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Earth Science News Technology

Did Fracking Cause Recent Oklahoma Earthquakes? 288

Hugh Pickens writes writes "Oklahoma is typically seismically stable, with about 50 small quakes a year — but in 2009, that number jumped up to more than 1,000 and on November 5 a 5.6-magnitude tremor rattled Oklahoma — one of the strongest to ever hit the state — leading scientists to wonder if the increasingly common use of fracking, the controversial practice of blasting underground rock formations with high-pressure water, sand, and chemicals to extract natural gas, may have put stress on fault lines. Human intervention has caused earthquakes before with one 'textbook case' occurring in 1967 in India, says Peter Fairley at IEEE Spectrum, when the reservoir behind the hydroelectric Koyna Dam was filled up. The added water 'unleashed a magnitude 6.3 quake' by placing stress 'on a previously unknown fault, killing 180 people and leaving thousands homeless.' Last week's earthquakes and aftershocks are centered in rural Lincoln County, in an area about 30 miles east of Oklahoma City and there are 181 injection wells In Lincoln County. But a recent study by Austin Holland, a seismologist with the Oklahoma Geological Survey, says that it's possible that hydraulic fracking caused a series of small earthquakes, peaking at 2.8, in an area south of Oklahoma City but doesn't believe fracking caused the big Nov. 5, 6 and 8 earthquakes comparing a man-made earthquake to a mosquito bite. 'It's really quite inconsequential,' says Holland."
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Did Fracking Cause Recent Oklahoma Earthquakes?

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  • by Luckyo (1726890) on Monday November 14, 2011 @03:24PM (#38051934)

    You need their cooperation to survive the massive anti-you lobby they will put out. Source: tobacco industry and decades it took for poor bastards trying to study tobacco's adverse effects on health to shake off "sharlatan"-image slapped on them by the said industry.

    On the other hand it's actually pretty interesting that we as humans are getting skilled and powerful enough to affect planet in ways that causes earthquakes without having to blow stuff up underground. We've done it with geothermal and apparently this at the very least.

  • by Mister Whirly (964219) on Monday November 14, 2011 @03:26PM (#38051954) Homepage
    The EPA has been all but dismantled by the last few administrations. Corporations are self regulating - they are the ones responsible for testing and complying with the law. I bet those numbers are never fudged, especially when there is no additional checking done by the EPA in 99% of the cases. If the corporations are responsible for testing and reporting the results to the EPA, why would they ever report something negative that could cost them millions of dollars to fix?
  • by michaelmalak (91262) <> on Monday November 14, 2011 @03:27PM (#38051976) Homepage

    Rocky Mountain Arsenal, bordering the city limits of Denver, tried disposing of liquid waste by injecting it 12,000 feet below the ground. The result was a series of damaging earthquakes in Denver, up to 5.0 - 5.5 magnitude. USGS wrote a report [] in 1990.

    The Victorian warehouse at 1000 Bannock [] still shows steel L-braces affixed to the exterior to hold the brick building together from the 1967 earthquake damage -- notice also the long crack running clear through from the back wall diagonally up to the roof.

  • by tacokill (531275) on Monday November 14, 2011 @03:32PM (#38052040)
    Not only do I live in Oklahoma but my work bumps up against the energy/hydrocarbon industry. This is a subject that I know quite a bit about, in fact....

    The answer is: No, No, and No.

    For forever, Oklahoma has had small earthquakes like this. It is not uncommon as we sit on the Arkoma plate (little known fact: The Arbuckle mountains were the largest in the world....about 130 million yrs ago). I remember quakes as far back as I can remember and I can even remember the dumb local news outlets mistaking a B52 landing at night for yet another earthquake (circa 1991 or so). This is not a news story, rather, it is an opportunity for the anti-fracking crowd to push its agenda when the opportunity is ripe. Whether it has any basis in reality is quite a different question...

    The quakes were centered almost in the middle of the state. Unfortunately for the anti-fracking crowd, all of the fracking in the state is going on in the Woodford Shale [], which is South / Southwest of where the quakes occured (by a lot). While earthquakes being caused by fracking cater to our common senses, there just isn't ANY evidence that the two are linked. And I mean in that statistical "causation" way. *NO* regulatory agency, body, or otherwise has indicated otherwise.

