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When drilling isn't drilling

In a startlingly misleading article today, the Telegraph is trying to insinuate a link between oil and gas drilling and earthquakes. It's one of those articles that is so bad that nobody wants to own up to having written it. It's an agency piece, but without even the name of the agency!

Richard Black and co are trying to hype things up of course:

Scientists more certain than ever that oil, gas drilling causes earth tremors

...but you wouldn't look to ECIU if you're interested in the facts. If you read a little further it seems that this is an article about wastewater injection.

"The picture is very clear" that wastewater injection can cause faults to move, said USGS geophysicist William Ellsworth.

Until recently, Oklahoma - one of the biggest energy-producing states - had been cautious about linking the spate of quakes to drilling. But the Oklahoma Geological Survey acknowledged earlier this week that it is "very likely" that recent seismic activity was caused by the injection of wastewater into disposal wells.

They are beyond redemption.

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Reader Comments (33)

Years ago- decades, even- I recall reading about a series of tremors occurring after the military (if I recall rightly) injected waste water(?) into the strata near a dam, somewhere in the southwest US.

That's what I recall anyway, 70s, early 80s. I suppose if you choose the right site by accident (and Hey! You know what conspiracy theorists would say, it wasn't!), then you could cause a bit of ruckus.

Apr 24, 2015 at 9:25 AM | Unregistered CommenterOtter (ClimateOtter on Twitter)

Insofar as waste water injection is a necessary consequence of fracking (is it always?), while the writer confuses the issues, the earthquake issue still remains?

Apr 24, 2015 at 9:27 AM | Unregistered CommenterRoddy

Forgive me for asking, but according to the graphic, the red dots indicate "Powerful Earthquakes" in 2015, yet I have heard nothing about these "Powerful Earthquakes" in the news, mainstream or otherwise. To me the amount of fracking going on far outways these "Powerful Earthquakes" so the risk seems rather small, but I am only a structural engineer after all. I am sure though that Oklahoma is not unique, & like here in the UK it receives many tremours every day, but they are just so slight that no one ever notices them, apart from those Newbury dwellers where the earthquake guys use to reside if they are not still there!

Apr 24, 2015 at 9:30 AM | Unregistered CommenterAlan the Brit

But there is a UK/EU-wide ban on re-injecting fracking waste water. On the other hand if you want to pump water around rickety old mineshafts for short-lived 'green' geothermal energy then no problem!

Apr 24, 2015 at 9:38 AM | Unregistered CommenterJamesG

Surely a hundred tiny shocks is better than one big one. Just like 2 degrees of warming is a lot better than 2 degrees of cooling

Apr 24, 2015 at 9:44 AM | Unregistered CommenterEternalOptimist

New York Times on same:

Apr 24, 2015 at 9:51 AM | Unregistered Commenterrms

The US Geological Survey did not find "fracking" was the cause of the earthquakes:

"Hydraulic fracturing, a drilling technique that injects a high-pressure mix of water and chemicals into the ground to break rock formations and release gas, has drawn widespread attention. But injecting water to dispose of waste from drilling or production is a far greater contributor to earthquakes."

Apr 24, 2015 at 10:06 AM | Registered Commentergeronimo

So injecting a small amount of incompressible fluid for a short period in time is an unacceptable risk but injecting thousands of tons of gas under high pressure for geological time frames in the name of carbon sequestration is OK !

Pardon me but given my engineering training tells me of the huge amounts of energy present in the form of liquified or compressed gas I know which frightens me , and its not fracking !

Apr 24, 2015 at 10:09 AM | Unregistered CommenterKeith Willshaw

Given what Richard Black did when he was employed by the BBC, how can anyone be surprised by his current behaviour.

Apr 24, 2015 at 10:42 AM | Unregistered Commentercharmingquark

Just left this over at the DT:

I note that Oklahoma is running an active carbon sequestration program to inject CO2 underground. So if waste-water injection can (might?) cause slight earth tremors, what will happen with injecting high pressure gas into the ground?

What a rubbish article.

