Thursday, January 5, 2012

Ohio Fracking and Earthquakes

A series of eleven small earthquakes ranging in magnitude from 2.1 and 4.0 have taken place beneath Youngstown Ohio since March 2010. Each earthquake is reported to have had their epicenters near the Ohio Works Drive injection well used by D&L Energy Inc. to dispose of waste water from nearby hydro fracking jobs. D&L began injecting the waste water from the fracking jobs, referred to as brine, into its Ohio Works well in December 2010.

The earthquakes early in the spring led the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, ODNR, to have Columbia University Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory install seismic monitoring equipment in the area to determine whether there was any relationship between fracking or water disposal activity and the earthquakes. A report is expected in the near future, but after the earthquakes, on December 30th and 31st, use of the disposal well has been halted. ODNR has halted deep well disposal of fracking waste water in the D&L Ohio Works Drive injection well and four other injection wells in the Youngstown area pending analysis of the data collected by the Lamont-Doherty scientists.

In hydraulic fracking on average 2.8 million gallons of chemicals and water is pumped into the shale formation at 9,000 pounds per square inch and literally cracks the shale or breaks open existing cracks and allows the trapped natural gas to flow. While geologists and engineers believe that there is little risk that the fracking “water,” a mix chemicals and water, will somehow infiltrate through the shale and the thousands of feet to reach the groundwater reserves though a fissure created by the fracking, there are other routes of contamination and impact. An now concern is focused in Ohio on the disposal of the flowback water that is not absorbed into the rock formations.

The water that is absorbed into the rock formations may change the formations in ways we do not yet understand, it is the disposal of the flowback that is the focus of this investigation. Though the water in the hydro frack is exempted from the clean water act (by a 2005 act of congress), the flowback which contains “proprietary” chemicals and contaminates from the geological formation is not and must be disposed under state regulations. This is not the first study of earthquakes associated with the disposal of fracking water.

Researchers of the University of Texas at Austin were part of a team of researchers who studied a series of small earthquakes that struck near Dallas, Texas in 2008 and 2009, in an area where natural gas companies had used fracking. The epicenter of the quakes turned out to be about half a mile from a deep injection disposal well under the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport used to dispose of the fracking fluid. The largest earthquake of the series measured 3.3 on the Richter scale, a very small earthquake. In a study that was published in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, the researchers also reviewed records from US Geological Survey seismic-recording stations in Oklahoma and Dallas. It was concluded by the researchers that the fracking did not cause the earthquakes, but there seemed to be a relationship to the deep well injection of the fracking fluid to the earthquakes.

Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory scientists have the advantage of having placed seismic monitoring equipment in the area before the last few quakes which included the strongest of the series at 4.0 on the Richter scale on New Year’s Eve. The location of the earthquake epicenter is expected to be in the area of the Ohio Works Drive injection well an area of no previous seismic activity. It has been speculated that the earthquakes were triggered by the fluid injected into the well that permeated a previously unknown fault.

Our ability to recover natural gas buried a mile or more beneath the earth has increased. Advances in horizontal drilling which allows a vertically drilled well to turn and run thousands of feet laterally through the earth combined with advances in hydraulic fracking, the pumping of millions of gallons of water and laced with thousands of gallons of chemicals into shale at high pressure have increased our ability to recover natural gas from shale ahead of our knowledge of the consequences of the fracking and disposal of the waste water. Wastewaters from the hydraulic fracturing process must be disposed of safely, and deep injecting wells had been the favored method. There are 177 similar injection wells around the state of Ohio that will remain in use. The Youngstown-area well has been the only site with seismic activity, according to the ODNR. Only five Youngstown area wells have been shut down.

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