Big "Fracking" Problem

Natural gas industry’s “fracking” risks causing earthquakes
February 1, 2011

At the end of this month (Feb. 28), Quebec’s public consultations body, the Bureau des audiences publiques sur l’environment (BAPE), is scheduled to release its report on potential environmental impacts of developing the province’s Utica Shale gas field - an area of 5,000 square kilometres of rich farmland along the St. Lawrence River basin, from Montreal to Quebec City. The Quebec government intends to table oil and gas legislation later this spring.

     Public hearings, which ended in November, drew huge crowds and heated debate – largely over the dangers that drilling poses to the region’s water supply. At issue is the industry practice of hydraulic fracturing (called “fracking” in the trade), in which huge volumes of water, sand, and fracking fluid chemicals are injected under extreme pressure into the underground shale deposits, breaking up the rock and forcing the gas into the well (see CCPA Monitor Dec. 2009.-Jan. 2010). 

    Horizontal drilling, the latest technology, increases the scope of fracking. By drilling horizontal wells, where the drill bit is steered along a horizontal trajectory, the well bore is exposed to as much of the shale gas reservoir as possible.  Combined with fracking, the two technologies create many kilometres of contact area for natural gas to flow into a well, giving the operator a fast payback. 

     B.C. energy activist Arthur Caldicott told me that, with horizontal drilling, fracking“ is a nearly-continuous operation in shale gas production. Wells may be fracked up to 17 times along their entire length.” Each “frac-job” can utilize as much as 5 million gallons of water (taken from lakes, rivers, or municipal water supplies). The resulting wastewater flowback is usually re-injected into deep disposal wells.

      City mayors who are members of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative announced in December that the industry should not be allowed to operate without the input of municipalities in determining regulations. As the group’s chair, Denis Lapointe, mayor of Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, Quebec, told the Toronto Star (Dec. 10), “If something bad happens, it is us who will have to fix the problem.”


Gas for Export

According to a report (Nov. 18) by Climate Justice Montreal, the Quebec government has already issued 600 drilling permits to 29 companies, which have leased the entire region. Burning Water: An Introduction to Shale Gas Extraction in Quebec lists the companies involved, which include big players such as Enbridge (30% owner of Gaz Metro), Talisman Energy, Questerre, and Canadian Quantum Energy.

    The industry is especially interested in Quebec’s Utica Shale field because it is close to the New York City market, with export capacity available on TransCanada Corp.’s pipeline system. If the U.S. curtails natural gas development in the Marcellus Shale field (which stretches from upstate New York, through Pennsylvania, West Virginia and eastern Ohio), the Utica field could supply the New York market. The industry is expecting production to begin in Quebec in 2014.

     Other significant shale gas deposits are in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, and New Brunswick. According to the Conservation Council of New Brunswick’s Summer 2010 report, Fracking for Shale Gas in New Brunswick: What You Need To Know, the “majority” of that province’s shale gas production would likely also “be transported to the north-eastern U.S.”


A “Big Fracking Problem”

The U.S. federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has just begun a comprehensive two-year study into the risks associated with fracking. While much of the concern relates to its impact on groundwater aquifers and clean drinking water, other impacts include air pollution, wastewater disposal, industrialization of farmland, increased carbon dioxide emissions, and destruction of wildlife habitat. But there is another impact that is less well known. 

     Official written comments submitted to the EPA by the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council asked that the EPA also “look at the potential for fracking to cause earthquakes.” In 2009, The Wall Street Journal (June 12) called earthquakes “the natural gas industry’s big fracking problem.” 

      In Texas, the Barnett Shale field has some 14,000 natural gas wells and at least 200 wastewater disposal injection wells, in which toxic flowback water from fracking is re-injected under high pressure deep underground. In recent years, a series of small, but measurable and felt earthquakes have hit Cleburne, Irving, and the Dallas-Fort Worth area. On September 4, 2009, the Texas Observer reported that Chesapeake Energy acknowledged “a potential correlation” between its disposal well at the southern end of the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and the dozens of small earthquakes in the vicinity. The Fort Worth Business Press (June 10, 2009) stated: “It’s clear the incidence of earthquakes has increased as Barnett Shale production increased during the past two decades.” 

     The Wall Street Journal (June 12, 2009) reported that in Cleburne, Texas, where thousands of natural gas wells have been drilled and fracked, “More earthquakes [at least 100] have been detected in the area since October [2008] than in the previous 30 years combined.”


Earthquake “Swarms”

Since October 2010, the town of Guy, Arkansas, has experienced hundreds of small earthquakes, sometimes coming at a rate of three or four per minute. Seismic researchers at the Arkansas Geological Survey (AGS) have been investigating this earthquake “swarm,” the largest of which was 4.0 magnitude on Oct. 11. In December alone, the AGS reported 150 earthquakes in Arkansas. 

