Saturday, November 12, 2011

Fracking and Earthquakes: Bug or Feature?

According to a recent news story, there is good evidence that forcing water into deep wells, done (among other reasons) in the process of fracturing rock to get at natural gas, causes earthquakes. The story takes it for granted that this is an argument against fracking, but while that might be true, it is by no means obvious.

The energy for an earthquake has to come from somewhere, and I don't think the amount of energy that goes into pumping water underground can be close to enough. What is presumably happening is that pumping in the water causes the release of energy that is already there. Dissipating that energy might mean lots of small earthquakes instead of a small number of big ones, which would probably be a net benefit. 

If so, what has been identified is not a bug but a feature.

Do any of my readers have more information on the subject?


At 12:14 PM, November 12, 2011, Blogger Albert Ling said...

but is it a fact that absent frequent "releases" the energy keeps building up?

if that's the case then this is a very good argument pro-fracking

At 12:39 PM, November 12, 2011, Blogger KPres said...

I love it. As a byproduct of pursuing ways to exploit nature on behalf of humanity, we discover that we can protect ourselves from one of nature's worst catastrophes.

Que treehuggers' heads exploding.

You would assume so, given that the plates are always moving.

At 2:09 PM, November 12, 2011, Anonymous RKN said...

The biggest earthquakes most likely to do major damage have hypocenters much deeper than the depths reached by drilling and fracing. It's certainly possible that injecting large volumes of water into deep wells may cause small earthquakes to occur more frequently, but again, I don't think most of these quakes are typically of high enough magnitude to cause significant damage.

I also don't think we know enough about which trigger will cause which quake, i.e. where and how big, to make "engineering quakes" a good idea.

There were some semi-serious proposals years ago to lubricate deep faults to prevent big earthquakes, but I don't think any of those proposals have been acted on.

At 2:48 PM, November 12, 2011, Anonymous Andrew said...

There's no evidence that small earthquakes dissipate the energy behind large earthquakes. In fact, a lot of the evidence shows the opposite.

This is simply a false myth promoted by people who took Geology 101 and think they're experts because of it.

More info:

At 3:10 PM, November 12, 2011, Anonymous joeftansey said...

Petro engineer here.

The consensus in the petro industry and academics is that "fracking" does not cause significant earthquakes. TECHNICALLY it does, but nothing that anyone at the surface would register as an earthquake.

The media likes to take the fact that these are technically earthquakes, and that earthquakes cause lots of damage, to make a big story out of this. Leftist busybodies who don't understand math and want to feel good about themselves occasionally try to get the government to crack down on Fracking. They would be laughed out of academia but I guess when you're presenting before a judge who is himself an illiterate self important sociopath, you can get taken seriously.

More directly to your post though, the most hardcore artificial fractures are less than 1000 ft long. Most frac jobs give fractures less than 100ft long. And most oil fields aren't anywhere near residential areas anyway.

But it would make a good movie/news story.

At 3:39 PM, November 12, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Joe F Tansey -

Given your voice of authority here, I assume you are in a position to tell us what, exactly, is being injected underground in the fracking process.

Care to enlighten us?

I know you don't have to, because Cheney exempted you from the Safe Water Act, but since you're speaking out, please share.

At 6:12 PM, November 12, 2011, Blogger David Friedman said...

"This is simply a false myth promoted by people who took Geology 101 and think they're experts because of it."

I didn't take Geology 101, alas. I did check my post with my wife, who is a geologist, however, and she thought it sounded plausible.

At 7:43 PM, November 12, 2011, Anonymous joeftansey said...


Right. So what they do is inject a ton of in and fracture the rock. They usually start with brine i.e. salt water. They may move to polymer, which is typically more viscous and might have some neat properties (like becoming more viscous the faster you pump it).

After the rock has been fractured, they keep pumping fluid. But they add "proppant", which is very hard material to keep the fracture open. They want the fracture to flow easily so the kind of material they use tends to be pretty large and uniform in shape. You can think of it like holding the rock open with marbles.

Then, they stop pumping. The proppant holds the fracture in place (hopefully).

The whole process could conceivably reduce some pent up tension in the rock. It could also add tension to the rock. But who the hell cares because this is all on a scale WAY smaller than real earthquakes. Both in terms of space (thousands of feet) and magnitude (you can barely feel it if you're standing right over the well).

Also, large earthquakes are caused by like... plates shifting and stuff. Its like being worried that a babe ruth might hit a baseball hard enough to destroy the earth just because a meteor could.

David D. Friedman's point is that this is automatically assumed to be a bad thing, when there are also reasons to think that nature is not optimal and changing it might be okay maybe sometimes.

At 9:13 PM, November 12, 2011, Blogger montestruc said...

the mechanism would be lubrication of the plates rubbing against each other. So that rather than buiding up a great deal of strain energy, they build up much less and release it as the friction coefficient is less. Careful selection of mud (drilling mud) types could minimize the friction coefficient.

