Breaking the Rock: Earthquakes and Shale Production

Earthquakes have returned to Fort Worth, the hub of the Barnett Shale.  Before, the Eagle Ford, before New York, before the Marcellus and before the Bakken, there was the Barnett.  Mitchell bore the sweat of failure and met it by refusing to quit.  He cracked the code and broke the rock-with water.

The first round of earthquakes in Fort Worth came out of nowhere.  We were watching rigs go up in nearly every open space in the western half of DFW.  The checks were hitting the mailboxes, there were commercials on TV and the promise of shale had begun.  Then earthquakes occurred on the south end of the DFW Airport, where drilling was taking place.  In the same period, earthquakes also occurred south of Fort Worth in Johnson County.  To the extent that anyone connected these quakes to shale production, there were suggestions that the fracturing must be causing it.  The earthquakes both concerned and intrigued me.  Breaking rock to produce flowing gas is one thing but shaking the earth is quite another.  I began emailing, asking and looking for an answer.  I came across an industry report indicating that the injection of large volumes of fluid would induce seismic events.  These types of events had occurred before but rarely.  I knew that every well in the Barnett returned millions of gallons of fluid waste in the form of flowback and produced water.  The state of the art disposal method is deep injection into a saltwater formation deep within the earth.  Daily the roads were filled with tanker trucks hauling the millions of gallons of fluid waste to injection wells.  At the wells the trucks dump their contents and the waste is pumped below the earth.  Based on the industry report, I began looking for the location of injection wells near the earthquake epicenters.  Almost every quake occurred within a few miles of a disposal well.

Over time, the numbers of earthquakes south of Fort Worth, in Johnson County increased.  But few asked questions and the press gave it little attention.   At the time, industry was silent about the quakes or the potential causes other than to say that the quakes were not caused by the fraccing.    Then came Arkansas.  Shortly after the Barnett, production began in the upper section of Arkansas, an area of clear lakes and forests.  The earthquakes came and they came fast in great numbers.  Many of the quakes centered in Guy, Arkansas a tiny little town in the truest sense of the word.  Arkansas decided to investigate and they learned the injection volumes and nearby disposal wells correlated closely with the earthquakes.  Arkansas thereafter put a moratorium on injection wells in place for this precise region of Arkansas.  The earthquakes stopped.  There was science now.  But politics was close behind.  The industry began saying more loudly that earthquakes are not caused by fraccing.  This is a clever sleight of hand and it’s served them well for many years.  You see, the earthquakes are caused by injecting the billions of gallons of fluid waste that come with shale production.  It’s the messy part of the business.  So the fraccing itself, except for a few isolated cases is not what is causing the quakes.  It’s the injection of the waste that comes after fraccing.  That waste is normally hauled off by third party trucking firms to third party wells where it’s injected.  When the earthquakes happen the public hears, “no quakes from fraccing” and would have no reason to know that it’s the waste disposal shaking the earth.

On August 22 of 2011, Colorado had a record earthquake (5.3 mag) centered near the New Mexico border close to Trinidad.

Download: Preliminary Damage Report of the August 22, 2011 Mw 5.3 Earthquake near Trinidad, Colorado

I knew that the area had production so I inquired with the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission about injection wells.  They told me there were thirty within a few miles of the earthquake’s center “on the Colorado side.”  I asked why they put it that way.  They said well there are more wells just over the New Mexico line but we do not follow those.  Colorado has yet to explain this event.  In the following months, quakes began to occur in Ohio, back in Texas south of San Antonio and then a relentless set of quakes in Oklahoma.  Almost always, the quakes occurred near areas of injection.  But other than a few environmental reporters, this nationwide phenomenon received little attention.  If any modicum of interest developed, industry would claim again that fraccing did not cause earthquakes.  Now, they are back in North Texas, where they originally began.

Arkansas got hold of this problem early and dealt with it from a regulatory standpoint.  Other states have largely ignored it, chief among them Texas.  In recent weeks, however Oklahoma has had to reckon with the problem.  The State is actually going to try and induce a quake by injecting fluids into a quake prone area.   But it was the Oklahoma Insurance Department that made the nature of the problem clear.  Without saying exactly why, the Department recommended that Oklahoma citizens purchase earthquake insurance.  Put another way, millions of residents will face the choice of higher premiums or lack coverage for damage.  The disposal practices of a specific private industry are not only disrupting the stability of vast section of the State, but are burdening countless citizens with the threat of damage of higher insurance.  It’s an unfortunate scenario that has occurred in other areas of production like road damage to name one.  Counties, cities and at least in Texas the State has lost billions in road damages.  Citizens are asked to cover these costs for the industry and their royalty owners and that imbalance is to be solved (or not) in the political realm.  But the repeated occurrences of larger and larger earthquakes caused by subsurface waste disposal that travels over private property boundaries should be addressed.  When any industrial process reaches the point that it must ask citizens as a whole to absorb the risk of damage to their home and pay from their own funds for insurance, both the industry and the states must find a regulatory and technical answer.  If the insurance carriers are worried, we should be worried.