New York officials have dismissed the threat of earthquakes from drilling activities as they develop state rules for shale gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing, but a New York-based seismologist says that's a bad idea.
"This is a hazard that needs to be recognized and thought about when you're looking at regulating these activities," said Geoff Abers, associate director for the Division of Seismology, Geology and Tectonophysics at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in the New York City suburb of Palisades.
Abers is part of a research team that asserts a November 2011 earthquake east of Oklahoma City was "likely triggered by fluid injection" (EnergyWire, Dec. 3, 2012). Their paper on the subject has been accepted for publication in an academic journal. The magnitude-5.6 quake injured at least two people, damaged 200 structures and destroyed at least 14 homes. Lamont-Doherty, where Abers works, investigated an earthquake in Ohio that has prompted new rules for injection wells.
In an op-ed earlier this month in the Times Union of Albany, Abers said the state has "overlooked one threat that could give New Yorkers a jolt: the potential for wastewater disposal to trigger earthquakes."
Oil and gas industry officials are dismissing his warnings as the product of an anti-fossil fuel agenda at Abers' institution.
"This is such a non-issue in New York," said Karen Moreau, executive director of the New York State Petroleum Council. "He obviously wants to make it an issue."
She noted Lamont-Doherty is part of Columbia's Earth Institute, which states its mission as "Solutions for sustainable development." Sustainable development, she said, indicates "a fairly negative view of fossil-fuel development." She also noted that Abers has no background in petroleum geology. He has a doctorate in geophysics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In an interview, Abers said his criticism is not based in opposition to drilling. He wrote in his op-ed piece that "Clearly, fracking brings great benefits." But he said there needs to be a clear understanding of the risks.
Moreau said the rules being drafted by New York state's Department of Environmental Conservation are for drilling and hydraulic fracturing, not the wastewaster disposal injection that has been linked to earthquakes. She said any such wastewater from high-volume fracturing would likely be shipped to injection wells in other states.
"This would not fall within DEC regulation," Moreau said. "The geology of New York does not lend itself to deep well injection."
Injection wells regulated under oil and gas law are deemed "Class II" wells under federal rules. There are 481 such wells in New York, according to an EPA inventory. Most are likely for "enhanced oil recovery." An EPA spokesman said six are oil and gas wastewater disposal wells.
New York's DEC and U.S. EPA both play a role in regulating the disposal wells. The state requires permits for any such wells deeper than 500 feet, and the regulations New York is working on cover the state's role in regulating disposal. EPA regulates the wells under the Underground Injection Control program of the Safe Drinking Water Act.
In drafting proposed rules for shale drilling and hydraulic fracturing in New York, the state Department of Conservation dismissed the risk of earthquakes from both "fracking" and disposal of fracking waste as "extremely low."
"There is essentially no increased risk to the public, infrastructure or natural resources from induced seismicity," state officials wrote in responses to public comments about the agency's draft regulations.
But geologists have known for decades that deep injection of industrial waste can lubricate faults and unleash earthquakes. One of the most famous instances of man-made earthquakes, or "induced seismicity," occurred in the late 1960s at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal near Denver, where the Army manufactured chemical weapons.
Fracking vs. injection wells
Most seismologists agree that the specific process of hydraulic fracturing presents little or no risk of triggering earthquakes that damage property or injure people.
But fracking and production of shale gas produce millions of gallons of wastewater far saltier than seawater and laced with toxic and even radioactive chemicals. Some can be reused, but eventually, what comes to the surface must be disposed of.
Even with shale gas production blocked by a moratorium, the state’s conventional wells produced about 24 million gallons of water along with oil and gas in 2011.
Abers noted that the state doesn't allow filtering the water through public wastewater treatment systems, and officials have indicated that storage in open pits won't be permitted. That leaves spreading it on roads, deep underground injection in New York or trucking it out of state.
USGS and other scientists have blamed a "remarkable increase" in the number of earthquakes in the middle of the country on oil and gas drilling activities, particularly disposal of the "brine" waste from fracking and drilling (EnergyWire, March 29, 2012).
There are about 40,000 brine injection wells in the country. Very few of those have caused earthquakes. But in the drilling boom of the last few years, earthquakes have been linked to injection wells in Arkansas, Colorado, Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas.
Arkansas and Ohio oil and gas officials shut down injection wells that were linked to the seismic ruptures. One company shut down its injection wells near the Dallas airport after scientists linked them to small quakes.
Under federal environmental law, it is not illegal to cause an earthquake. And oil and gas disposal wells are exempt from the construction standards designed to prevent industrial waste injection wells from triggering earthquakes.
States can have rules to address earthquakes from injection of oil and gas waste. But aside from Ohio, which adopted rules last year after a series of quakes around Youngstown, most don't.