Texas

Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

How Fracking Disposal Wells Are Causing Earthquakes in Dallas-Fort Worth

Image courtesy of the University of Texas

This map Map shows earthquake epicenters examined in the study (red circles), injection wells (squares and + symbols) in use since October 2006, seismic monitoring stations (white triangles), and mapped faults (green lines).

If you live in the Barnett Shale around Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, you may have noticed the ground has become a bit shakier in the last few years. And a new study by a Univeristy of Texas seismologist says that the wells used to dispose of fracking waste water are responsible. What’s more, there have been more than eight times as many earthquakes in the area than previously thought.

The rapid expanse of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” has also led to an increase in the number of wells needed to dispose of the water used in the drilling process. (Fracking is a drilling process that uses a mixture of water, sand and chemicals to fracture rock formations deep underground for oil and gas.) Once that waste water comes back up the well, it has to be disposed of, so drillers inject it into deep wells underground, as deep as 13,000 feet below the surface in the Barnett Shale.

The problem, according to the new study by Dr. Cliff Frohlich, senior research scientist at the University’s Institute for Geophysics, is that some of those disposal wells around Dallas-Fort Worth are also on fault lines.

The seismologist uses the analogy of an air hockey table to describe what’s going on. If the air is turned off, the puck won’t move even if you push it. But when you pump in the air, it moves easily. With disposal wells sending fracking waste water deep underground, liquid and pressure are migrating into a “stuck” fault. “It wants to move but it can’t,” Frohlich tells StateImpact Texas. “Until you pump fluids in there and it slips.” Over 6 millions gallons of fracking waste water a month was pumped into each of the wells near the epicenters examined in the study.

(Update: Read about the Dec. 12 quake outside of Fort Worth here. )

So is there reason to be concerned about damage from these earthquakes? And what can drillers do to stop the tremors?

Disposal and injection wells are permitted and inspected by the Railroad Commission of Texas, which oversees oil and gas drilling in the state. The Commission would not accomodate a request for an interview today. They did say that staff would review the report.

But in a recent story in Fort Worth Weekly, the Railroad Commission of Texas claimed it has “no science or data at this time linking these minor seismic events to oilfield activities.” Yet the first study showing that link was released in early 2010, and another came out earlier this year. This is now the third study to find a link between disposal wells and induced earthquakes in the Barnett Shale, an area that had seen no seismic activity before disposal wells began operating.

And there have been several other scientific studies that have looked at disposal wells and earthquakes, all of them arriving at the same conclusion: there is a definitive link. “It is possible that some of these earthquakes have a natural origin,” Frohlich writes in the new report, “but it is implausible that all are natural.”

Photo courtesy of Dr. Frohlich

Dr. Cliff Frohlich of the University of Texas at Austin is researching the links between fracking and earthquakes.

Most of the earthquakes in the Barnett Shale occur in groups. In the new study, Frohlich found eight groups of quakes, all within two miles of disposal wells.  Before this new report, there had been only two groups of earthquakes in the area linked to disposal wells in the area.

And those disposal wells are injecting at very high rates. “All the wells nearest to the earthquake groups reported maximum monthly injection rates exceeding 150,000 barrels (equivalent to 6.3 million gallons) of water per month since October 2006,” the study says. “If you’re a company, you might want to inject at lower volumes than that” to prevent quakes in the area, Frohlich says.

There were also other areas of high injection in the Barnett Shale, including Johnson County, that didn’t have earthquakes. ”It might be that an injection can only trigger an earthquake if injected fluids reach and relieve friction on a nearby fault that is already ready to slip,” Frohlich says in a release accompanying the study. “That just isn’t the situation in many places.”

Most of these earthquakes are small, registering below 3.0 on the Richter scale. (Frohlich found dozens of earthquakes that were so small they hadn’t been detected by the National Earthquake Information Center.) But the study only looked at earthquakes between November 2009 and September 2011. Just over the past few months, there have been ten earthquakes registered in the area, one of them as high as 3.5 on the Richter scale.

Even at this lower level of intensity, the quakes are having an effect. Fort Worth Weekly recently told the story of the Rosalez family in Cleburne. One of the quakes popped a window out of its frame in their home and damaged their foundation. There are cracks in their walls now, some six inches long.

And there’s the open question of what kind of damage these induced quakes can do to drilling infrastructure. It’s plausible that the tremors could affect well integrity, Frohlich says. “In my business, you never say never. That said, most of the time these earthquakes are not right near the well. But it’s possible an earthquake could hurt a well,” he says, though he knows of no instances where that’s occurred.

And there’s a danger they could impact pipelines, which was covered in the Fort Worth Weekly piece:

““Pipeline operators are supposed to think of the possible risks when installing pipelines. I don’t think they considered earthquakes in Texas,” said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit organization that advocates for safe fuel transportation.

