EARTHQUAKES:

'Do not operate' quake-linked disposal wells -- EPA draft report

U.S. EPA officials say oil and gas wastewater injection wells that are causing earthquakes should stop operating if there's no way to stop the shaking.

But there is a variety of other options to consider first, according to a "decision model" outlined in a draft report obtained by EnergyWire. That includes scaling back how much well owners can inject, requiring more data collection or public education about "the complexities of injection-induced seismicity."

The 341-page document represents the main EPA response to concerns that drilling-related activities are causing earthquakes. It was provided as a result of a Freedom of Information Act appeal after agency officials declined to release it (EnergyWire, May 28).

The report is designed to offer state officials suggestions for dealing with man-made earthquakes, also known as "induced seismicity."

The draft specifically notes that federal law allows regulators to close down wells. And on Page 25, a diagram lays out the option when the other options haven't worked -- "Do not operate well."

Little or no further guidance is offered on the topic.

State oil and gas officials in Arkansas and Ohio have shut down wells linked to earthquakes. In Texas, a company shut wells that were causing quakes near the Dallas-Fort Worth airport.

In Oklahoma, state oil and gas officials are continuing to allow injection of drilling wastewater in areas where researchers have linked the wells to damaging earthquakes (EnergyWire, July 25, 2012).

The development of recommendations on drilling-related quakes has stalled.

The report is an "internal document in preliminary draft form" that was distributed in December 2012 to technical experts who'd contributed to the report. The agency is now weighing their comments.

"EPA plans to submit the draft report for independent external peer review," James McDonald, assistant regional administrator for management in the Dallas-based Region 6 office, wrote in a July 9 letter accompanying the report. The letter doesn't mention completing the report or releasing it.

In a statement Friday, an EPA spokesman said the agency is hoping to submit the draft for peer review "later this year. The document could change substantially as the work group addresses comments from reviewers."

Oil and gas regulation can be a touchy subject at EPA. The agency has been under intense criticism from the oil and gas industry and congressional Republicans as it weighs its role in the nation's shale boom. Environmentalists have criticized the agency for pulling back from three major water contamination cases in Pennsylvania, Texas and Wyoming.

Scientists have known for decades that underground injection of fluid can lubricate faults and unleash earthquakes. Some seismologists now think the boom in shale drilling in the United States -- and the wastewater it produces -- might be causing a sharp increase in the number of earthquakes in the middle of the country.

Producing oil and gas from shale formations such as those found in Arkansas, Pennsylvania and Ohio requires the use of millions of gallons of water for hydraulic fracturing. In turn, that creates millions of gallons of salty, toxic wastewater. Drillers must figure out how to dispose of it. Some reuse part of it in the next "frack job," but they often inject it back underground in one of the nation's 40,000 deep injection wells.

Researchers have linked such deep injection wells to earthquakes in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, Ohio and Colorado. More "earth-friendly" procedures, such as geothermal energy production and carbon sequestration, can also set the earth rumbling.

Oil and gas production is regulated almost entirely by states. But a federal law, the Safe Drinking Water Act, governs underground injection of drilling wastewater. EPA regulates disposal directly in a few states, such as Pennsylvania, but in most it has handed day-to-day regulation to state agencies.

The Safe Drinking Water Act doesn't make it illegal to cause an earthquake. Instead, EPA seeks to prevent earthquakes because they might harm the underground sources of drinking water the act does protect.

EPA's examination of man-made earthquakes was undertaken by a technical working group of EPA and state officials in 2011. It has been shepherded by the staff of the agency's South Central Region, also called Region 6. The region has been caught in some of the fiercest debates about federal versus state regulation.

Leaders of the effort stressed that the group was not seeking to make new policies or regulations. Instead, it was to develop recommendations for state officials for dealing with injection wells linked to earthquakes.

The group partnered with state regulators and seismologists at the U.S. Geological Survey and researched in-depth case studies on quakes in Arkansas, Texas and West Virginia.

The goal of the project has changed over time. When the study began, the goal was "avoiding" significant earthquakes, according to documents included in the report. Now the goal -- reflected in the report's title -- is "minimizing and managing potential impacts."