Apr 24, 2015 at 10:44 AM | Unregistered CommenterHarry Passfield

A bit of Science folks: If you inject 105 Bar liquid CO2 below 3000 ft or 105 Bar hydraulic pressure from water, there is no pressure difference, only displaced water!

Apr 24, 2015 at 11:00 AM | Unregistered CommenterNCC 1701E

This from the article:

Earthquake activity in Oklahoma in 2013 was 70 times greater than it was before 2008, state geologists reported. Oklahoma historically recorded an average of 1.5 quakes of magnitude 3 or greater each year. It is now seeing an average of 2.5 such quakes each day, according to geologists.
Makes me wonder if the seismograph has been re-located near a slamming door....'Cos it reminds me of a noise study done in the early days of the OU: A couple of friends of mine (students) took a Db meter and stood on a bridge over the (then new) M6 with the task of measuring traffic noise. They found that every car was remarkably similar in noise generation and that it was pretty consistent - enough to cause them to think the road surface needed to be looked at. Then they twigged it: Every time a car came along the 'spotter' would call 'NOW', and the meter-reader would take the reading.

Apr 24, 2015 at 11:02 AM | Registered CommenterHarry Passfield

There were 2013 earthquakes in Oklahoma* in 2014.

3 were less than magnitude 2.0
1424 were between 2.0 and 2.9 inclusive
571 were between 3.0 and 3.9 inclusive
15 were between 4.0 and 4.4

It looks like they are only considering earthquakes of magnitude 3 and over.

According to wiki there are over 100,000 of these quakes every year. They can be felt by people and might rattle your plates (pun intended) but damage is rare. The largest quake (4.4) might rock your car and break a few dishes.

From what I have been able to find, they frack at between 1 and 2km depth in Oklahoma so how many of these 586 quakes occurred at less than 3km depth?

The answer is 24 of which only one was a magnitude 4.

* For the search area I drew a rectangle around Oklahoma that excluded the panhandle but included bits of Northern Texas.

Apr 24, 2015 at 11:02 AM | Unregistered CommenterTerryS

Re: Harry Passfield

> Makes me wonder if the seismograph has been re-located near a slamming door.

It makes me wonder how many extra seismographs have been installed. It would be nice to know the number and distribution of seismographs in Oklahoma over the past decades.

If you read any of the planning applications for drilling fracking wells in the UK they include the installation of seismographs to measure activity. I wonder if anything similar is being done in the US and this is just the result of finding something they never previously looked for.

Apr 24, 2015 at 11:10 AM | Unregistered CommenterTerryS


I wonder if anything similar is being done in the US and this is just the result of finding something they never previously looked for.
Bloody good point.

Apr 24, 2015 at 11:25 AM | Registered CommenterHarry Passfield

The mysterious source of the Telegraph article might be a piece in the 13 April copy of "The New Yorker". It is entitled "Letter from Oklahoma-Weather Underground" and is sub-titled "the arrival of man-made earthquakes ". The author is Rivka Galchen . She is a writer and journalist, has an English degree from Princeton, and has published a novel called "Atmospheric Disturbances."

Apr 24, 2015 at 11:32 AM | Unregistered CommenterDavid Petch

Natural Gas extraction from under the province of Groningen in the north of The Netherlands *has* caused earthquakes and widespread property damage.

KNMI [Dutch met office] has recorded 1012 induced earthquakes in the Netherlands from 1986 until the end of 2013. Most of these quakes occur in the north of the country and 720 are related to the Groningen gas field. Of these 720 events 234 had a magnitude of 1.5 or higher, below this magnitude earthquakes are seldom noticed by humans"

Link to article about Gas Fields

Apr 24, 2015 at 12:16 PM | Unregistered CommenterFarleyR

If fracking and “storage” can cause such devastating effect upon the Earth’s mantle, imagine what would happen should someone have the idea of setting of an atomic bomb deep underground! Good job no-one’s thought of doing that, eh?

Apr 24, 2015 at 12:18 PM | Registered CommenterRadical Rodent

Either the gas and oil wells are causing the earthquakes of the seismologists have started looking for things they didn't look for before.

