Tag Archives: hydraulic fracking

Fracking causes massive surge in methane emissions

Among greenhouse gasses, methane is now the second most important one causing climate change. Its expansion in the last few years can be linked to the larger development of shale gas and shale oil, according to a new study based on chemical fingerprints.

Credit: Flickr

The research, published in the journal Biogeosciences, reports that methane released from the exploitation of shale gas and oil a different carbon-13/carbon-12 ratio than conventional natural gas and other fossil fuels such as coal, which serves as a chemical signature of sorts.

This carbon-13 signature means that since the use of high-volume hydraulic fracturing (also known as fracking) shale gas has greatly contributed to the global release of methane into the atmosphere, according to the paper’s author, Robert Howarth.

The level of methane in the atmosphere had previously risen during the last two decades of the 20th century but tapered in the first decade of the 21st century. Then, they increased dramatically from 2008–14 due to global human-caused methane emissions in the last 11 years.

“This recent increase in methane is massive,” Howarth said. “It’s globally significant. It’s contributed to some of the increase in global warming we’ve seen, and shale gas is a major player.”

While it increased in the atmosphere, the carbon composition of the methane has also changed. Methane from biological sources such as cows and wetlands have low carbon-13 content — compared to methane from most fossil fuels. Previous studies erroneously concluded that biological sources are the cause of the rising methane, Howarth said.

About two-thirds of all new gas production over the last decade has been shale gas produced in the United States and Canada. Global shale-gas production has exploded 14-fold, from 31 billion cubic meters per year in 2005 to 435 billion cubic meters per year in 2015.

Unlike carbon dioxide, the climate system responds quickly to changes in methane emissions and reducing methane emissions could provide an opportunity to immediately slow the rate of global warming and meet the goal of the Paris Agreement to limit the temperature increase to 2ºC.

“If we can stop pouring methane into the atmosphere, it will dissipate,” Howarth said. “It goes away pretty quickly, compared to carbon dioxide. It’s the low-hanging fruit to slow global warming.”

Injection Wells of Hydraulic Fracking Causing More Earthquakes and Other Damage

By Jonathan Coulter, Master of Science in Computer Engineering Alumnus, Oklahoma Christian University and Colin Doyle, Ph.D., Program Director of Electrical Engineering, School of STEM, American Public University. Note: This article is part 2 of a two-part series on fracking. You can read part 1, The Economics of Fracking, here.

Fracking field. Image credits: Simon Fraser University.

According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), earthquakes have increased dramatically over the past few years. The USGS says, “Nearly 450 earthquakes magnitude 3.0 and larger occurred in the four years from 2010-2013, over 100 per year on average, compared with an average rate of 20 earthquakes per year observed from 1970-2000.”

In a recent Scientific American article, journalist Anna Kuchment discussed the link between injection well pressure and seismic activity. Kuchment noted the number of earthquakes could be controlled by either reducing or increasing the wastewater-injection pressure:

“In 1969, Chevron Oil allowed the USGS to use one of its wells to more closely study the effects of fluid pressure on faults. The well was in a seismically active zone of the Rangely oil reservoir in Colorado, and Chevron had been injecting water into the well to stimulate petroleum production. USGS scientists turned the injections on and off and followed the fluid pressure as it migrated through deep rocks. They came up with the exact injection pressure required to trigger quakes. When the pressure exceeded that level, earthquakes rumbled; when the pressure fell below the level, they quieted down.”

The experiment showed that human-triggered earthquakes could be controlled by adjusting wastewater-injection pressure. Unfortunately, companies apparently forgot the lessons of Rangely and the Rocky Mountain Arsenal by the early 2000s, when fossil fuel companies embarked on the shale-gas boom.

Kuchment also quotes Bill Ellsworth, a Stanford University geophysicist who launched his career at the USGS while the Rangely experiment was underway. According to Ellsworth, “Scores of papers on injection-induced earthquakes were published in the geophysical literature in the following 40-plus years, and the problem was well understood and appreciated by seismologists.”

Ellsworth believes professional skepticism slowed the formation of a consensus.

“There were a lot of doubts expressed by very good petroleum engineers that [earthquakes caused by injection wells] were even possible,” he says. “Knowledge of the whole physical process was either lost or had not been effectively communicated to a broad community.”

The USGS found that some locations near injection wells showed increased seismic activity, indicating that the tremors were human-made.

Contamination of groundwater is another concern with injection wells. While fracking fluid is injected into seemingly impermeable rock, the rock may contain empty spaces that allow water or chemicals to move through them, contaminating nearby groundwater.

Although injection wells can lead to groundwater contamination, it is highly unlikely because groundwater contamination is most likely caused by surface spills, unlined storage pits or improperly cemented wells. One study by the University of Utah found that most water contamination from fracking originated at the earth’s surface. Most chemical releases come from undiluted batches of fracking fluid, which can cause serious health problems if the fracking fluid’s chemicals come into contact with drinking water.

Proving that Fracking Causes Contamination Is Difficult

Image via Wikipedia.

 

Blowouts or damage to flow-back equipment is also a problem. Wastewater can freely flow into ponds, lakes and streams, causing severe ecological damage.

The extent of the damage remains unknown. However, with regulations requiring oil and gas services providers to disclose the chemicals they use, steps are being taken to mitigate the risk of spills. Proving that fracking is the cause of contamination is difficult because some chemicals occur naturally in the soil.

Other environmental pollutants come from the engines used to frack wells. Air pollution is an issue because of the large amount of power it takes to drill a well. Engines produce carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides and many other pollutants unregulated by the EPA.

 

Methane Gas Emissions Are Also a Problem

The oil and gas industry is responsible for 30% of methane emissions in the United States. Older pipeline leaks and outdated technology cause gas to escape into the atmosphere.

According to the EPA, “Methane (CH4) is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted in the United States from human activities.” In 2012, methane gas accounted for about 9% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from human activities.

Methane is emitted by natural sources such as wetlands, as well as by human activities such as natural gas systems leakage and livestock husbandry. Natural processes in the soil and chemical reactions in the air help remove methane from the atmosphere.

Methane’s lifetime in the atmosphere is much shorter than carbon dioxide (CO2), but it is more efficient at trapping radiation than carbon dioxide. Pound for pound, the comparative impact of methane on climate change is more than 20 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period. 

This map shows anomalous U.S. methane emissions. Image credits: NASA/JPL.What Can Oil Companies Do to Keep Fracking Both Profitable and Less Risky?

Overall, the oil industry must address the environmental issues of fracking. Injection wells have proven to be an effective method for disposing of wastewater. Water treatment costs are minimal and crews can safely dispose of the wastewater.

The construction of the well must meet all design specifications and be located in an area where seismic activity is rare. Preexisting wells near seismic activity must keep the wastewater-injection pressure low enough to minimize additional seismic activity and oil producers must take responsibility for property damage from human-made earthquakes.

The same holds true for surface and air pollution. Fracking can be ethical and environmentally friendly if the correct measures are taken to ensure worker safety.

Spill containment and dust control are two engineering measures that can improve environmental and employee safety. No one should be injured for the sake of cheap oil and gas.

Furthermore, oil and gas companies should take the initiative to repair roads damaged by their equipment. Leaving damaged roads in the wake of oilfield operations adversely affects citizens and causes undue wear and tear on vehicles.

Oil and gas companies should also seek ways to minimize methane gas emissions and be good stewards of the environment. Technology to detect leaks is available. There are no excuses for allowing leaks to go undetected or unrepaired. The same is true for using outdated valve technology that vents dangerous fumes into the atmosphere instead of using a self-contained ventilation system.

