or not fluid injection has brought affected fault systems to a critical state. That may be so, but it seems little comfort to know that one’s home, business or community is potentially to be shattered by intrinsically avoidable seismic risk.

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