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Injection-Well Rates Eyed in 2016 OK Quake

Friday, May 5, 2017

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A group of seismologists says in a new report that disposal wells, particularly variable-rate wells, likely led to last September’s 5.8-magnitude earthquake near Pawnee, Oklahoma, the strongest quake ever recorded in the state.

The newest issue of the journal Seismological Research Letters, published by the Seismological Society of America, contains a special focus section on the Pawnee earthquake, which occurred Sept. 3. A number of articles explore the nature of the quake and its relationship to the injection of wastewater from oil and gas operations into disposal wells.

Oklahoma’s Quake Problem

Oklahoma experienced an uptick in seismic activity beginning in 2009. In the decades prior, the state saw about two earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or greater each year, on average. In 2010, there were 41 such quakes in the state, and in 2015, the state’s most active year seismically, there were 903.

Oklahoma earthquakes 2017 to date
Courtesy of Oklahoma Geological Survey; map data © 2017 Google, INEGI

USGS data indicates that there have been 78 quakes of magnitude 3.0 or greater in Oklahoma so far in 2017.

The Pawnee quake, which occurred on the previously unidentified Sooner Lake fault, indicated that, while the frequency of seismic activity in Oklahoma had fallen off slightly in 2016, its intensity wasn’t decreasing. Three of the four strongest quakes since the uptick began in 2009 happened in 2016.

Experts speculate that the injection of the wastewater can “lubricate” fault lines and the pressurized fluid can induce movement in faults. Wastewater injection is often linked with hydrofracturing, the form of natural gas extraction that has become common over the past decade, but the practice can be a part of other forms of oil and natural gas extraction as well.

Seismologists refer to quakes that are likely triggered by human activity as “induced seismicity.” The U.S. Geological Survey first began specifically forecasting induced seismicity based on wastewater injection last year.

Disposal Rate Study

In one article in the new journal issue, three seismologists from the USGS look specifically at variable-rate and constant-rate wells. The authors note that “it may have been the variable-rate wells that were most important in the Pawnee event,” according to the SSA.

Class II injection well
U.S. Government Accountability Office

Experts speculate that the injection of the wastewater can “lubricate” fault lines and the pressurized fluid can induce movement in faults.

Using simulation models, the scientists noted that variable-rate injection seemed to predict greater seismicity, though they also say the gradual loading from constant-rate wells in the area likely primed the fault for the quake.

The Role of the Arbuckle

In another article, Kayla Kroll, of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, along with two co-authors, looks at changes in two monitoring wells in the Arbuckle formation, a rock layer beneath the oil- and gas-producing layers in the region. Arbuckle rock is thought to be “under-pressured,” accepting water easily, and has therefore been linked with induced seismicity.

Kroll’s research looks at levels in the monitoring wells around the Pawnee quake and another recent seismic event, the Nov. 7 quake near Cushing, which registered a magnitude of 5.0. The research team says the results “may indicate that dynamic shaking resulted in physical alteration of the Arbuckle at distances up to [about] 50  [kilometers] from the Pawnee earthquake.”

Injection Site Shutdowns

The Oklahoma Corporation Commission ordered the suspension of 37 Class II injection sites in the state immediately after the Pawnee earthquake, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency shut down 17 more in the subsequent week. Hundreds of other injection sites had been shut down earlier in 2016, and lowering oil prices led to a decrease in the overall number of injection wells around the same time. The decrease in wells coincided with a drop in the rate of quakes, leading some to speculate about the correlation between the two.

USGS data indicates that there have been 78 quakes of magnitude 3.0 or greater in Oklahoma so far in 2017 as of May 4; that puts the state on pace for about 230 total this year, which would continue the downward trend in terms of frequency of seismic activity.


Tagged categories: Environmental Protection; North America; Oil and Gas; Program/Project Management

Comment from peter gibson, (5/5/2017, 11:29 AM)

Bring in that cheap,easy to extract oil from overseas. We don't need private business defiling Mother Earth for their profits. Just don't need this kind of oil extraction. Imported oil is so cheap now...a new day in the oil business.

Comment from M. Halliwell, (5/8/2017, 11:15 AM)

Unfortunately, Peter, there is as much, if not more, an environmental price for the "easy to extract oil from overseas." Environmental regulations in some overseas countries are essentially non-existent or uninforced. If a well leaks, pipeline ruptures or tanker spills, they might slap a Band-Aid on it if the international cameras are watching...otherwise, a spill is ignored in favor of getting the oil flowing again. We don't see it, it's not "in our back yard", so we don't care about foreign companies defiling Mother Earth for their profits as long as we get cheap oil. The Niger Delta is a prime example where enforcement of environmental legislation is virtually non-existent and environmental havoc have resulted. Contrast that to Alberta, Canada where the oil sands ("tar sands" if you prefer) would actually be considered extremely contaminated by the local environmental regulations if not for the fact that they are naturally occurring. In Alberta, you can't pick up and then put down a sample of oil sands....once you pick it up, it's disturbed and no longer naturally occurring; you have to properly deal with it. Additionally, there are inspections and enforcement actions taken on a regular basis, as well as public "watchdog" agencies keeping an eye on what's going on. It's a "pick your poison" oil making an environmental mess somewhere else or more expensive "local" oil where environmental regs are enforced and we continue to learn and try to avoid adverse effects, including "induced seismicity."

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