In principle I agree it could reduce the intensity of earthquakes.

At 11:06 AM, November 13, 2011, Blogger jimbino said...

I think the same is true of overpopulation and war. We spend enormous amounts of our wealth worldwide making the planet safer for breeding. Aids, malaria, SIDS, flu, pneumonia, dysentery are falling to advances in vaccines and early intervention in childhood diseases.

I think we are just setting ourselves up for another World War to relieve the obvious stress on the planet.

At 7:40 AM, November 14, 2011, Blogger Jon said...

I worked for a nuclear power plant as an intern in college. While teaching us about the hazards of radiation they on the sly also let us know that there is some reason to think a little radiation is probably good for you. Mr. Burns thought the same. A three eyed fish? Delicious.

Haliburton makes a lot of money in fracking. Cheney pushed through legislation that exempted fracking from the Safe Water Drinking Act and EPA oversight. They tell us the stuff they pump in the ground is really safe. They just don't want the EPA to see it. We should trust them. And there's no known cases of harm. Meanwhile people have settled out of court for the destruction to their property and severe gag orders are imposed. Why a gag order? If there's no problem, why not let the public discuss what is happening?

The answer is the same as always. Profits.

At 4:24 PM, November 14, 2011, Blogger Milhouse said...

Jon, a little radiation almost certainly is good for you. Why do you think it's not?

How exactly did Cheney, who had no vote in either house, "push through" legislation of any kind? And why do you slyly insinuate that he would be doing improper favours for Halliburton? He no longer worked there, and had no financial interest in how well or poorly the company did, so what exactly do you imagine would motivate him to do such a thing?

Settlement of lawsuits commonly include confidentiality clauses. The most obvious reason is that the company doesn't want everyone to know exactly how much of a sucker it is, and how much can be extracted from it by what sort of tactics.

At 4:40 PM, November 14, 2011, Anonymous joeftansey said...

Water contamination is a separate issue. The long and short is that property rights are poorly defined and overseen by the state (usually local governments) who have little incentive to be diligent stewards.

But yeah. The kinds of contaminants we're usually talking about are like... brine and calcites and stuff that won't be able to make it 1000ft let alone to your tap. Speaking of taps, if you look at your fresh water filter, you will realize that it uses a porous medium of coal to filter out contaminants. I wonder what they're fracking...

And the fresh water table is typically at least a mile above where they're fracking, and behind 3 strings of pipe so trololol I don't think there's any reason for overwhelming concern. I mean, you could get a leak, but its far from the norm.

At 11:01 AM, November 15, 2011, Anonymous Francis said...

Well, when San Francisco was hit by a significant earthquake in the late 80s, I asked a friend, who had a Master's degree in Physical Geography (e.g., plate tectonics and stuff), if that by any chance that quake did not delay the "big one", by virtue of releasing a bit of its accumulated energy.

She answered: "That's possible." It turns out though that the geography of the area is very complicated and there are faults whose working does not impact the others. Still, it was not impossible.

This being said, I think the comment above that says the dangerous earthquakes are the deep ones is probably the best observation.

At 2:01 PM, November 15, 2011, Blogger Jon said...

Jon, a little radiation almost certainly is good for you. Why do you think it's not?

A little is good for you. Getting into the sun is good for you. But that's not a lot of gamma rays. That's UV, visible, and infrared radiation. I'm told exposure to gamma rays can be harmful.

How exactly did Cheney, who had no vote in either house, "push through" legislation of any kind?

Cheney upon taking office was immediately pressuring the EPA to exempt fracking from the Safe Water Drinking Act. One source for this came is ProPublica, which you can read about here:

Speculate about his motives if you like, but this is what happened.

The most obvious reason is that the company doesn't want everyone to know exactly how much of a sucker it is, and how much can be extracted from it by what sort of tactics.

They are just embarassed at exposing how easily they can be pushed around? You don't think they'd have an interest in keeping the lid on behavior that reflected badly on the company or on the safety of their procedures?

At 7:34 AM, November 16, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course it's possible...has anybody seen the James Bond movie "A View To A Kill"!

At 8:18 AM, November 16, 2011, Anonymous Peter said...

An academic economist is not an expert on tracking or the geological forces of earthquakes. And for all the right-wing commenters using this piece of information (which has not been backed up with any sources or facts) to simply bash the Left, I hope you end up with a tracking operation in your area. When your tap water bursts into flames or your family gets cancer from contaminated groundwater, then you'll have no one but yourselves to blame.

At 8:29 AM, November 16, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Deep well injection of fluids can cause small earthquakes. This happened during the 1960s in the Denver area (I forgot the reference) and in the Rangely oil field in Colorado. The mechanism is not lubrication, but reduction of confining stress due to increased hydraulic pressure. I doubt that fracking has any influence on fault-generated earthquakes because fracking wells do not reach the depths where sufficient shear stress exists to generate tectonic earthquakes. The Oklahoma earthquakes occurred at depths of about 5 km, which is a very shallow seismic depth, but considerably deeper than nearby wells.

