Musings: New Concern Over Hydraulic Fracturing May Impact Its Use

Last spring two small earthquakes struck an area near Blackpool, England, where Cuadrilla Resources, Ltd. drilled and hydraulically fractured two shale gas wells. The earthquakes – the April one was 2.3 on the Richter scale and the May one was 1.5 – have now been determined to have been caused by the fracturing activity. Shortly after the earthquakes, Cuadrilla voluntarily ceased fracturing until a study was conducted on the possible linkage between fracturing and the seismic activity. Last week the study, Geomechanical Study of Bowland Shale Seismicity, funded by Cuadrilla, was released and it pointed to "strong evidence" that the two minor earthquakes and 48 weaker seismic events resulted from the company’s fracturing efforts. At the same time, the report stated that the events were the result of a "rare combination of geological factors." This suggests that the linkage between hydraulic fracturing and earthquakes may not be as direct as suggested by the conclusions of the study. 

This report comes at the same time a previously unreported study conducted by the Oklahoma Geologic Survey showed a linkage between fracturing and earthquakes came to light. The study, Examination of Possibly Induced Seismicity from Hydraulic Fracturing in the Eola Field, Garvin County, Oklahoma, is currently being prepared for peer review. The study shows that a series of small earthquakes last January near Elmore City can be attributed to hydraulic fracturing activity in the nearby field. 

The UK study will be considered by regulators before they take any action. After the earthquakes, Cuadrilla engaged an independent team of seismic experts and the study was prepared in consultation with the Department of Energy and Climate Change who regulates fracturing. The report said that the combination of seismic factors and local geology conditions was rare and unlikely to occur together in the future. As the report concluded, "If these factors were to combine again in the future, local geology limits seismic events to around magnitude 3 on the Richter scale as a worst-case scenario." The conclusion is important because recently Cuadrilla announced a major shale gas discovery in the UK, but development has been delayed until this study was completed. Now it may have to await a decision by the regulators.

These two studies come at a difficult time for the shale gas industry as they add fuel to the environmental objections to this extraction practice. Recently the Environmental Protection Agency announced the outline for its detailed study of hydraulic fracturing and possible ground water pollution. That study has already drawn significant attention and anticipation. And even though the earthquakes were very small and caused little or no structural damage or any injuries, they are scary for people in the area when they happen. Additionally, they raise concerns about the impact of the fracturing pressures being exerted on the substrata of the earth and the possibility that those stresses can create other unknown problems such as aquifer contamination. All of this may cause regulators and politicians to want to slowdown the shale gas revolution.

G. Allen Brooks works as the Managing Director at PPHB LP. Reprinted with permission of PPHB.


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Loren Benedict | Nov. 11, 2011
I do not see how this really has any relevance. Up here in the Bakken, we are 10,000’+ TVD. Well below around 8000’+ below any ground water. And our faults are so slight and non affected. If we are fraking all the way up there we should not have to offset wells at 500’ Intervals to produce a horizontal section. From my knowledge our fracks maybe reach out 1000’ at the most, if even that much, crap we don’t even communicate thru the upper shale into the Lodgepole which is only 40’ above at times. These guys really need to learn their physics and how things really work before opening their mouths and voicing their opinions. I do agree there has been some up hole issues but nothing where any ground water or aquifers have ever been effected that I know of here in the Bakken area. Ignorance runs the fads I guess. But I do like the Ferry dust Idea, Im sure that would fix the energy demand problems and make the EPA very happy.

bill steinkampf | Nov. 11, 2011
The occurrence of injection-induced temblors is old news. Waste injection into a fractured Precambrian gneiss below the Rocky Mtn Arsenal between March 1962 and June 1965 was pointed to as the cause of the recurrence and increased frequency of seismic events in the basin. Evans, D.M., 1966, The Denver area earthquakes and the Rocky Mountain Arsenal disposal well: Mountain Geologist, v. 3, no.1, p. 23-36 Garbarini, G.S. and H.K. Veal, 1968, Potential of Denver basin for disposal of liquid wastes, in: Subsurface Disposal in Geologic Basins--a Study of Reservoir Strata, AAPG Memoir 10, J.E. Galley, ed., 253 p.

Patrick Lowry | Nov. 10, 2011
It is unfortunate that Mr. Brooks jumped on the bandwagon of ground water contamination theorists when there is absolutely no data to support that conclusion. Please look at the study by the University of Texas that was released today that found no evidence for frac additives in ground water.

Rob | Nov. 10, 2011
The reason to frac is because the shale formation holding gas is impermeable, meaning that passage through and within is impossible. I also find it hard to believe that frac fluid travels upwards, against gravity, through numerous strata, and contaminate. With over 1.2 million wells drilled in 60 years and fracked, there has never been a scientific correlation between fracking and groundwater contamination. Lisa Jackson from the EPA even said in a House Oversight Committee meeting that there was no link between the two. Environmentalists like the attention and stir from things like Gasland so they can stay relevant and on the nations radar.

Rigzone Staff | Nov. 10, 2011

We posted a story today about a UT-Austin study confirming Don's statement on uphole problems. Read more here:

JP | Nov. 10, 2011
From what I can so far tell, these studies are no more objective than the allegations that hydraulic fracturing caused flammable water faucets and made streams radioactive. Context is important: <3.0 quakes happen all the time and go unnoticed in seismically active areas. Considering that the same allegations were recently made in Arkansas, I am very inclined to believe that this is merely the latest in many failed attempts to use fear, uncertainty, and doubt to harm oil and gas production.

Don Heath | Nov. 10, 2011
I fail to see a connection between fraccing down at 6000 feet or deeper and groundwater contamination. I think you'll find that any groundwater contamination was caused by uphole problems -- bad cement jobs, casing failures, etc. The general public has been stirred up by groups that want no drilling at all. The oil industry has been fraccing wells for 40+ years, its not some brand new technology.

Travis Mathews | Nov. 10, 2011
Maybe we can use rainbow fairy dust to power our civilization into the future. The majority of oilfields are in the middle of nowhere anyways.

| Nov. 9, 2011
Good shot back Ken! Keep those boys straight!

Ken Ruddy | Nov. 9, 2011
Your article refers to a magnitude 2.3 earthquake and erroneously states "they are scary for people in the area when they happen." I have experienced dozens of earthquakes. Most people cannot feel a 3.0 earthquake, much less a 2.3 (the scale is logarithmic).


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