If these processes go unchecked, there will be more spills, injuries and environmental catastrophes. To be considered ethical, the oil and gas service providers must be responsible for their actions.

While some companies are responsible, especially those that are scrutinized by the media, other companies might be less concerned with ethical behavior. They may be interested only in their short-term gains. But through sound regulation and accountability, all hydraulic fracturing can be made safe, ethical and profitable.

About the Authors

 Jonathan Coulter is a drivetrain controls engineer at John Deere. He holds a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering and a master of science in computer engineering from Oklahoma Christian University.

Dr. Colin Doyle is an associate professor and Program Director of Electrical Engineering in the School of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) at American Public University. He holds a bachelor of science in electrical engineering from Oklahoma State University, a master of science in electrical engineering from The University of Oklahoma and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Southern Methodist University. 

The Economics of Fracking: Is Fracking Worth the Health and Environmental Risks?

Note: This article is part 1 of a two-part series on fracking. You can read part 1, The Environmental Concerns of Fracking, here.

Since 1947, hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, has been used at natural gas wells to increase oil and gas production. Fracking operations have increased drastically in recent years as new drilling techniques provide access to oil and gas deposits previously thought unreachable.

Fracking landscape. Image credits: Simon Fraser University.

How Fracking Works

Hydraulic fracturing comes into play after workers drill a well. Casing and cement are put in place during the drilling process to create a barrier between groundwater and inside the well. This barrier prevents contamination and aids the flowback of fluids from well treatments. Once the barrier is in place and the drill rig has been moved off the pad, the fracking crew set up their equipment at the well site.

A fracking crew uses eight to 16 pump trucks to pump fracturing fluid — a mixture of water, sand and chemicals — into the well. A pump truck with an industrial diesel engine, transmission and pump that is capable of producing thousands of horsepower pump the fracking fluid under great pressure to create fissures in the rock. Those fissures are propped open with sand to allow oil or gas to flow freely to the surface.

The effort to fracture a well requires lots of personnel as well as support services. For example, a fracking site requires services such as such as catering, water transfer, outhouses and mobile lighting systems. 

Hydraulic Fracturing Has Led to Job Creation and Greater Energy Independence

There are economic benefits to fracking. According to the publication Energy from Shale, for example, the oil and gas industry supported 2.1 million jobs in 2012 and could support 3.9 million jobs by 2025.

In addition, fracking has decreased our dependence on other forms of energy. During the past 60 years, more than 1.1 million fracturing operations have helped deliver more than 600 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The American Petroleum Institute estimates the energy surge made possible by fracking led to a household savings of $1,200 in 2012.

Fracking Processes Put Worker Health, Public Safety and the Environment at Risk

The increase in hydraulic fracturing operations has also heightened concerns about health, safety and the environment. Of particular concern are:

  1. Groundwater contamination through the disposal of wastewater in injection wells
  2. Chemical spills on the surface
  3. Earthquakes caused by injection wells near faults

Hydraulic fracking is also notorious for the immense quantities of water it requires.

Health Risks to Workers 

Workers’ safety on fracking sites is a major concern. For example, silica dust from sand used in the fracturing process can cause serious lung damage (silicosis). Although the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OHSA) regulates sand dust, OSHA has no onsite enforcement role.

OSHA has released a hazard alert to notify employees that “respirable crystalline silica” can lead to silicosis, “a lung disease where lung tissue around trapped silica particles reacts, causing inflammation and scarring and reduced ability to take in oxygen.” OSHA says studies show that 47% of air samples from well sites are greater than the calculated OSHA permissible exposure limit.

Some chemicals used in the fracking process are also known to be toxic and carcinogenic. 

Public Safety Risks Caused by Fracking

The public is directly affected by hydraulic fracturing operations, even if there were no environmental pollutants. For example, many roads are not designed to carry thousands of tractor-trailers that carry the enormous amount of fracking equipment. Each tractor-trailer weighs more than 100,000 pounds and they quickly damage these roads, which then must be repaired using local and state funds.

In small towns, for instance, roads are not designed to support these tractor-trailers. A typical country road will last approximately 20 years. It is estimated that it takes approximately 1,760 to 1,904 truck trips hauling equipment, materials and water to build, drill and frack a single well. The New York State Department of Transportation estimates the cost to repair roads due to oil field activity is roughly $378 million.

Finally, there is the problem of methane gas emissions. The oil and gas industry is responsible for 30% of methane emissions in the United States. Older pipelines leak and outdated technology vents the gas into the atmosphere.

Environmental Risks of Fracking

Many people are concerned about the environmental impact of hydraulic fracturing. These concerns include:

  • Chemical Spills
  • Air pollution
  • Degradation of infrastructure
  • Noise
  • Groundwater contamination
  • Increased seismic activity
  • Increased greenhouse gas releases

Injection wells have recently become a hot topic among environmentalists because these wells are used to dispose of wastewater that comes from the oil and gas drilling. The concern is that the wells might cause more seismic activities and earthquakes that can lead to groundwater contamination.

Oil and Gas Companies Must Act Responsibly to Ensure Public Health and Safety

Many of the processes used in hydraulic fracturing are dangerous and can lead to health, safety, and environmental problems. The oil and gas service providers must act responsibly when producing oil.

Although most companies act responsibly, other companies may only be interested in their short-term gains. Therefore, it is important for the federal government to create regulations that will establish safety guidelines and provide penalties to encourage companies to follow these safety guidelines.

This is a guest contribution by Jonathan Coulter, Master of Science in Computer Engineering Alumnus, Oklahoma Christian University and Colin Doyle, Ph.D., Program Director of Electrical Engineering, School of STEM, American Public University. This article represents the position of the authors and not that of ZME Science. Read more of our articles on hydraulic fracking here.

About the Authors

Jonathan Coulter is a drivetrain controls engineer at John Deere. He holds a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering and a master of science in computer engineering from Oklahoma Christian University.

Dr. Colin Doyle is an associate professor and Program Director of Electrical Engineering in the School of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) at American Public University. He holds a bachelor of science in electrical engineering from Oklahoma State University, a master of science in electrical engineering from the University of Oklahoma and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Southern Methodist University. 

Scotland bans hydraulic fracking — indefinitely

After the public overwhelmingly argued against fracking, the Scottish government said there will be no fracking in the country for the foreseeable future.

Scotland aims for 100% of electricity consumption to be generated through renewable sources by 2020. Image credits: John R. / Wikipedia.

In the past year, hydraulic fracking has somewhat flown under the radar. The process involves drilling down into the earth and injecting a high-pressure mixture to recover gas and oil from shale rock. The practice is associated with many environmental and health issues and is controversial in most parts of the world, though widespread usage continues in the US. But Scotland chose a different path.

Over 65,000 people showed up to the public consultation on fracking, with 99% of them opposing the process. With political support also heavily leaning against fracking, Energy Minister Paul Wheelhouse said that the practice “cannot and will not take place in Scotland”.

“We have a moral responsibility to tackle climate change and an economic responsibility to prepare Scotland for new low carbon opportunities,” he told the Scottish parliament.

The decision comes in stark contradiction to the direction UK’s central government is taking. Just a year ago, the government in London gave the go-ahead to horizontal fracking in Lancashire. However, under the current moratorium, shale gas cannot be extracted from beneath Scottish soil.