Now here's the problem, this increase in earthquakes we're told is a recent problem according to reports and according the the Oklahoma Geological Survey is likely to have been caused by wastewater from oil and gas drilling. Except, and there's always and "except" in this game, oil and gas production has fallen in Oklahoma, oil has been steadily decreasing since a peak in the mid-70s and gas has been decreasing since the mid-90s. Oil and Gas Production in Oklahoma.

So the question remains why has a decrease activity given rise to more earthquakes? And haven't we seen the earthquakes when activities were at their peak.

Smelly fish I say.

Apr 24, 2015 at 12:39 PM | Registered Commentergeronimo

My reading of the science is that there is a small likelyhood of a tremor but these are all R2.5 or less. This level of energy release is unnoticable to most and causes zero damage.

Since it is a fault movement that causes a quake fracking might eae the tension and cause a quake of zero damage when a later unlubricated slip could cause a R5-7 quake. A more frightening prospect.

Apr 24, 2015 at 12:49 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Marshall

Sorry folks.

''eae'' should read ''ease''.

Finger trouble again.

Apr 24, 2015 at 12:51 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Marshall

From the Seismo Blog ...

Fracking, Injecting and Quakes

As seismologists, we are often asked if fracking, the brute force technology for the advanced recovery of hydrocarbons and geothermal energy from underground reservoirs, causes earthquakes. The answer is a clear yes, because, simply put, fracking is the very definition of an earthquake. The sole purpose of fracking is to break the rock underground, so that fluids and gases can flow more easily. It is this rock breaking, which in Earth science is commonly defined as an earthquake. There are, however, many major differences between a frack quake and the kind of temblors we are experiencing here in California all the time.
[ ... ]
Most [ injection wells ] cause no problems at all, but a few dozen of them are associated with significant earthquakes.

The whole article is brief, interesting and informative.

Apr 24, 2015 at 1:22 PM | Unregistered CommenterSpeed


"Except, and there's always and "except" in this game, oil and gas production has fallen in Oklahoma, oil has been steadily decreasing since a peak in the mid-70s and gas has been decreasing since the mid-90s. Oil and Gas Production in Oklahoma.

So the question remains why has a decrease activity given rise to more earthquakes? And haven't we seen the earthquakes when activities were at their peak."

It's diminishing returns. The early production was easily to extract but as that has dried up, the operators have had to turn into increasingly complex methods. One method is to "dewater" wells - effectively pumping out 7.5 barrels of water to recover 1 barrel of oil. The issue is with what they do with the 7.5 barrels of waste water afterwards.

Currently some states permit the wastewater to be disposed off by pumping it back underground (not necessary into a reservoir formation). Some of these injection wells are on a very large scale now and have been linked to clusters of earthquakes hence the calls to ban wastewater injection.

To put it in perspective, wastewater injection is already prohibited in the UK - all onshore oil and gas producers have to dispose of their wastewater through the normal industrial water treatment plants (it contains traces of naturally occuring radioactive material).

It is not hydraulic fracturing that is responsible here but anti-fracking groups willfully confuse the two anyway.

There's an interesting Bloomberg article here -

Apr 24, 2015 at 2:33 PM | Unregistered CommenterAnon

The video may not have reached across the sea, but there was one depicting structural damage caused by one of these tremors. It was a residential masonry chimney with less than a third of the mortar needed to assure any sort of bond - and that mortar not well adhered to the brick. It was likely standing more from habit than structural integrity.

Anyone leaning against it could have caused its "deconstruction."

Notwithstanding this sorry bit of 'evidence", I don't find it all that improbable that seismic activity could be provoked by pumping water into the appropriate strata, assuming that this was what was actually happening.

Apr 24, 2015 at 3:19 PM | Registered Commenterjferguson

'Mining induced seismicity' is well known and fails to excite anyone when it is a result of coal mining.

See: British Geological Survey study of Ollerton 'earthquakes':

Why all the hysteria when equally insignificant tremors are caused by fracking?

