New York officials are studying the relationship between shale drilling and earthquakes, despite past assurances that natural gas production poses no seismic risk.
Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) chief Joe Martens told legislators earlier this week that the state had hired a university geologist to study whether drilling in New York's piece of the Marcellus Shale could trigger quakes.
It is unclear when the expert was hired, but the state's effort on the study seems to have been prompted by comments from New York City officials worried about the possible effect of drilling-related seismic vibrations on the upstate tunnels that deliver water to the city.
There has been little research linking the specific process of hydraulic fracturing to earthquakes; however, scientists have pointed to the injection of fracking wastewater into deep disposal wells as a culprit for man-made tremors.
"Recent rises in the practice of wastewater injection have coincided with a surge of earthquakes in relatively quiet parts of the country over the last four years," geophysicist Geoff Abers wrote in an Albany Times Union op-ed last month (EnergyWire, Jan. 31).
Abers does research at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and was part of a team of scientists who said wastewater blasted deep underground in Oklahoma had lubricated faults and triggered an earthquake there.
New York City is also worried about man-made seismicity from fracking itself. The well completion process blasts millions of gallons of chemical-laced water deep underground to access oil and gas. The city hired its own geology consultants in 2011 to identify unknown faults and fractures in the state and to assess the risk of "microseismicity" on water infrastructure that feeds unfiltered water into the city.
City officials outlined findings from their technical consultants, Hager-Richter Geosciences, in a letter to Martens after the state wrote in a draft environmental impact statement that the risk of earthquakes from hydraulic fracturing and related activities was too small to be of concern.
"This may be true with respect to impacts to surface structures like houses," the letter said. "However, the City's infrastructure is located deep underground and therefore closer to the origin of these seismic events."
Martens said in a budget hearing earlier this week that DEC decided to pursue further study of seismic activity related to shale development after hearing New York City's concerns.
Kate Hudson, watershed program director at Riverkeeper, said that although New York City's water supply should not be considered more sacred than water used in any other part of the state, the city does have considerable sway with state officials due to its heavy concentration of Empire State residents and public opinion influencers.
Months in the making?
DEC has not answered questions asking exactly when the review was initiated and when the expert was hired. The state's top industry representative, Karen Moreau, said she was not surprised by the news.
"[I]t makes sense that the DEC address this as they develop the NY regulations and affirm what regulatory agencies across the country already know," she wrote in an email, "that hydraulic fracturing can be done safely and the economic and environmental benefits to states that allow it are tremendous."
The seismic study will likely go a step further than DEC's overview of quakes in its draft environmental impact statement released in 2011. The section acknowledges past instances of induced seismicity -- from a collapsed salt mine, for example -- but does not make any calculation of the level of risk from fracking or wastewater disposal.
The new seismicity study will be included in the state's final environmental impact statement on high-volume hydraulic fracturing, due out next week.
Other states have varied in their approach to drilling-related quakes. California, known for its tectonic shifts, sidestepped the issue in its recently released discussion draft of fracking regulations and does not address seismicity in its action plan for revised underground injection rules.
Texas, meanwhile, is taking a wait-and-see approach, according to reports from the news outlet StateImpact Texas. Oil and gas regulator Barry Smitherman said in December that he was familiar with "allegations" that injection wells were linked to earthquakes but that he was going to wait until research came out from the University of Texas. Forthcoming disposal well rules in Texas are not expected to address seismicity.
New York's seismicity study is certain to be picked apart by critics of DEC's handling of fracking studies over the past few years. Even the agency's choice for doing the study is controversial.
Geologist Robert Jacobi is a professor at the Buffalo campus of the State University of New York. He ran the short-lived Shale Resources and Society Institute, which was shuttered last year after releasing just one report and getting skewered in the media for failing to disclose industry ties (EnergyWire, Nov. 20, 2012).
Jacobi has a doctorate in geology from Columbia University and has studied the New York region specifically. His research includes papers on fault systems in western New York and seismicity in the basin that underlies much of the state.
But his industry ties have opened him up to severe criticism from environmentalists and others who fear his research will downplay the risk of earthquakes associated with fracking or wastewater disposal. Jacobi has consulted for energy firms, including EQT Corp. and the recently bankrupt Norse Energy Corp.
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