Drilling wells can cause earthquakes, that is, human-made quakes, according to a new study that says the strongest quakes are associated with deep-injection wastewater disposal wells. Experts also now agree fracking can cause quakes, both of interest regarding the increase in quakes throughout the country.
A new study report about man-made earthquakes by drilling and fracking is of special interest regarding the Bayou Corne’s sinkhole disaster area in Assumption Parish, a potential new south Louisiana catastrophe.
Human-made activity triggers quakes
Environmental modifications (ENMOD) by drilling even simple water wells is directly linked to man-made seismic activity, according to a new study.
“Understanding how human-made activity triggers quakes” is important, Cornell University geophysicist Rowena Lohman recently said, referring to what the UN calls environmental modification techniques.
“‘Environmental modification techniques’ refers to any technique for changing – through the deliberate manipulation of natural processes – the dynamics, composition or structure of the Earth, including its biota, lithosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere, or of outer space,” states the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques. (United Nations, Geneva: 18 May 1977)
Humans dump hazardous waste into Class II injection wells to save money for companies that are changing the dynamics, composition and structure of the Earth.
Near Louisiana’s Assumption Parish giant and expanding sinkhole, Houston-based Texas Brine company had been authorized by the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources (LDNR) to inject into the company’s leased well in Napoleonville Salt Dome, hazardous waste including radioactive waste from oil and gas industry operations.
The well had problems in early 2011, was sealed and abandoned. After two months of locals experiencing seismic activities and observing methane bubbles percolating in nearby bayous, a large sinkhole emerged and has been expanding almost weekly ever since, with chunks of land and swamp trees falling into it. It is now the size of five football fields.
Seismometers picked up thousands of earthquakes (being called “tremors”) in the Assumption Parish sinkhole disaster area since June, according to seismologist Dr. Stephen Horton.
Earthquakes felt in the parish’s Bayou Corne, Grand Bayou and Pierre Part communities, each of which are over the 1-mile by 2-mile Napoleonville Salt Dome, were stronger than usual last week. The seismic activity was recorded in the vicinity of Texas Brine’s waste cavern, now known to be breached, in the salt dome that is also collapsing. Now, the outer edge of the salt dome is “gone” after a “frack-out” occurred, according to officials last week.
“Seismic issues have most commonly been linked to injection wastewater disposal wells, the accepted disposal method for wastewater generated from fracking,” the Times reports,
Strongest earthquakes are associated with deep-injection wastewater disposal wells, with magnitudes in central and eastern United States around magnitude 5 or less, according to David McIntyre, public relations officer for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) this weekend.
A deadly quake in Spain last year was linked to area farmers drilling deeper and deeper wells to water crops, the study reports.
Nine people died and nearly 300 were injured when a 5.1-magnitude quake hit the city of Lorca in May last year. Scientists found a fault running near a basin was weakened by 50 years of extracting groundwater in the area.
In 2011, a 4.0-magnitude earthquake in Youngstown, Ohio was linked to an injection well operated by D&L Energy.
According to an August 2011 Oklahoma Geological Society report, nearly 50 quakes in Garvin County, Okla. were linked to a nearby fracking well. They registered from 1.0 to 2.8 on the Richter scale, most within about two miles of the well.
“An important distinction in the case of induced seismicity or earthquakes are generally those cases where there are underground Class II injection wells,” said Mark Engle, a U.S. Geological Survey research geologist.
“Class II injection wells accept waste specifically from oil and gas production,” he said.
“There are tens of thousands of injection wells in the United States. So in the case of induced seismicity, these are wells that are taking in fluid constantly, injected with fluids for a period of time – months, years, decades.”
“With injection wells, fluid can migrate into nearby fractures and fault zones that relieves pressure inside the fault and allows slippage to occur,” stated Engle.
“This is a very different process in general than hydraulic fracturing,” he said, explaining that it is fracking, but the fluids are then pulled out.
“You do inject fluid (in fracking) for a period of time, but then it’s essentially pulled back out,” said Engle.
[See: Sinkhole state-ordered fracking-type process might be causing quakes]
Fracking can also cause small-magnitude earthquakes, experts say.
“NRC is aware of research linking hydraulic fracturing with small to moderate earthquakes,” Engle said.
According to the NRC, frack quakes would not be high enough magnitude that would likely disrupt or damage a nuclear power plant.
Drilling wells are more likely to cause earthquakes more than fracking, according to Engle.
“To the best of my knowledge, there has not been a link to hydraulic fracturing and a sizeable earthquake, as opposed to injection wells,” Engle said.
In April, a USGS study report showed oil and gas drilling might explain the sharp increase in mid-United States earthquakes. The rate jumped sixfold from the late 20th century through 2011.
The USGS research team reported that those changes were “almost certainly man-made.”
It is possible that injected fluids change friction and stickiness of minerals on fault lines. Another concept is they change below-surface pressure because the fluid is trapped and builds, and then “sets off something that’s about ready to go anyway,” Lohman said.
In early October, three unusual quakes shook a west Dallas suburb. The quake was linked to wastewater disposal from local hydraulic fracturing operations, according to a geophysicist who has studied earthquakes in the region.
“I don’t like it one bit,” said Jimmy Taylor, a jolted Dallas suburb resident. “We never had them before until they started doing the fracking in the area.”
ENMOD conspiracies, investigations, lawsuits, federal charges
In 2006, the Railroad Commission fined a Wise County injection well operator for dumping water from a firefighting operation and “25 barrels of an unknown chemical” into an injection well.
In 2007, the owner of a hazardous waste transport company and his operations manager faced federal charges for their roles in a conspiracy to illegally transport and dispose of hazardous waste underground.
“Their alleged misuse of an underground injection well may have contaminated drinking water,” reported Environmental News Service.
The men were arraigned in U.S. District Court in Houston and charged with 14 felony counts including conspiracy, violating the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act that regulates storage, transportation and disposal of hazardous wastes.
That investigation was conducted by EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division, Texas Environmental Task Force, Houston Police Department, and the Department of Transportation, Office of Inspector General. The prosecution was managed by the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section.
Lawsuits have been and more are being filed against entities involved in the Bayou Corne sinkhole disaster.