Wastewater Associated with Fracking Cited in New USGS Earthquake Report

Zones of induced seismicity defined in this report, information on oil and gas plays, sedimentary basins, wells that are associated with earthquakes, and the earthquake rate from 1980 through 2015 in the Central and Eastern United States.

U.S. Geological Survey / Department of the Interior

Zones of induced seismicity defined in this report, information on oil and gas plays, sedimentary basins, wells that are associated with earthquakes, and the earthquake rate from 1980 through 2015 in the Central and Eastern United States.

New maps released by the U.S. Geological Survey reveal that seven million people are now living in areas at high risk for earthquakes. Not naturally occurring earthquakes but man-made – induced by oil and gas operations that pump wastewater deep underneath the ground.

Parts of Oklahoma and Texas are at highest risk, but the map also shows areas of risk in Colorado, primarily in the Raton Basin along the New Mexico border, but also in western Colorado around Rangely and Paradox Valley. A 3.2 magnitude “induced” earthquake occurred in the Greeley area in June, 2014.

Last year Oklahoma had more than 900 quakes, up from three in 2007. There were several 4.0 magnitude quakes around Cushing, Okla. in late 2015, during which buildings were damaged. But homeowners have few options when they try to recoup damages from insurance companies or the oil and gas industry.

Out of about 100 claims filed for earthquake damage in Oklahoma in 2014, only eight were paid, according to the Oklahoma Insurance Commissioner.

In Colorado, a bill has passed the state house that would make it easier for homeowners to sue oil and gas companies for property damage related to induced earthquakes. The industry here strongly opposes the legislation. In Oklahoma, there is similar pushback from oil and gas against laws or regulations that would restrict operations.

Meanwhile, the new USGS map shows areas of seismic activity in Oklahoma as active as naturally occurring earthquake regions of California.

According to the USGS, studies suggest that the actual hydraulic fracturing process is only very rarely the direct cause of felt earthquakes. While hydraulic fracturing works by making thousands of extremely small “microearthquakes,” they are, with just a few exceptions, too small to be felt, with none causing structural damage.

The larger induced earthquakes have been linked with the underground disposal of wastewater co-produced with oil and gas in fracking operations.

The report notes that “the current regulatory framework for wastewater disposal wells was designed to protect drinking water sources from contamination and does not address earthquake safety.”

The largest earthquake induced by fluid injection that has been documented in the scientific literature was the November 6, 2011 earthquake in central Oklahoma.  It had a magnitude of 5.6.  Earlier that year, a magnitude 5.3 earthquake was induced by fluid injection in the Raton Basin, Colorado.

Earthquakes with magnitudes between 4.5 and 5.0 have been induced by fluid injection in Colorado, Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.

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. This disposal process has the potential to trigger earthquakes, but very few wastewater disposal wells produce earthquakes. No earthquakes are associated with injection at the site in this photograph. Photo taken on Jan. 15, 2013.

William 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. This disposal process has the potential to trigger earthquakes, but very few wastewater disposal wells produce earthquakes. No earthquakes are associated with injection at the site in this photograph. Photo taken on Jan. 15, 2013.

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