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Stuart Hampton

Fracking’s Bad Rap: It Causes Earthquakes

by Stuart Hampton | Dun & Bradstreet Editor

August 24, 2016 | No Comments »

Fracking has been a hot topic on this blog over the years. And now there’s a recent headline: “Federal regulators believe there is a significant possibility that recent earthquakes in North Texas are linked to oil and gas activity.”

That headline plays into the hard-line environmentalist assumption (à la Gasland) that fracking (the pumping of water, sand, and additives at extremely high pressures down a well bore to expand cracks in deep layers of shale to release gas), carried out extensively in North Texas, is a procedure that results in polluted water supplies, hazardous air quality … and earthquakes.

On the other hand, the American Petroleum Institute will point to fracking as safe and a key factor in reducing US oil imports by about 50% over the past decade, and creating a surplus of natural gas that has lowered prices of that commodity. The Bakken, Eagle Ford, Marcellus, and other shale basins have led the way, as modern drilling technology (fracking and horizontal drilling) have given oil companies access to plentiful reserves that were previously hard to access.

But even as the latest EPA report links oil and gas activity to the increase in earthquakes in North Texas, only lazy journalism links fracking directly to earthquakes.

The EPA’s annual evaluation of the Texas Railroad Commission (which is responsible for the oversight of thousands of injection and disposal wells in oilfields across that state) came to the following conclusion: It is likely that it is the disposal of millions of gallons of toxic waste from all kinds of oil and gas drilling activities (post-drilling) that is causing the damage, not the fracking drilling process itself, or wastewater from fracking wells alone.

The injection of wastewater fluids into wastewater disposal wells (which often occurs in previously undrilled strata) can raise pressure levels more than enhanced oil recovery, and increase the likelihood of induced earthquakes. While fracking waste fluids are part of the mix, it is often a minor part. According to a government report, in many locations wastewater has little or nothing to do with hydraulic fracturing. In Oklahoma, less than 10% of the water injected into wastewater disposal wells is used hydraulic-fracturing fluid. Most of the wastewater in Oklahoma is saltwater that comes up along with oil during the extraction process.

The Texas Railroad Commission has established earthquake-related regulations for drilling operations in Texas that the EPA commends. The federal agency is also recommending more monitoring of injection wells and analysis of seismic activity in that state.

Significantly, despite these findings, the Texas Commission has not yet reported a link between wastewater injection and seismic activity in that state.

Whatever comes next in this debate, it is not government reports about oil-related earthquakes, or the ongoing controversy about fracking, that is inhibiting oil companies from conducting more drilling in North Texas, it is low crude and natural gas prices and oversupply.

British editorial veteran Stuart Hampton has been covering oil and gas companies for Hoover’s since the Neogene-Quaternary period. Well, actually, since the early 1990s. For the best overview of the oil industry and its history, he recommends Peter Doran’s “Breaking Rockefeller” and Daniel Yergin’s “The Prize.” You can also follow Stuart on Twitter.


Photo courtesy of EcoFlight.

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