WWF Scotland official Sam Gardner said it was “excellent news.” He said, “the climate science is clear” that dirty fuels should be “left in the ground.”

However, some say the government didn’t go fast enough, and that the moratorium can be overturned at the whim of a future minister. The Scottish Green push for a permanent ban, though there are no official plans for that right now.

At the other end, Conservatives and oil and gas companies said Scotland would miss out on a “much needed economic boost” and the decision was “based on dogma not evidence or geopolitical reality.”

The move also makes a lot of sense considering Scotland’s plans to transition to a green economy. Thanks to its geographical situation, but also to healthy policy, Scotland is one of the world’s leading renewable energy producers. In 2015, it exceeded its objective, generating 59% of its electricity consumption through renewable sources. Their current goal is for 100% of electricity consumption to be generated from renewable sources by 2020 and 50% of total energy consumption (including transportation) by 2030. In May this year, wind turbines alone generated enough electricity to supply 95% of Scottish homes.

New study confirms injections associated with oil and gas can cause earthquakes

A new study confirmed that oil and gas exploitation in the US can generate a surprising number of earthquakes.

A few decades ago, Oklahoma barely had any earthquakes. Nowadays, there’s a few hundred earthquakes magnitude 3 or greater every year, with over 800 such earthquakes in 2015. This is pretty bizarre and especially unexpected when you consider that all this is happening in the Great Plains, far away from the boundary of any tectonic plates and major fault. So what’s happening, then?

Oil and gas

Graphic representation of how hydraulic fracking injections work. Image credits: USGS.

In 2014, a study conducted by USGS geologists caused quite a fuss, concluding that wastewater injection associated with hydrocarbon exploration (oil and gas) caused a 5.0 earthquake near Prague, Oklahoma, and several smaller ones. A further study confirmed these concerns, finding that the average yearly number of earthquakes over the magnitude of 3 had gone up from 1 to 230. The connection between these earthquakes and hydrocarbon activities tightened in 2016 when a paper found a clear link between hydraulic fracking and the increased seismicity. There were clear signs that fracking has the potential to activate geological faults.

“This seismic event was caused by hydraulic fracturing,” Ken Paulson, CEO of the BC Oil and Gas Commission, said in a statement.

Aside from the things often discussed in relation to fracking, there’s also the problem of water. Hydraulic fracking, as the name implies, requires water — a lot of it. Water use per well can be anywhere from about 1.5 million gallons to about 16 million gallons, and fields tend to have hundreds of wells. In just two years, 8.8 billion gallons of wastewater were injected in Oklahoma alone. Faced with what was already an emerging crisis, authorities in Oklahoma have taken first steps to regulate wastewater injection and a reduction in earthquakes was reported — though there were still over 600 temblors in 2016.

But the improvement was slight at best. In September 2016, the Pawnee earthquake struck with a magnitude of 5.8. It was the strongest earthquake ever recorded in Oklahoma. Now, researchers from the Institut de physique du globe de Paris (IPGP) have just published a study on this earthquake.

The black culprit

The Pawnee earthquake broke a pre-existing fault within the crystalline basement located beneath the sedimentary cover (dashed line) where fluid injection is taking place. Institut de physique du globe de Paris (IPGP).

Analyzing seismological data recorded in the region of the Pawnee earthquake as well as seismograms acquired thousands of kilometers from the epicenter, they were able to detail how the rupture happened and how the seismic wave spread from the epicenter. They then combined this data with radar interferograms from the Sentinel-1 satellites of the European Space Agency (ESA), measuring the surface deformation induced by the earthquake.

By studying all of this, they concluded that the slip of the earthquake was 40 centimeters at most, while the epicenter’s depth is anywhere between 4 and 9 kilometers deep (when the epicenter is very shallow, its exact depth is almost impossible to deduct). At a first glance, this would indicate that there’s no connection between the hydrocarbon activities and the earthquake since wastewater injection takes place at 2 to 3 kilometers. However, at a deeper look, scientists found that this brings forth a much more worrisome conclusion: these injections can reactivate a seismic fault.

It’s not exactly clear how this happens, though two mechanisms are possible. Either the injection pushes other fluids outward, creating a pressure “wave” which reaches the geological fault and then causes critical pressure on a fault — even an inactive one. Another proposed mechanism is centered on the tendency of rocks to deform elastically over short time scales (from a few days to several months). Like a sponge, rocks can accumulate fluids, and then release them under stress, again potentially reactivating faults. The fact that injections can generate earthquakes not only locally, but also in remote places, is even more concerning.

A political fault

To make things even worse, we didn’t even know of the existence of this fault beforehand. Locating underground faults is extremely difficult, and the lack of knowledge of fault networks brings major risks. Previous studies have shown that the reactivation of such faults is not impossible even naturally — when you give them an extra boost (with hydraulic fracking, for instance), things can get worse faster.

But if you’ve made it thus far, then I have even more bad news. It’s not just the local geology and the oil & gas industry causing problems… it’s also the political environment. Even before becoming the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt has worked relentlessly in Oklahoma to oppose the installing of new environmental laws and even to support the removal of existing regulations. With his powers increasing and with the clear anti-environment stance president Trump has taken, it’s unlikely that things will get better anytime soon in Oklahoma, and other similar parts of the US. Adding the political factor into a puzzle which already includes a nasty industry, unknown faults, and earthquakes seems like a recipe for disaster.

Journal Reference: Raphaël Grandin, Martin Vallée, Robin Lacassin — Rupture Process of the Mw 5.8 Pawnee, Oklahoma, Earthquake from Sentinel‐1 InSAR and Seismological Data. DOI: 10.1785/0220160226.

Hydraulic Fracking leaks much more often than we thought

The controversial practice of hydraulic fracking is much more damaging than we actually thought. These oil and gas wells spill pretty often to the surface, a new study found.

This is a screengrab from the study’s interactive map shows a decade’s worth of spills of more than 5,000 gallons of pollutants from pipeline leaks at North Dakota hydraulic fracturing sites.
Credit: Source: Science for Nature and People Partnership

As any geology student worth his salt will tell you, oil reservoirs are complex things. First, you need a source rock under just the right temperature and pressure — to generate the oil. Then, you need a porous rock to hold the oil, and a seal to prevent it from migrating towards the surface and spilling (because oil is much lighter than surrounding rocks). The fact that oil reservoirs exist in the first place is pretty neat in the first place.

But sometimes, you need to give Mother Nature a hand to be able to get that sweet oil. Specifically, you have to generate a system of fissures through which the oil and gas can get closer to the surface, so you can extract it. This is done by injecting a so-called fracking fluid at extreme pressures with the purpose of splintering the rocks and creating a system of fissures. There are several major environmental problems associated with this practice.

Illustration of hydraulic fracturing and related activities. Image via EPA.

For starters, we don’t really know what the fracking fluid is — it’s considered to be a corporate secret — but we do know that it contains a slurry of chemicals, many of which can be dangerous to humans and the environment. Secondly, this takes up gargantuan quantities of water (millions of gallons per well) which can exert a massive stress on local aquifers. Some of the water can be reused from well to well, but much of it is lost. Also, there have been studies linking fracking to increased seismicity and water contamination, as well as increased greenhouse gas emissions. But unlike previous studies, which analyzed what happens beneath the ground, this one focused on the surface.

Researchers studied 31,481 hydraulic fracture wells, finding that between 2004 and 2015 there have been 6,648 spills, as defined by each of the four state’s reporting requirements. These spills to the surface can have a huge negative impact on the environment and drinking water.