At 3:30 PM, November 17, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just don't think that fracking can really have any affect on the geological forces involved. Earthquakes happen because of whole continents moving, across thousands of kilometres of fault lines. How can one release energy stored across so much space by a tiny tiny tiny pin prick (maybe the analogy isn't quite right what you know what I am getting at). i think that fracking mostly causes the small earthquakes rather then prevents big ones.

in any case this is a VERY interesting conjecture. It would be very worth while to test this because, who know, maybe this is a way to prevent large earth quakes. a way to smooth out the continental drift...interesting

At 9:03 PM, November 17, 2011, Anonymous joeftansey said...

If fracking, or any sort of subsurface process could be used to preempt earthquakes, they'd already be in use. The mathematics have been around since the 50's.

At 12:49 PM, November 19, 2011, Blogger Pace said...

It does not sound unreasonable to call this a feature, but what if you released the Big One and killed many people who would have otherwise lived out their natural lives?

Any benefits from fracking are outweighed by orders of magnitude by the poisoning of the water supply and the ultimate release of greenhouse gas.

At 10:07 AM, November 21, 2011, Blogger neil craig said...

The 2 "eartyhquakes" in Britain were magnitude 2.2 & 1.5. Since 2 is the level at which a vibration becomes even detectable to people I think the term "earthquake" a massive and deliberate exageration. "Earth tremor" would still be an exageration. These would not merit half a sentence in any newspaper (indeed generations of similar tremors didn't get that much coverage) were it not fotr the anti-technology movement.

Once again we are seeing the Luddite movement desperately looking around for something to frighten people to stop us getting richer, safer and more comfortable and ignoring them. Nobody has been able to name even one of the hundreds of catastrophe scare stories produced by faux environmentalists which has come even close to proving true.

At the very least they should be continuously asked to acknowledge that the term "quake" is is false and "tremor" closer to truth.

At 7:25 AM, November 26, 2011, Anonymous DB said...

I can put you in contact with a Geology instructor of mine, I do not think Fracking operations cause near enough energy to cause any noticeable earthquake activity beyond that of the rig site and even that is questionable. Or, better yet, contact the USGS, they could notify you if their is any notable seismic activity at or near a large number of known Fracking site

At 11:15 PM, November 26, 2011, Anonymous Andy Z said...

Always entertained to find someone calling DDF part of the "luddite movement".


At 10:51 AM, December 04, 2011, Blogger IlĂ­on said...

"The energy for an earthquake has to come from somewhere, and I don't think the amount of energy that goes into pumping water underground can be close to enough."

Indeed, and how energy-wasteful it would be to pump that much energy into the ground, just to get hydrocarbons, rather than simply using the energy in the first place.

"What is presumably happening is that pumping in the water causes the release of energy that is already there. Dissipating that energy might mean lots of small earthquakes instead of a small number of big ones, which would probably be a net benefit.

Sounds right.

At 3:33 AM, December 06, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmm, nobody even tries to address the commentator who pointed out that fracking is immune from the clean water act. Why? Do you think the "magic" of markets will just take care of this somehow without property rights to clean water being in place, along with a mechanism for restitution?

This is what makes me crazy about anarchists. You seem to ignore that we don't live in an anarchic setting, yet just want to destroy govt partially in the current setting, leaving us vulnerable. It's immoral and anti-intellectual.

Take this entire conversation. There are actually real scientists who are very concerned about the cumulative effects of concentrations of fracking operations in concentrated areas. A few google searches will bring this up. Richard Ross at Geneseo in NY or Seeber at Coumbia. There is an actual scientific debate going on on the topic that is currently unresolved, but you guys aren't even in it. The underlying tone is that, whatevs, it's fine, its just a bunch of hysterical lefties. Wake up - even hysterical lefties can be right about science.

Worse yet, Joe asks David to tell him what's being injected and some other poster gives the generic answer - which doesn't describe the actual ingredients. Why in the world wouldn't even an anarchist want to be aware of what's being injected into the water table in anyone's water supply, particularly his/hers?

Another way of looking at it is that the Clean Water Act is an attempt to give us property rights for clean water (very imperfectly, I know). One would think an anarchist would like to be able to drink the water that comes out of their faucet, and accordingly would find it only reasonable to know what chemicals are being shot into it.

My point? This is a political/ideological conversation posing as an actual inquiry about the nature of fracking. It comes off as agit prop and talking points rather than substantial. Typical from people so addicted to their political philosophy that they can't divorce themselves from polemic even when they try. Take some solace, it doesn't just happen to anarchists, it happens to Progressvies, NeoCons and Christian Communitarians too. Stop advocating for anarchy with every breath you take and try reasoning this through with facts, it would make for a much better conversation. Just sayin...

Glenn Donovan


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