Pipelines can be engineered to take into account stresses such as the ground movements caused by earthquakes and landslides. Weimer said he doubts Texas pipelines are engineered that way since Texas has historically not experienced earthquakes.”

But for Frohlich, the benefits of increased drilling outweigh the minor damage so far. ”Clearly we need to worry about this,” he says. “But, you know, thunderstorms will sometimes drop a tree on your house. That doesn’t mean we can’t have trees. A magnitude 3.5 earthquake isn’t going to do damage except in a very tiny area.”

It’s also important to note that there a tens of thousands of injection and disposal wells in Texas, yet only a few dozen of them are suspected of inducing quakes. It’s also true that disposal and injection wells have been known to induce seismic activity since the 1960s. What’s happening now is that with the rise of fracking, there is a need for more disposal wells. And in areas where fracking waste water is disposed of near population areas, it’s going to be noticed more.

But there are ways to mitigate the problem. “With disposal wells, you have options,” Frohlich says. “You can truck it some place else, worst case you could even take it to some type of disposal plant.”

“It’s not entirely clear to me that you need to stop [the quakes],” Frohlich says. He likens the experience of feeling the smaller quakes to witnessing a moderate thunderstorm that might wake you up in the middle of the night with a boom. “It’s actually kind of fun,” he says.

A press release accompanying the new study notes that Frohlich has “no financial ties to the hydraulic fracturing industry” and that support came from the U.S. Geological Survey and Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin.

The study will be published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences. Frohlich also plans to look at disposal wells and seismic activity in other drilling areas, like the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas and the Bakken Shale in North Dakota. He also hopes to collaborate with the industry to evaluate faults near injection wells.

Further Reading: Does Fracking Cause Earthquakes?

Comments

  • http://www.facebook.com/neil.moyer1 Neil Moyer

    TxRR Commission are tools of the oil/gas industry.  Earthquake deniers…

  • DB

    Has anyone addressed the amount of water that is being used? Where is that water coming from?  Is the loss of that water for human use being affected?  From time to time I read about lakes in Texas that are almost empty and the worst drought since 1950+- or maybe earlier. My water, at Canyon Lake,  comes from a sand aquifier that originates near Dallas/Ft. Worth — maybe closer to the OK border — not sure. Is there any problem with fracking (that is supposed to be very deep) and the acquifers in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area? Texas has many aquifers and I think that many are being stressed.  There are water restrictions for homes in many areas of Texas. Do fracking companies have water restrictions?

    Below is an excerpt regarding the Texas drought:
    http://ranchmagazine.com/water/water-news/534/water-news-august-2012/
    DROUGHT UPDATE—Improvement in Texas Conditions Under El Nino!
    Richard Heim National Climatic Data Center, NOAA July 19, 2012
    Latest map of July 17th shows 87% of TX still at some level of drought rating. But, zero at Exceptional level and 8.17% at Extreme level. ……….”

    • http://www.facebook.com/LauraSeaquest Laura Bradley-Seaquest

      another liberal socialist trying to stop progress. go back to your cave DB and let the adults made the decisions.

      • VJeffrey

        It’s the possibility of wells leaking contaminated water into aquifers and groundwater that’s the concern. Born and raised in east Texas and living through water rationing twice in my life, I know the importance of water security, especially in drought stricken Texas. I now farm in PA, also home to many fracking operations, and guess what? Wells have leaked and destroyed groundwater, ruining farms and livestock ops. Can’t pull water from your contaminated well and are you supposed to go buy bottled water for your dairy herd now? Ridiculous. Laura, to throw you for a loop, my husband works for the oil and gas industry. Are you going to call me a liberal socialist? Where’s the wisdom in ruining the water supply in bone-dry Texas? At least the poor farmers here can count on some rain. By all means, lets do have progress, but only in a responsible manner! If you are all for this irresponsible progress, please come up here to PA and visit these small family farms who have had their lives/farms ruined by leaking fracking wells. Are when they pour you a glass of water from their tap, will you take a good long drink? I didn’t think so. P.S. your food security is in farmers hands, and guess what we need to grow crops and water livestock? Clean WATER.

      • guitargodkc

        That’s a pretty dumb statement! Texas is running out of ground water and is transitioning to surface water. As it is, farmers in Texas don’t have enough water for their crops. Instead of injection, why not recycle the water instead of wasting it and polluting the ground water supply?

    • fijord

      do a quick read up on the type of water thats being injected back into the earth. Its highly non potable, not sure if it really was to begin with, the water being injected back in is “dirty” water, highly saline. So go ahead and drink the water if you want to….