“There’s been so much focus on the ground water contamination and the casing incidences,” says Hannah Wiseman, the Attorneys’ Title Professor at Florida State University College of Law and an author on both studies. “We wanted to sort of shift the attention a bit to the surface.”

It’s not the first time a study like this was carried out. A similar study conducted by the EPA found only 457 leaks between 2006 and 2012 — but that’s because they only looked at spills caused by the fracking itself. This is more of a lifecycle analysis, showing that for the entire duration of the project, fracking wells can, and often do, leak to the surface.

“We think it’s important to study the whole life of the well,” said Wiseman, “because the process of hydraulic fracturing has enabled the drilling of so many more wells.”

In total, they found that 2 to 16 percent of fracking wells spill hydrocarbons, chemical-laden water, hydraulic fracturing fluids and other substances into the environment. That’s a total of 6,648 spills reported across Colorado, New Mexico, North Dakota and Pennsylvania in the 10 years.

Researchers have even developed an interactive map where everyone can check the oil spills at both national and state level and find out more about them. Who knows, there might be one near you.

Of course, the timing of this study is extremely important. With the newly-elected Trump administration vowing to bring back America’s fossil fuel industry, there are more and more concerns regarding our objective of limiting climate change. By now, it should be clear that fracking is not the answer to the world’s rising energy demands and the negative effects clearly outweigh the positives. But in the meantime, as the technology is still ongoing in many parts of the US, it’s important to quantify what its effects are in order to delimitate and mitigate the risks to water supplies and human health

Journal Reference: L. Patterson, K. Konschnik, H. Wiseman, et. al. Unconventional Oil and Gas Spills: Risks, Mitigation Priorities and States Reporting Requirements. Environmental Science & Technology, 2017 DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.05749

Fracking caused widespread contamination in North Dakota, new study finds

Wastewater spills from hydraulic fracking in North Dakota caused widespread water and soil contamination, a new Duke University study finds.

Nancy Lauer and Jennifer Harkness sample water and soil. (Photo: Avner Vengosh)

Nancy Lauer and Jennifer Harkness sample water and soil. (Photo: Avner Vengosh)

Hydraulic fracking involves injecting highly pressurized fluids into subsurface rocks, creating a system of fissures through which the hydrocarbons can escape. There are many environmental issues associated with this technique, one of them being that the entire thing is difficult to control. This was confirmed by Duke researchers.

They were investigating high levels of ammonium, selenium, lead and other toxic contaminants as well brine water very rich in salts. Both soils and water were contaminated this way, and the pollution was traced back to fracking operations.

“Until now, research in many regions of the nation has shown that contamination from fracking has been fairly sporadic and inconsistent,” said Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. “In North Dakota, however, we find it is widespread and persistent, with clear evidence of direct water contamination from fracking.”

spill1North Dakota is one of the states with the most fracking activity – and this clearly shows. There are numerous instances where pollution was linked to this activity, and the study shows it.

“The magnitude of oil drilling in North Dakota is overwhelming,” Vengosh said. “More than 9,700 wells have been drilled there in the past decade. This massive development has led to more than 3,900 brine spills, mostly coming from faulty pipes built to transport fracked wells’ flowback water from on-site holding containers to nearby injection wells where it will be disposed underground.”

The team analyzed and mapped the distribution of 3,900 spill sites to show how they were associated with the intensity of the oil drilling. They also found radioactive compounds linked to fracking mixed with the brine. This type of contamination is long-termed, raising more concerns for the future.

“Unlike spilled oil, which starts to break down in soil, these spilled brines consist of inorganic chemicals, metals and salts that are resistant to biodegradation,” said Nancy Lauer, a Ph.D. student of Vengosh’s who was lead author of the study. “They don’t go away; they stay. This has created a legacy of radioactivity at spill sites.”

To make matters even worse, they believe that even more spills are happening, but they are not being monitored. They especially raise concerns about spills on tribal lands.

“Many smaller spills have also occurred on tribal lands, and as far as we know, no one is monitoring them,” Vengosh added. “People who live on the reservations are being left to wonder how it might affect their land, water, health and way of life.”

Journal Reference: “Brine Spills Associated with Unconventional Oil Development in North Dakota,” Nancy E. Lauer, Jennifer S. Harkness, Avner Vengosh. Environmental Science & Technology, April 27, 2016. DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.5b06349

Fracking is indeed causing earthquakes, new research finds

A survey of a major oil and natural gas-producing region in Western Canada founds evidence that hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” does indeed cause earthquakes in the region. The study, like several others before it, differs from reports by oil and gas companies, who claim fracking does nothing to increase local seismicity.

Illustration of hydraulic fracturing and related activities, via EPA.

Hydraulic fracking is the well-stimulation technique in which rock is fractured by a pressurized liquid. It sounds harmless enough, but fracking causes a myriad of problems. For a single well, millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals are pumped inside, without a strict control of the resulting fissure system. Aside for the huge water consumption, other environmental problems include air emissions and climate change, water contamination, land use, risk of earthquakes, noise pollution, and health effects on humans. To be honest, among those, the risk of earthquakes doesn’t rank particularly high because the resulting earthquakes are generally very small – but it’s definitely a risk you don’t want to ignore.

This study, which was published in Seismological Research Letters, analyzed oils in the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin (WCSB) which contains one of the world’s largest oil and gas reserves, and is dotted with thousands of fracking wells drilled in multi-stage horizontal operations. Gail M. Atkinson of Western University analyzed the relationship of 12,289 fracking wells and 1236 wastewater disposal wells to magnitude 3 or larger earthquakes in an area of 454,000 square kilometers. The numbers are certainly large enough to offer statistical relevance.

The researchers performed a statistical analysis to figure out which earthquakes could be caused by hydraulic fracking. Basically all the earthquakes in the area were caused by humans. More than 60% of these quakes are linked to hydraulic fracture, about 30-35% come from disposal wells, and less than 10% come from natural causes.

“It had previously been believed that hydraulic fracturing couldn’t trigger larger earthquakes because the fluid volumes were so small compared to that of a disposal well,” Atkinson explained. “But if there isn’t any relationship between the maximum magnitude and the fluid disposal, then potentially one could trigger larger events if the fluid pressures find their way to a suitably stressed fault.”

Atkinson and colleagues found 39 hydraulic fracturing wells (0.3% of the total of fracking wells studied), and 17 wastewater disposal wells (1% of the disposal wells studied) that could be linked to earthquakes of magnitude 3 or larger. These are small percentages, but when you consider that thousands of these wells are being drilled every year in Western Canada alone, the scale of this problem becomes evident. So far, there has been no significant damage caused by these earthquakes, but it seems like only a matter of time before this happens.

“We haven’t had a large earthquake near vulnerable infrastructure yet,” she said, “but I think it’s really just a matter of time before we start seeing damage coming out of this.”

It’s important to note that oil and gas companies have long downplayed the risk of seismicity caused by hydraulic fracking. Researchers warn that better and more impartial ways of estimating this risk have to be developed.

Journal Reference: http://dx.doi.org/10.1785/0220150263

Largest man-made Earthquake comes after fracking activity

A new unfortunate world record has been triggered by fracking. A 4.6 magnitude has struck in northern British Columbia in August 2015, but only now has the investigation concluded.

“This seismic event was caused by hydraulic fracturing,” Ken Paulson, CEO of the BC Oil and Gas Commission, said in a statement.