    Additionally, the Woodford shale deposit has been in active development for many many years. Fracking didn't just start there a few years ago. Try a decade or more.

    While I never say never, I will only say that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. And it's an extraordinary claim to suggest our fracking is starting earthquakes here in Oklahoma.
  • by jarrettwold2002 (601633) on Monday November 14, 2011 @03:32PM (#38052042)

    If you want to see if fracking leads to an increase in geological activity, keeping an eye on North Dakota might be interesting. We have a large scale oil boom happening here. The Bakken formation is being rapidly developed using fracking in an ever increasing scale.

    The state is also relatively stable. [] []

  • Re:Probably. (Score:5, Informative)

    by hawguy (1600213) on Monday November 14, 2011 @03:35PM (#38052064)

    Most of the news around here (Oklahoma) is saying probably not. The seismologists that have been on are saying that, while the earthquakes were shallow, they were still far too deep to be caused by fracking.

    Hmm...the big Oklahoma quake was 3.1 miles deep (the smaller quakes leading up to it were around 2.5 - 3.5 miles deep). Fracking wells are typically 1 to 4 miles deep.

    The Woodford shale formation under Oklahoma ranges from 5000 - 12000 feet. (around 1 to 2.25 miles)

    Sounds like it's in the same ballpark, I'm not saying that the fracking and earthquakes are definitely related, but I wouldn't call the quake "far too deep" to have resulted from fracking.

  • Re:Probably. (Score:5, Informative)

    by GodInHell (258915) on Monday November 14, 2011 @03:51PM (#38052232) Homepage
    Think of the deep strata as a series of huge boulders and sets of rock formation lying atop one another -- like a big dry masonry wall. At first the surface pressure only creates small releases, a rock high up the formation shifts slightly or cracks releasing pressure. Some of that pressure is immediately released in the form of a tremor, the rest remains as potential energy. Now the weight of that stone which had been held up (in part) by an arch or lintel farther up the structure is putting pressure directly down onto the lower surfaces. Not only that, but the shift has changed the entire structural dynamic of the earth -- suddenly hundreds of small stress points and load-bearing surfaces bear down onto a smaller and smaller area -- or rest on a long wide surface -- when that fault shifts or cracks the combined potential energy trapped in all the mass weighing on the fault is released.

    So, it depends -- if the small quakes were all caused by a single fault shifting, then yes breaking that motion up into a series of smaller movements means there is less potential energy in the position of the strata around the fault -- if, however, the smaller quakes are movement on other faults or the impact of rock settling into the gaps and pockets once occupied by natural gas under pressure -- then you might just be loading up the weight on that big fault creating a higher potential for a big movement.

  • by ricky-road-flats (770129) on Monday November 14, 2011 @03:55PM (#38052280)

    While earthquakes being caused by fracking cater to our common senses, there just isn't ANY evidence that the two are linked. And I mean in that statistical "causation" way. *NO* regulatory agency, body, or otherwise has indicated otherwise.

    Except HERE... []

  • Chaos in Mathematics (Score:3, Informative)

    by mx+b (2078162) on Monday November 14, 2011 @04:13PM (#38052470)

    The butterfly effect is a statement of chaos, which from a mathematical perspective is mostly described as "extreme sensitivity to conditions". In other words, using the same mathematical model and equation to predict weather a week from now, but with two different but very similar starting conditions (say, the temperature is 74 F vs 75 F one day, but all other conditions the same), after a sufficient amount of time, the two solutions (for each initial condition) to the equation, or predictions if you want to call them that, appear so wildly different that you probably wouldn't even realize they were solutions of the same equation if no one told you. "A butterfly flapping its wings" is a bit hyperbolic, but the idea is the same -- the small changes in pressure (due to the butterfly flapping, presumably) in the initial conditions of your model evolve to become a radical difference in predictions long-run. How long-run is long-run is another story, but eventually your solutions will diverge wildly. You can make these statements precise in a mathematical sense if you know some analysis.

    But, this is a confirmed mathematical phenomena that exists in many useful equations. It's not well-understood in general terms (i.e., there's no general theory on predicting the behavior of equations for arbitrary conditions), but it definitely exists. The protoypical example is the Lorenz equations if you would like to read more.