Apr 24, 2015 at 4:15 PM | Unregistered CommenterDB


Why all the hysteria when equally insignificant tremors are caused by fracking?
Because they are caused by fracking! Or, at least, because they can be said to be have been caused by fracking. Know you nothing of the mentality of the… erm... persons… involved in this “debate”?

Stick around, kid, and take a look at some of the trolls that inhabit this site to see what I mean – “Facts? Pshaw! What have facts to do with it? Anyway, you are all a bunch of swivel-eyed loonies! I don’t know why I bother coming on this site…” But come, they do. Good for a larf, really.

Apr 24, 2015 at 6:51 PM | Registered CommenterRadical Rodent

Drilling cannot cause earthquakes. This is beyond dispute.

Fluid injection can cause minor earthquakes. Its hardly news. My open essay for my final degree exams in 1984 was on the injection of waste water causing stimulation of minor earthquakes, supported by data. At the time the focus was on the idea that water injection in to known earthquake zones could result in stress relief, thus leading to many minor 'quakes, rather than allowing build up of large stresses which, when finally released, would result in high damage earthquakes.

In other words, water injection in to known fault zones was seen as a potential tool for mitigating against large earthquakes and therefore a good thing. How times have changed.

Apr 24, 2015 at 6:52 PM | Unregistered Commenterthinkingscientist


Thanks for raising that point. It strikes me that way too many people who are concerned about the earthquake issue from water injection have now conception of where the energy released in these quakes come from. The injected fluid is apparently lubricating the fault zones such that the stress accumulated within the rocks is allowed to release in small bits, rather than all at once.

Apr 24, 2015 at 7:39 PM | Unregistered CommenterEarle

See for a USGS article on induced earthquakes, it has more from Bill Ellsworth, quoted in our esteemed host's post above.
Example quote:
"Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking,” does not appear to be linked to the increased rate of magnitude 3 and larger earthquakes."

Apr 24, 2015 at 9:02 PM | Unregistered Commenterrussep3

There are a number of physical issues with the claims.

The last time the rabid were screeching about fracking causing quakes and the USGS followed the big POTUS's orders to find a linkage, I took the time to get the coordinates for the quakes and where the closest fracking events were.

The closest quakes were miles away from the frack sites with the closest distance at two to three miles away in a straight line, more if the hypotenuse is drawn to the depth of the quake.

Rift or strike slip faults do not run in straight lines, nor are they simple cracks.

Consider just how much water it would take, forced under pressure directly into the fault that slipped causing a quake, just to cause that quake miles away? Force that water into a distant indirect fault and the water necessary multiplies.

Earthquake faults cut through existing aquifers, groundwater streams, lakes and even the nearby Mississippi River. They are as lubricated as they get.

What is worrying is that these quakes, even the ones in Oklahoma are near enough to the New Madrid fault to be considered related. Small earthquakes on nearby faults indicate increasing stress on the big fault. If there was any truth to fracking causing earthquakes, St. Louis should be fracking wells all around the New Madrid fault.

Apr 25, 2015 at 3:59 AM | Unregistered CommenterATheoK

Probably best to abandon plans to pump CO2 into the ground then. It is obviously dangerous. Well done the greens, arguing themselves up their own backsides again just like they did with nuclear power.
Vote Nathalie Bennett...not.

Apr 25, 2015 at 9:48 AM | Unregistered CommenterSteve Jones

Oh, you guys - you all beat me to it..!

Clearly pumping CO2 under high pressure underground is about as stupid as it gets....

Never mind being a huge waste of money (OURS), equipment and resources, in response to a problem that doesn't even exist....

Apr 25, 2015 at 9:57 AM | Unregistered Commentersherlock1

The Texas study is published here:

It's reasonable, but their conclusion that the earthquakes studied are anthropogenic is based on a MODEL!

A model which "Owing to uncertainties in gas production and gas volumes in the Ellenburger, the model currently does not account for multiphase flow." Most of these gas wells have multiphase flow- they produce gas and brine that is reinjected...

Apr 27, 2015 at 1:18 AM | Unregistered CommenterMark Cooper

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