Hydraulic fracking is the process of injecting pressurized fluids in an oil or gas well in order to fracture the rock and facilitate extraction. Hydraulic fracking is highly controversial and already banned in several countries. Its proponents advocate the economic benefits of more extensively accessible hydrocarbons, but there is mounting evidence that the environmental damage heavily outweighs the benefits.

Aside for possible water contamination, surface spills and massive greenhouse gas emissions, there is also a growing risk of seismicity. Fracking has the potential to activate geological faults and we already know that it caused a cascade of Oklahoma earthquakes. Earlier in 2014, we were reporting a study that concluded that two earthquakes with a magnitude of over 5 were caused by humans, as a result of oil exploration. In 2008 the average number of earthquakes with a magnitude over 3 was 1 – just one significant earthquake a year. But after fracking commenced, there were over 230 such earthquakes.

Magnitude 3 earthquakes don’t pose much of a threat themselves, but they are a clear indicator that something is happening. When 4.6 earthquakes start happening, that’s a very different story. Earthquakes magnitude is measured on a logarithmic scale, so magnitude 4 is 10 times larger than magnitude 3. According to CBS News, locals felt this quake, which was described by Canada seismologist Alison Bird as “significant.”

Since August when it occurred, there was a very good chance it was a case of induced seismicity, but a formal investigation was set up to determine whether this was the case – and it was. At this point it’s not clear what will happen in the future and whether fracking will continue “business as usual” or something will change.

Hydraulic fracking use of water linked to environmental impact

We’ve read and written a lot about hydraulic fracking, the process of injecting a pressurized mixture of ‘fracking fluid’ to fracture the rock. There are several risks and environmental problems associated with fracking, including pollution, water contamination and increased seismicity. However, as a new study has shown, another problem that shouldn’t be underestimated is the sheer use of water, which can have a huge environmental impact.

Image via Water Resources Research.

The increasing number of fracking sites in the US and in the world is raising numerous environmental concerns, and the “frack now, study later” approach done in many places makes is plain irresponsible. Researchers from the USGS have created a national-scale map of injected water usage in order to better assess the environmental impact of hydraulic fracturing – especially water usage.

Fracking generally uses huge quantities of water, usually on the order of millions of gallons per well for one fracturing (additional water is used for refracturing). Gallegos et al. examined data from over 263,800 oil and gas wells of all types, fractured between 2000 and 2014, finding that water usage varied mostly depending on the type of reservoir. The highest volumes of water were injected in shale gas areas, whereas coal bed methane, tight oil,  and tight gas areas used less water (“tight” means rocks with low permeability). Drilling direction also impacted water volume: average water use for horizontal wells increased steadily along the years, while vertical consumption remained relatively stable.

The thing is, water is a limited resource in most parts of the world, and when you’re using water on this scale per well, you’re taking water from other activities. This can affect agricultural practices and the behavior or surface waterways, which are vital for local ecosystems. While fracking remains a controversial practice, one thing is for sure: we need to better understand what fracking does to the local environment before we apply it at an even larger scale.

Fracking may activate faults, linked to Ohio earthquakes in 2014

Hydraulic fracking is responsible for a swarm of earthquakes, one of which was felt by Ohio residents in March 2014, a study has found. While the earthquake hag a magnitude of only 3.0 degrees, it is believed that it may have activated a geological fault and may ultimately lead to more significant temblors.

Fracking in Ohio causes significant earthquakes, research has shown. Image via The Lyon Firm.

Fracking has already become controversial due to the possibility of generating earthquakes. Scientists have already shown that human activity can generate a cascade of major earthquakes (case study in Oklahoma) and there is growing concern regarding the long term effect of activating faults.

Inactive faults are faults that have not exhibited recent seismic activity, but can become activated with a “nudge”. Seismologists believe that this is the case with here – fracking near the Poland Township activated a previously unknown fault in the earth, say scientists, who identified 77 earthquakes with magnitudes ranging from 1.0 to 3.0 between March 4 and 12. The strongest earthquake was felt by the people in the area, though no damages were done.

“These earthquakes near Poland Township occurred in the Precambrian basement, a very old layer of rock where there are likely to be many pre-existing faults,” said Robert Skoumal, co-author of the study. This activity did not create a new fault, rather it activated one that we didn’t know about prior to the seismic activity.”

In October 2014 another study in the same journal suggested 400 small earthquakes in Ohio were triggered in three months alone through fracking. The thing is, when you’re fracking you actually want to create a small earthquake; the goal is to create fissures which allow the hydrocarbon to upflow. The technology has been widely adopted across the US, but in Europe the method is still controversial and has been banned in countries like France. Recently, the US has also started to look more carefully into fracking, and the technique was banned in the state of New York. But for most of the country, it goes on without much analysis.

Skoumal argues that we should first understand the risks of developing a new fissure system within inactive faults – not doing these can cause serious issues.

“We just don’t know where all the faults are located,” he said. “It makes sense to have close cooperation among government, industry and the scientific community as hydraulic fracturing operations expand in areas where there’s the potential for unknown pre-existing faults.”

Previous research has also shown that fracking sometimes takes place in shallow depths with drinking water, and that some sites are huge emitters of greenhouse gases. Apparently, there’s still much we don’t know about it.

Source: Robert Skoumal.

Not all fracking is the same – some sites emit a hundred times more than others

Not all boreholes are the same – scientists using mobile equipment measured how many gaseous compounds are emitted by the extraction of oil and natural gas in the US. This is the first time an analysis like this has been conducted at a high temporal resolution using a vapor capture system, and the results show that some boreholes have 100 times more emissions than others; the mean value exceeds levels considered safe for humans by 1,000.

The KIT measurement instrument on board of a minivan directly measures atmospheric emissions on site with a high temporal resolution.
Credit: Photo: F. Geiger/KIT.

There is a lot of debate about hydraulic fracturing (often called just “fracking”), with the industry (and some researchers) claiming that the technique is totally safe and there is absolutely nothing to worry, and many other scientists claiming that there are serious hazards associated with fracking. The long term environmental effect of fracking is not fully understood, and this is a problem in itself. Sure, in its history, humanity has relied on many industrial techniques which have proven to be (let’s say) less than ideal, but we’d like to think that we are now at a stage where we can actually forecast the impact which we will have.

Many people are worried because the “recipe” of the fracking fluid is kept secret, and about a third of fracking chemicals are of unknown toxicity. The industry argues that drilling for shale gas takes place very deep and there is no risk of water contamination, but a study conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency found that fracking often takes place in shallow regions. Researchers at University of Texas at Arlington also found high levels of arsenic contamination in groundwater near fracking sites and a report published in November this year showed that 40% of Wisconsin ‘Frac Sand’ producers violated environmental rules. There seems to be clear reasons to worry about the environmental impact of fracking, and that’s not even all of it – the actual fracking process can lead to dramatically increased seismicity, as it was shown in Oklahoma.

Now, scientists from the Karlsruhe University in Germany have added another question mark to the safety of hydraulic fracking. Together with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, they measured emission of trace gases by oil and gas fields, analyzing background concentrations and the waste gas plumes of single extraction plants and fracking facilities.

Their measurements focused mostly on health-damaging aromatic hydrocarbons in air, such as carcinogenic benzene. They found huge discrepancies between different boreholes, with some emitting a hundred times more than others. The highest values of some milligrams of benzene per cubic meter air were measured downstream of an open fracking facility, where returning drilling fluid is stored in open tanks and basins. Much better results were reported in fracking facilities with closed production processes.