  • Re:Butterfly Effect (Score:4, Informative)

    by blair1q (305137) on Monday November 14, 2011 @04:26PM (#38052662) Journal

    Except that the atmosphere doesn't work that way. It ignores small disturbances, dissipating them rather than concentrating them. In order for a tornado to form that causes damage to a 5-10 square mile footprint along its path, the atmosphere has to coalesce the rotational energy from a mesocyclone tens or hundreds of miles across, and to form that required days worth of planning by the sun and the jet stream. There's no supercritical point where the atmosphere can be kicked between tornado and not-tornado by any input that's much smaller than the tornado itself. Getting a hurricane to happen is an even bigger proposition. The difference caused by a 1-degree change in the surface temperature of the Atlantic Ocean (and how much energy is that?) is only enough to maybe change the hurricane from one category to another. A butterfly at full gallop is certainly not going to be the difference between a hurricane and a breezy day.

    The linking of butterflies to even hypothetical weather changes is fanciful ignorance.

  • Re:What Chemicals?? (Score:5, Informative)

    by LoyalOpposition (168041) on Monday November 14, 2011 @04:27PM (#38052668)

    "Chemicals" do not describe WHAT they actually use. Includes Sodium Hydroxide or Caustic Soda.
    Drain cleaner like Draino or Lye as it was formerly called. They are dissolving matter to create more passages.
    This is besides the fracking debate. Asked why, the industry used "chemicals" and not the true names of the agents,
    they said to hide their 'formula' contents.

    The most abundant chemical used in fracing is water. This is the same water that your waiter serves you with your meal. It's not unusual for frac fluid to be 89% water by mass. I have been on a job that didn't use water. It used oil. When oil is used it's commonly lease oil. That means that oil was produced from the well, mixed into a fracturing fluid, and then pumped back into the well. However, the use of oil as a frac fluid is quite rare. The vast majority of frac jobs use water.

    The second most abundant chemical used in fracing is sand. This is the same sand that you lie on while enjoying a day at the beach. I have personally mixed a frac fluid that was 73% sand. However, it's much too difficult to mix and pump at that concentration, so all frac jobs will be performed at a lower concentration of sand. There are substitutes that are sometimes used in place of sand. One such substitute has been tungsten carbide. However, the use of tungsten carbide in frac fluids is rare. Sand is much less expensive, so it's used in the vast majority of fracturing jobs. It's not uncommon to use a resin-coated sand in the last portion of the fracturing job. Coating the sand in resin helps keep it in the fracture so that it isn't produced with the oil.

    The third most abundant chemical used in fracing is guar. This is the same chemical that your waiter serves in your salad dressing. It turns water into a thin gel. Gelled water is used in fracturing fluid because sand doesn't tend to settle out in gel as quickly as it settles out in water.

    Those three chemicals are all that's necessary for many fracturing jobs. There are other chemicals that may be used. For example, sometimes a crosslinker is used to make the gel really thick. Crosslinkers can be toxic. However, any other chemical used will be used in low concentrations. If for no other reason, then to reduce costs. You can imagine how inexpensive water can be. Similarly, you can imagine how inexpensive sand can be. Guar can be expensive, but fortunately for the fracturing companies, very little is needed.

    If sodium hydroxide is used, it's used to raise the pH. It's not used to create passages. If passages are desired, then they are created using hydrochloric acid. This is the same acid that occurs naturally in your stomach. Jobs that create passages in this manner are called acidizing jobs. It would not be usual to have a fracturing job and an acidizing job at the same time. The passages created by acid don't tend to collapse back down upon themselves. The passage created by hydraulic pressure does tend to collapse back down upon itself, so sand is pumped into the passage to keep the passage open for when the hydraulic pressure is removed.

    The reason the industry uses the term "chemicals" IS to hide the formula. There is intense competition between the companies that provide fracturing services. The actual chemicals used is considered to be a trade secret. Therefore, as long as the fracturing companies continue to hide the true name then they are protected by law. If they were to reveal that name, then anyone would be able to provide the same service and that would drive the price they could charge downward. Of course, it's an open secret that water and sand are used. It's also an open secret that guar is used, but even so it's still used under trademarked names. Why? What reason do you think they have for concealing the true name of their agents?


  • Re:Probably. (Score:5, Informative)

    by Jeremy Erwin (2054) on Monday November 14, 2011 @04:34PM (#38052764) Journal

    What is "Fracking"? Well, it's the tunneling down in to the ground to extract natural gas.

    Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man. []

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