  • Jimmiej1977

    If it lubes up the fault lines to allow these mini quakes, is it preventing so much pressure on these faults that we have a HUGE earthquake, on the scale of California?

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=683536419 Jason Itell

      This is what I was thinking… it seems similar to the way that controlled burns prevent huge wildfires.

    • guitargodkc

      Texas doesn’t have quakes like CA! Geologic formations in CA are the reason for quakes. The geologic formations in Texas will not produce a quake like CA because the way the energy dissipates. Plus Texas doesn’t have the tectonic plates CA does!

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/47IDX2QAR6VU6ZAILFU6I23ACQ Joseph

    These corporate shills don’t give a damn about any of this stuff… never have, never will.  The only hope for them stopping this practice, as I can see in this article, is the possibility that fracking negatively impacts the wells themselves, or the pipelines.  They couldn’t care less about the citizens or the homes in the area. 

    But then again, as Frohlich says: “It’s not entirely clear to me that you need to stop [the quakes]…. It’s actually kind of fun.”  What an idiot.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_PWI6262Z6I7M3NTUV6ZLX623DQ Ralph Mcnertny

      maybe ric perry will say something,,,ric,,,ric,,

      • guitargodkc

        Oops!

    • klesb

      Joseph, you are partially correct – there is no shortage of idiots. CA has proven that these levels of EQs are innocuous. Sure, do the studies, and relocate the wells if dertermined approriate, etc.; but releasing stains on existing faults is not a bad idea! But, to stop drilling so you, personally, are more at ease? Get a life, Joseph!

  • http://www.facebook.com/LauraSeaquest Laura Bradley-Seaquest

    There is an easy solution. Before pumping the waste water deep into the fault, add gypsum, sand, and calcium carbonate. This will seal the fault and keep the fault zone from slipping. problem solved!

    • http://www.facebook.com/kathyoardchapman Kathy Oard Chapman

      The idea of “man-made earthquakes” is beyond insane…. it’s wrong!!! Do any of the so called “adults” you spoke of give a shit about what is being done to our precious LIVING Earth????

    • lindadeann

      if this works why want california do it for all their faults?..hello…you are not making any sense. if this was true all faults would be sealed. we would never have an earthquake again in the whole world.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_PWI6262Z6I7M3NTUV6ZLX623DQ Ralph Mcnertny

    a few years ago the good folks in the areas were offered a whole 25 K for drilling rights under their homes,,does your homeowmers cover the damage done last night?

    • Jeanne White

      homeowners insurance does NOT cover ANY properties that have wells on their properties or their neighbors.

    • Jeanne White

      nor can you get a conventional (homeowners) mortgage or secondary (home equity) on the property with a gas lease….and once they find out, mortgage becomes due immediately as well as fines…..AND IF you plan on selling, good luck finding a buyer (unless they have cash for the total amount)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kim-Triolo-Feil/1320864445 Kim Triolo Feil

    On last night’s two earthquakes near Irving, one report was a possbile gas leak, who has info on that? Contact me at BarnettShaleHell blog, thanks.

  • mamasnothappy1

    If the oil companies pay for the use of the land, that is one thing but when earthquakes occur, the oil companies need to buy up the land and convert it to parkland. Then there’s the trouble they are putting these people through. At least, they have plenty of money to pay. I hope this isn’t a very populated area?

    • THUMBS DOWN TO DRILLING!

      Very populated areas. They drilled in 3 places surrounding my neighborhood. One of them is less than a football field length away from the high school. There is a weird haze in the air. I refused to allow them access to my land, but apparently my neighbors gobbled up that $3000 they offered to destroy us. Home insurance does not cover the damage to homes from these earthquakes. Try $20,000 to repair a foundation. I sold my home and moved, only to end up possibly having to be by that Keystone XL pipeline that private Canadian company is trying to shove down our throats. And for you progress over safety people who are going to start throwing your BS at me… No, I don’t use any type of gas in my home. I think it is dangerous. I gas up my car once a month, if that. I would give up that tank of gas too, if I needed to because our health and safety is more important.

      • mamasnothappy1

        You misunderstand. I’m a protester against this use of our land. They have put part of this pipeline right through Missouri without ever telling the general populace. Now, the 1500 natural springs in Missouri are in danger and it only flows south. Texas will have to find water from somewhere else, once they destroy all the water under and in Missouri, Arkansas and . . .

        Why are the people selling out their future for mere money?

  • http://twitter.com/PoliticalJules PoliticalJules

    Tiny earthquakes are caused by fraking. Oh well. What is the worst that can happen? Great source of clean energy, and a few tiny quakes. When California falls into the ocean, I would worry. In the mean time keep calm and keep drilling. It will make Texas a power house in the name of clean energy. Dont let the Greenies scare you.