In countries like Germany, the emissions are regulated by law, with an annual benzene limit of five micrograms per cubic meter set for the protection of human health. The mean values observed now in the US surpass that limit by a factor of one thousand.

“Characteristic emissions of trace gases are encountered everywhere. These are symptomatic of gas and gas extraction. But the values measured for different technologies differ considerably,” Felix Geiger of the Institute of Meteorology and Climate Research (IMK) of KIT explains.  The gas fields in the sparsely populated areas of North America are a good showcase for estimating the range of impacts of different extraction and fracking technologies,” explains Professor Johannes Orphal, Head of IMK. “In the densely populated Germany, framework conditions are much stricter and much more attention is paid to reducing and monitoring emissions.”

Fracking is discussed more an more as a possibility to extract fossil fuels from non-convenional reservois and the economic potential is huge – but as this study points out, we still don’t fully understand the health and environmental effects. Hopefully, we will be able to learn from our past mistakes and find a favorable trade-off.

Journal Reference:

  1. C. Warneke, F. Geiger, P. M. Edwards, W. Dube, G. Pétron, J. Kofler, A. Zahn, S. S. Brown, M. Graus, J. B. Gilman, B. M. Lerner, J. Peischl, T. B. Ryerson, J. A. de Gouw, J. M. Roberts. Volatile organic compound emissions from the oil and natural gas industry in the Uintah Basin, Utah: oil and gas well pad emissions compared to ambient air composition. Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, 2014; 14 (20): 10977 DOI: 10.5194/acp-14-10977-2014

UK to allow fracking companies to use ‘any substance’ under homes, despite 99% public opposition

A new proposed amendment in the UK would make a mockery of existing European shale gas regulation. If the new regulation would pass, it would allow fracking companies to put “any substance” under people’s homes and property and leave it there, as part of the Infrastructure Bill. The wording of the bill would also allow storing nuclear waste.

Image credits: Rob Brooks.

Europe has much stricter regulations than the US, and the UK has long bragged that they have the best shale gas regulation in all of Europe. But apparently, the UK wants to take steps to “kickstart” shale gas exploration in the country. The government said the changes were “vital to kickstarting shale” gas exploration. However, the opposition claims that this law is preposterous and would cause massive environmental and social problems.  Simon Clydesdale, a campaigner at Greenpeace UK declared:

“Ministers are effectively trying to absolve fracking firms from responsibility for whatever mess they’ll end up leaving underground. This amendment makes a mockery of the government’s repeated claims about Britain’s world-class fracking regulations. Far from toughening up rules, ministers are bending over backwards to put the interests of shale drillers before the safety of our environment and our climate.”

[Also Read: Shale gas isn’t a ‘clean bridge fuel’, study finds]

The law permits “passing any substance through, or putting any substance into, deep-level land” and gives “the right to leave deep-level land in a different condition from [that before] including by leaving any infrastructure or substance in the land”. Currently, that is viewed by British law as trespassing, and rightfully so. The UK government conducted a survey to see the public opinion on this and the results were evident. There were a total of 40,647 responses to the consultation, and 99% opposed this change. Now, it has to be said that 28,821 responses were submitted as a result of two NGO campaigns, but that still leaves us with almost 12.000 responses, 92% of which were negative. It couldn’t be any clearer – the public is against this. But apparently, that doesn’t seem to make much of a difference, as the government seems adamant to push this forth. A spokeswoman for the Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc) said:

“Shale and geothermal have the potential to bolster our energy security, create jobs and growth and provide a bridge to a greener future. These changes are vital to kick starting shale and make sure it’s not delayed by one single landowner. These new rules are all part of our robust regulatory framework [making] sure public safety is always our number one priority.”

Image via CNN.

This approach, putting the industrial needs above the needs of the individuals has been prevalent throughout the entire mandate of the British government, and has drawn much criticism. Ralph Smyth, a barrister at the Campaign to Protect Rural England is one of the many critics of the amendment:

“This seems another example in the Infrastructure Bill where the rushing to remove obstacles has led to officials making it up as they go along, without thinking through the consequences,” he said. “Powers to alter deep-level land in any way under people’s houses or ‘putting any substance’ under schools or homes is surely going too far.”

Certainly the matter is debatable on both sides, but should a government really push forth with such an unpopular decision? There’s basically a consensus among the British that this measure shouldn’t pass, and yet it seems poised to do so. Something is clearly not going the right way in the UK.

Basic fracking life cycle scheme. Image: Wikipedia Commons

One third of fracking chemicals are of unknown toxicity

Pump jacks dot oil fields between the California towns of Taft and Maricopa. The very deep petroleum would be hard to reach. Methods such as fracking would bring environmental concerns and no guarantees. Photo: Los Angeles Times

Pump jacks dot oil fields between the California towns of Taft and Maricopa. The very deep petroleum would be hard to reach. Methods such as fracking would bring environmental concerns and no guarantees. Photo: Los Angeles Times

A while ago I wrote about the disheartening status quo of energy today: frack now, ask questions later. In the article, I argue that there’s a disproportion between the amount of hydraulic fracturing (9 out of 10 wells in the US are fracking wells) and the number of research articles that discuss the bio impact of the practice in the long term. A new study presented by William Stringfellow of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at 248th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society seems to echo these notes. Stringfellow warns that one third of the fracking chemicals he found (remember there are many chemicals that makeup fracking fluid that are undisclosed and are kept this way under government protection – yes, trade secrets) are of unknown toxicity. In other words, oil and gas companies are dumping chemicals in the ground and they have no idea what might happen.

Toxicity unknown for a third of fracking chemicals

Hydraulic fracturing or fracking as it’s commonly referred to involves releasing shale gas trapped beneath rocks. The rocks are broken using a high-pressure liquid mix of water, sand and other chemicals, which can include carcinogens and radioactive substances. Water makes up most of the liquid, with 85% of the mass, followed by sand which acts to keep the fracture open. The most dangerous compounds are so called biocides which are included in the mix to kill bacteria that more often than not form and congregate on the pipe walls, clogging the well.

Basic fracking life cycle scheme. Image: Wikipedia Commons

Basic fracking life cycle scheme. Image: Wikipedia Commons

Like gourmet chefs, each company has its own recipe for the mix and like to keep it secret, as if once it’s known it stops being magic! States like Texas and Wyoming, however, mandate companies to publicly disclose the make-up of their fracking fluids. But not all of them – companies make us of loopholes and keep some compounds secret by claiming they’re trade secrets.

“The industrial side was saying, ‘We’re just using food additives, basically making ice cream here,'” Stringfellow says. “On the other side, there’s talk about the injection of thousands of toxic chemicals. As scientists, we looked at the debate and asked, ‘What’s the real story?'”

Stringfellow decided to investigate and chose to focus on 81 fracking chemicals commonly used in the U.S he found listed in government databases. Again, he looked at those chemicals that are actually disclosed. Most of these were found to be harmless, either non-toxic or of very low-toxicity; like any pharmacologist will tell you, it’s the dosage that makes a poison.  However, one-third of them have hardly any public information about their toxicity or their physical and chemical properties, and eight are downright toxic to mammals.

The EPA has yet to discover any evidence that suggests fracking contaminates groundwater, despite independent studies that say otherwise. Nevertheless, experts agree that fracking fluids are most dangerous when their outside, not inside the ground. After a fracking well is done and spent, the contaminated wastewater is most commonly dispensed into depleted oil wells. Although this is the safest method, it’s been found also to cause micro earthquakes. Another alternative is to recycle the waster, which involves  removing chemicals and rock fragments from fracking wastewater and reusing it to frack more wells.