     In the past six years, nearly 3,700 natural gas wells have been drilled and fracked in the Arkansas Fayetteville Shale field, most of them in a four-county area of which the town of Guy is almost dead-centre. There are at least six disposal wells within a 500-square-mile zone around Guy. The disposal wells have reportedly been injected with more than 10.5 million gallons of fracking wastewater each month.  

     In November, more than 200 residents packed the school cafeteria in Guy, with most saying they wanted drilling to stop.  According to CNN (Dec. 13), the state government has issued a moratorium on further injection wells and new drilling permits in the Guy area.

     Central Oklahoma has been hit with a series of at least six earthquakes since October 2010, including a 5.1 magnitude quake on Oct. 13 – the second strongest quake in the state’s history.  Oklahoma has been the site of extensive natural gas drilling in the Arkona Natural Gas Basin. Andrew Holland, a seismologist for the Oklahoma Geological Survey, told the press, “I’m examining [oil and gas drilling] as a real possibility” as the cause of the quakes. “The jury is still out, I’d say.”

     West Virginia, part of the Marcellus Shale field, has experienced at least eight small earthquakes in the Braxton County area since April 2010. Martin Chapman, director of Virginia Tech Seismic Observatory, told the Associated Press (Sept. 2, 1010) that earthquakes are rare in the area.  “Something’s going on there,” he said, “and I have a strong suspicion that it’s something associated with [gas] drilling.”  According to the AP report, “Some geologists suspect high pressure and wastewater have lubricated old fault lines, allowing them to slip and trigger small earthquakes.”


Induced Seismicity  

In May 2009, Calgary geologist Jack Century, president of J.R. Century Petroleum Consultants Ltd., gave a speech to communities in the Grande Prairie, Alberta area, addressing the issue (among others) of “human-induced seismicity.” His speech was hosted by the Peace River Environmental Society. 

    Century said that “many induced earthquakes” have resulted from oil and gas industry activity. “Mostly, it’s the injecting of water, but also it’s just production of oil and gas in big fields that happen to be overlying faults [fault-lines] in the earth.” He said the “unloading of massive amounts of fluids changes the pressure where these faults are and causes them to move. And once seismicity is turned on, it’s impossible to turn off.”

    Dr. David Oppenheimer, a seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, told Power Magazine (July 2009) that the fracking process could certainly generate seismic activity “because that is how the [hydraulic] fractures are made.” The journal’s August 2009 issue reported that Dr. Christian Klose, a geophysical hazards research scientist at Columbia University, “said that the quake risk is intensified by hydrofacturing”.

     Jack Century told his audience that in 1995 he presented a paper – Oil and Natural Gas Induced Seismicity -- to the American Association of Petroleum Producers, but the industry “showed little interest in the topic.” Century said dozens of induced earthquakes have occurred east of Fort St. John, B.C., measuring up to a 4.3 magnitude. “Industry denies it all. They say the earthquake was going to happen, anyway.”

     But that attitude may be changing. 

     The Canadian Society of Exploration Geophysicists website listed a course being offered in November 2010 by two geophysicists from Schlumberger - one of the top hydraulic fracturing companies in the world. The (partial) course description: “The increasing interest in shales as reservoir rocks, and the use of horizontal wells and active fracture treatments, has led to a rapid growth in the application of micro-seismic monitoring projects to better understand what these interventions [i.e., horizontal drilling and fracking] are actually doing in the subsurface... The course will cover some basic earthquake monitoring ideas and the methods used to locate and quantify them, and then extend this to the monitoring of micro-seismic events caused by hydraulic fracturing activity, or reservoir movement through depletion, injection, or other externally imposed activities.”




The heart of the Utica Shale field in Quebec is bounded by two well-known earthquake fault-lines: the Yamaska Fault, and the Logan’s Line Fault system. On Nov. 15, the Montreal Gazette published a map of proposed shale gas sites and included the locations of both fault-lines. According to Jack Century’s analysis, the existence of these fault-lines would make Quebec’s Utica Shale field a likely zone for induced earthquakes from drilling, fracking, and wastewater disposal wells.

     Now some geologists are saying that the use of horizontal drilling and fracking for shale gas production exhausts the well within a mere seven to eight years, with a decline in output of 75% in the first year alone. Some are even calling the sector “a speculative bubble.” 

     The Toronto Star’s energy reporter Tyler Hamilton (July 26, 2010) called most industry estimates of natural gas supply “a gross exaggeration.” He wrote: “Some petroleum geologists say the ‘probable’ supply [in North America] is less than 20 years, and that shale gas represents maybe seven years of that supply.”

     In other words, the drilling and fracking endanger the groundwater, deplete rivers and lakes, and threaten earthquakes -- all for a quick payoff to industry, after which the local taxpayers are left with the cleanup. The minimum cost to restore one well site is $100,000. Restoring polluted aquifers is likely not possible.

    In its report, Climate Justice Montreal asks: “So what is more important: the air, water and land we depend upon for life? Or the short-term profits of a fossil fuel boom?” The people of Quebec are deciding the answer now.

(Joyce Nelson is a freelance writer/researcher and the author of five books.)