    • guitargodkc

      Its not “clean” energy, its less dirty than coal! It still pollutes. Plus we don’t know of the long term effects. When fracking really got going a few years ago, fracking companies were given federal exemption to regulation. This is why today we still don’t know what they are pumping into the ground and why they fight to keep it secret. I am all for natural gas, but not if it destroys our water supply.

  • Joseph C

    I am very concerned about earthquakes in my area because there is a pipeline at the very edge of my property plus I’m concerned about these wells, what is the chance of the well getting damaged from a earthquake and have what they are pouring down these wells coming back up into the water tables. That’s as bad as all the junk coming
    from the cement plants into the air. If you can’t get us from the air now your going to get us from below. Check out the lakes and see how many fish die. Big corporations don’t care about the local citizens. By the way because of the earthquakes, you think maybe its
    is trying to tell you something. Better listen.

  • Don

    Maybe Osama Ben Laden had the right opinion of our government.
    After all we have polluted, killed, and destroyed the lives of people in third
    world countries for dozens of years. Now those of us that can’t afford to fight
    or flight will pay with our lives. While those not effected do little more than
    wait their turn to be effected. I am guiltier then most for failing to stop government
    greed and incompetence thru lack of involvement. I do not believe this problem
    will get corrected at the voting booths. But don’t worry; it will take someone crazier
    than me to do something about it.

  • kyle

    from my point of view it would be the cause if there small earth quakes if you crack alot of rock underneath the ground what happens if it drops 2 inches because i’ts used to having tremendous pressure down there would creat something like a vacuum I just read romania has anti fracking, has to be a reason for it because there is huge money in it.

  • artiewest

    Hello PolitcalJules,

    First of all, there is nothing clean about fracking. It seems you have fallen victim to the dogma of the oil and gas industry’s clean energy campaign, lol. The truth is, greedy oil and gas companies are taking millions of gallons of precious “clean” water out of our earth, mixing up over 563 different “toxic” chemicals including arsenic, benzene, and phenols, and then reinjecting it back into our earth. Where do think this stuff goes? Does it just dissappear, lol. Since 2006 10,800,000 barrels of toxic water and 504 million gallons of water has been reinjected back into the earth in North Texas. This is the land we all depend on for water and to grow our food. You should know, as this dirty water migrates through the earth our drinking water becomes contaminated and impure with arsenic and other deadly chemicals. And you call this clean energy? Maybe “you” can drink the contaminated water when it pops up…. and just leave the clean water for the green folks, ok. Did you know that in 2005, your brilliant (cough) president George W. Bush approved the a law that exempts the fracking oil and gas industry from any environmental oversight or having to disclose the toxins they are putting into our earth and for having to answer for any negative impacts they cause to the environment. George W Bush holds interest in oil and has been bought off…he is the most crooked individual, in my opinion. If this is really clean energy why do they need protection from the government in regards to the Clean Water Act that every other company has to follow? Because they don’t care they are killing people, they only care about money and none of us get paid for our health that they are affecting! Don’t buy into the oil and gas company dogma, think and research for yourself…this is “not” clean energy! ( :

  • Rigtard 31

    And I bet every single one of you whiners drive a car and cook or eat food cooked with natural gas or propane!!!!! If you want all drilling for oil and gas to stop then stop buying their products!!!! I bet you guys use plastic too!!! All possible due to the oil and gas industry!!!!

    • VJeffrey

      Great, lets have oil and gas, but get it in a responsible way. No one says by using gas we forfeit our right to clean water and safety from quakes. If the gas companies do business in a responsible way, they should be concerned for us too…but I don’t think they lose sleep at night over it, do you?

  • john

    I have a farm 2 miles from injection wellsite ,we have sinkholes in out pastures and earthquakes cleburne tx..

  • Lacey

    Playing with fire boys

  • GroundShakes

    Just a thought: how much of water is still left is a good question, especially in a state challenged by frequent droughts. But don’t we also have to be concerned with how much of “good/usable” water is there? I mean, if my son can’t drink it, or grandpa can’t water the garden with it, what good is it? Has anyone got a chance to read a recent article (“Characterization of groundwater resources in the Trinity and Woodbine Aquifers”) published by scientists from Texas A&M AgriLife Research Station in Vernon? Well, these guys conducted a comprehensive analysis of groundwater (both water quality and quantity) conditions in the Trinity and Woodbine aquifers around the DFW metroplex since 1960. The report shows that the not only groundwater depletion in both aquifers is a problem, but rising levels of salinity is a serious concern that need to be addressed by the groundwater managers. They have also shown that salinization is largely caused by drops in groundwater levels, mostly in the Trinity aquifer, and in recent times it has become only more apparent. The article came out in a journal called Science of The Total Environment.

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