Next, Stringfellow  and his team plan on assessing  the risk and concentration of the chemicals when mixed into fracturing fluid. While alone some chemicals in a certain concentration might be deemed toxic, when mixed and injected these compounds might break down.

“There’s a national need to get a complete picture of the chemicals that are used everyday,” Stringfellow says. “It should be a priority to try to close that data gap.”

 

 

Study shows hydraulic fracking is sometimes shallow, in drinking water

Among the main arguments of hydraulic fracking proponents is the claim that fracking does nothing to threaten drinking water supply, because the process takes place much deeper. But now, a recent study conducted by Stanford researchers concludes that energy companies are fracking for oil and gas at far shallower depths than widely believed, sometimes through underground sources of drinking water. The study itself provides no evidence of groundwater contamination, it just analyzed the depths at which hydraulic fracking occurs.

fracking

Tanker trucks for hauling water and fracking fluids line up near a natural gas flare in Williston, N.D. (Charles Rex Arbogast / AP)

We’ve written quite a lot about hydraulic fracking. Here is a basic explanation on how the process works, and an article on what we don’t yet know about the effects of the process.Basically, fracking involves high-pressure injection of millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals to create a system of fissure, cracking geological formations and tapping previously unaccessible oil or gas reserves. Fracking fluid contains several dangerous chemicals, including neurotoxins and carcinogens, and also some undisclosed substances.

Fear regarding water contamination spread through communities, but oil companies always claimed that the fracking took place much deeper than the location of the drinking water, so there’s no reason to worry. However, this study highlights areas such as the Pavillion gas field which contains both natural gas and sources of drinking water.

“Thousands of gallons of diesel fuel and millions of gallons of fluids containing numerous inorganic and organic additives were injected directly into these two formations during hundreds of stimulation events,” concluded Dominic DiGiulio and Robert Jackson of Stanford’s School of Earth Sciences in a presentation Tuesday at the American Chemical Society conference in San Francisco.

They also point out that due to the secrecy generally surrounding fracking, there is no way of knowing the effects of fracking into groundwater resources. Also, regulator haven’t yet assessed the scope and impact of the activity.

“The extent and consequences of these activities are poorly documented, hindering assessments of potential resource damage and human exposure,” DiGiulio wrote.

Companies claim that fracking never contaminated drinking water, but the Environmental Protection Agency launched three investigations over the last six years into possible drinking water contamination by oil and gas activity in Dimock, Pa.; Parker County, Texas; and Pavillion, Wyo. Even though the investigations found several leads and there were clear indications of pollution, they were stopped amidst political pressure (something which should just not happen in environmental studies). If anything, recent studies have highlighted the risk of contamination.

“People think these formations are impermeable, and so they wonder, ‘Why are you worrying about water?’” DiGiulio said. “But it is an extremely heterogeneous environment, with areas of low and high permeability mixed together and with many lenses conducting water.”

Wastewater pumping from oil drilling and fracking caused Oklahoma seismicity to surge

This year, Oklahoma already had over 230 earthquakes with a magnitude of over 3. In 2008, the average number was 1! It seems quite unlikely for such a dramatic change to happen naturally, especially without other geological indicators. Many geologists and seismologists suspected that this was connected with the recent oil explorations in the area, but they were unable to prove it – until now.

Earlier this year, we were reporting a study which concluded that two earthquakes with a magnitude of over 5 were caused by humans, as a result of oil exploration. Now, a new research published in Science showed that the plethora of smaller Oklahoma earthquakes also had a similar origin: wastewater injection.

Wastewater is toxic water left over from oil drilling and fracking processes, commonly injected into impermeable layers of rocks, to avoid it leaking into the freshwater, polluting them. It can be linked with hydraulic fracking, but it is also a byproduct of conventional oil exploration. It is also what’s causing these earthquakes in all likelihood.

“It really is unprecedented to have this many earthquakes over a broad region like this,” says study co-author Geoffrey Abers of Cornell University. “Most big sequences of earthquakes that we see are either a main shock and a lot of aftershocks or it might be right at the middle of a volcano in a volcanic system or geothermal system. So you might see little swarms but nothing really this distributed and this persistent.

Conducting studies such as this one is a hard task not only because of the difficulty of the problem, but because this kind of data isn’t often available. Abers and his colleagues dug up data on the rates and volumes of liquids involved in some of the wastewater injection sites in Oklahoma. They then developed a model, inputting the flow of the water and the properties of the rocks in which it was injected. After developing this model, what they found was that even a small number of fracking and extraction sites (smaller than the actual number) can cause significant earthquakes throughout the state – even long distances away, researchers explain.

“The important thing is that we are seeing earthquakes that are much more widely distributed, much farther from wells and in a lot of different directions,” Abers observes “Some of these earthquakes are as much as 20 miles away from what seems to be the primary wells that are increasing the pressure.”

Image via Nature. Credits: Travis Heying/Wichita Eagle/MCT/Getty

This research seems to be in accord with what other researchers found on the topic. Seismologist Austin Holland of the Oklahoma Geological Survey, who was not involved in the study, says that while there are many factors at play here, he also has found connections between the oil explorations and the surge of earthquakes in Oklahoma.

“We certainly do have a contribution from oil and gas, but the question is how much, how extensive is this and how is this occurring,” he says. “This study will certainly help improve our understanding in the scientific discussion of what is occurring in Oklahoma.”

Worryingly enough, the number of wastewater injection sites continues to increase; they have doubled from 2004 to 2008, when the last official count was done. Also, this isn’t an issue restricted strictly to Oklahoma – Texas has also had a significant increase in seismicity, a phenomenon associated with the same technique. While the scale in Texas isn’t close to that in Oklahoma, it’s still enough to raise an alarm flag. Holland also asks the big important question:

“Just how important is it to produce oil and gas in Oklahoma, and are we willing to deal with the issues of these disposal wells in order to produce the oil and gas that we are accustomed to producing?” he asks.

Human activity probably caused cascade of Oklahoma earthquakes

In a new study conducted by researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey, researchers showed that the human-induced magnitude 5.0 earthquake near Prague, Oklahoma in November 2011 further caused a larger M5.7 earthquake less than a day later. We’re talking about two human induced earthquakes with magnitudes of 5 and above, in less than a day, in an area that’s not seismically active by itself.

Historically, earthquakes in central US are uncommon, but 2011 witnessed a plethora of earthquakes, in Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio and Arkansas. Many of these earthquakes occurred near waste-water injection wells, and some have been shown to be caused by human activities.

hockeystick-2x

The hockeystick chart: cumulative number of earthquakes with a magnitude of 3.0 or larger in the central and eastern United States, 1970–2013. The dashed line corresponds to the long-term rate of 20.2 earthquakes per year, with an increase in the rate of earthquakes starting around 2009.

So what exactly is “waste-water injection”? Well the name is pretty straightforward what is the purpose of injecting water in the underground? Injection wells are used for several purposes – the main one being, of course, disposing of waste water somewhere safe, injecting it deeper underground, between impermeable layers, where it can’t escape and pollute the freshwater supplies. Waste water-water injection is also closely linked to (you’ve guessed it) natural gas and petroleum production – which is actually the case here.

Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking,” does not appear to be linked to the increased rate of magnitude 3 and larger earthquakes. However, much of this wastewater is a byproduct of “normal” oil and gas production and is routinely disposed of by injection into wells specifically designed and approved for this purpose. It seems that wastewater disposal induced the M5.3 Raton Basin, Colorado earthquake in 2011 as well as the M5.6 quake that struck Prague, Oklahoma in 2011, leading to a few injuries and damage to more than a dozen homes.

Oilfield waste arrives by tanker truck at a wastewater disposal facility near Platteville, Colo. After removal of solids and oil, the wastewater is injected into a deep well for permanent storage underground. Photo by Bill Ellsworth, USGS.

Oilfield waste arrives by tanker truck at a wastewater disposal facility near Platteville, Colo. After removal of solids and oil, the wastewater is injected into a deep well for permanent storage underground. Photo by Bill Ellsworth, USGS.

This research concludes that in Oklahoma, the 5.0 foreshock increased stresses, ultimately triggering the main event, or at the very least amplifying it significantly; the fact that this was happening on a complex fault system (the Wilzetta fault system) also played a key role.

The paper, “Observations of Static Coulomb Stress Triggering of the November 2011 M5.7 Oklahoma Earthquake Sequence,” by D.F. Sumy, E.S. Cochran, K.M. Keranen, M. Wei, G.A. Abers, from the University of Southern California, USGS, Cornell University, Brown University, and the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, was published in the “Journal of Geophysical Research” this week.

Study Estimates US Emits 50 Percent More Methane Than it Claims

The United States is spewing 50 percent more methane than the official federal government estimates, a new study concludes. The paper, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science shows that most of the emissions come from cows, refineries and drilling spew and occurs in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.

This not only raises some big questions about the environmental policies and reports from the US, but it also means that methane possibly plays a bigger global warming issue than previously thought. Although total methane emission quantities are much lower than CO2 for example, methane is 21 times more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide.

It might surprise you to find out that a big part of this natural gas emitted comes from livestock, including manure, belches, and … flatulence! Another (probably more expected) source of emissions is represented by leaks from refining and drilling for oil and gas, the study says.

The report estimates that in 2008, the U.S. poured 49 million tons of methane into the air. That’s nowhere near the damage caused by CO2, but it’s about as much heat as all the carbon dioxide pollution coming from cars, trucks, and planes in the country in six months.

“Something is very much off in the inventories,” said study co-author Anna Michalak, an Earth scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, Calif. “The total U.S. impact on the world’s energy budget is different than we thought, and it’s worse.”

While for most countries it’s fairly easy to measure how much carbon dioxide is pumped into the air, it’s a very different story with methane – usually, methane emissions are estimated through computer models. However, this study took a more hands-on approach, taking into consideration nearly 13,000 measurements from airplane flights and tall towers – the most ever used in such a study. Information was gathered both in 2008 and 2012, but researchers still need some time to analyze the data from 2012. The study adds even more controversy to hydraulic fracking, as methane emission levels seem to strongly correlate with such extractions sites – something which oil companies deny.

Michalak said because of the way they measured methane — just looking for it in the air as opposed to tracking it from a source — it is hard to say what is putting more methane into the air. Therefore, in studies like this one, scientists focus on concentrations, which offer a good indications, but are not exact indicators.

I have to admit that I didn’t know that methane emissions measurements are based off computer models, and it seems pretty clear to me that more studies with actual data, like this one, have to be undertaken in order to understand the true impact of methane emissions.

Journal Reference.

 

Study confirms underground injections of carbon dioxide triggered a series of earthquakes in Texas

A study published earlier this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy correlated 93 small earthquakes in Texas (near a city called Snyder) with underground injection of large volumes of gas, primarily carbon dioxide, in a technique called CO2 flooding.

Not fracking, but flooding

co2

Picture Source.

CO2 flooding is a technique that doesn’t refer to extraction, but it falls in a suite of techniques called EOR (Enhanced Oil Recovery). Basically, you choose strategic objectives in an oil field and you inject CO2, to displace the oil and get more. CO2 displaces the oil through its movement as well as decreases the viscosity of the oil in the ‘Miscible Zone’ (a zone in which the liquids can mix).

This process isn’t related to the highly debated hydraulic fracturing! Although the injecting or producing well may have been fractured, the process of CO2 flooding does not actually fracture the well. All pressures will be kept below the formation fracture to prevent premature breakthrough, which would actually have a negative impact.

The study focused on an area of northwest Texas with three large oil and gas fields – the Cogdell field, the Salt Creek field and the Scurry Area Canyon Reef Operators Committee unit – all of which have been active producing units since the 1950s. Operators began injecting carbon dioxide in the Scurry Area Canyon Reef Operators Committee field in 1971 to boost petroleum production.

However, in the Cogdell field, operators began the process in 2001, with a significant increase starting in 2004 – which is why the US Department of Energy actually funded this research – to see if there are any negative effects.

Seismics and ‘artificial’ earthquakes

carbon dioxide

Using data from an extremely valuable project, Earthscope, about which I was telling you in another article, study co-authors identified 93 earthquakes in the Cogdell area from March 2009 to December 2010. The earthquakes are rather small, usually revolving around a magnitude of 3, but one of them was actually 4.4 – which is more than significant.

Using this seismic data, as well as information about the injections and extractions of fluids and gases, they were able to correlate the earthquakes to the CO2 flooding.

“What’s interesting is we have an example in Cogdell field, but there are other fields nearby that have experienced similar carbon dioxide flooding without triggering earthquakes,” said co-author Dr Cliff Frohlich from University of Texas at Austin’s Institute for Geophysics.

So why hasn’t it happened in other areas? The go-to answer is that it has unstable geology – it could be that the injections exerted additional pressure on rather unstable areas, or created additional stress on a fault. Another possibility that works in conjunction with this is that pressures from large volumes of gas reduce friction on these faults.

“An important next step in understanding seismic risks for proposed carbon capture and storage projects would be to create geological models of Cogdell and other nearby fields to better understand why they respond differently to gas injection.”

France bans fracking – decision is ‘absolute’

France’s ban on hydraulic fracking was completed, with the court upholding a 2011 law which prohibited the practice and cancelled all exploration permits. The decision posted on the court’s website said the ban “conforms to the constitution” and is not “disproportionate,” effectively protecting it from any future legal challenge. In other words, the decision is final (at least for the forseeable future).

france

U.S. driller Schuepbach Energy brought its complaint to the court after two of its exploration permits were revoked after the ban was first issued. They brought their complaint, argueing that since no study had established fracking risks, there was no cause for the ban, and that since fracking isnt’ banned for geothermal studies, it also shouldn’t be banned for petroleum exploration.

The court didn’t find that convincing enough, citing major differences between using the technique for different purposes; furthermore, they argued, there have been several studies which at the very least put a big question mark on the neutrality of hydraulic fracking.

Environment Minister Philippe Martin marked the decision as a big victory, a part of a larger effort to focus more on renewable energy.

“Beyond the question of fracking, shale gas is a carbon emitter,” he said in a statement. “We must set our priorities on renewable energies.”

Apparently, that’s not just talk. France has some very ambitious goals when it comes to reducing carbon emissions, and they are also considering a tax on carbon emissions and a nuclear tax, with the revenue going to renewables and energy efficiency standards. France plans to cut fossil fuel use by 30 percent by 2030, and at the same time, reduce the impact of nuclear energy, which powers almost a third of the country.

“It’s a judicial victory but also an environmental and political victory,” Martin said. “With this decision the ban on hydraulic fracturing is absolute.”