More monitoring and mitigation needed, scientists say
By Summit Voice
FRISCO — Just a small number of wastewater injection wells associated with fossil fuel exploitation can lead to a dramatic increase in earthquakes, U.S. Geological Survey scientists concluded in a new study focusing on the spike in Oklahoma earthquakes since 2009. Wastewater injection can trigger earthquakes up to 20 miles away, the researchers found, far beyond the three-mile radius commonly used as a measure for diagnosing induced earthquakes.
The dramatic increase in earthquakes in central Oklahoma since 2009 is likely attributable to subsurface wastewater injection at just a handful of disposal wells. Oklahoma earthquakes constitute nearly half of all central and eastern U.S. seismicity from 2008 to 2013, many occurring in areas of high-rate water disposal, said Cornell University geophysics professor Katie Keranen, who led the study.
“Induced seismicity is one of the primary challenges for expanded shale gas and unconventional hydrocarbon development. Our results provide insight into the process by which the earthquakes are induced and suggest that adherence to standard best practices may substantially reduce the risk of inducing seismicity,” said Keranen. “The best practices include avoiding wastewater disposal near major faults and the use of appropriate monitoring and mitigation strategies.”
The study also concluded:
- Four of the highest-volume disposal wells in Oklahoma ( about 0.05 percent of wells) are capable of triggering about 20 percent of recent central U.S. earthquakes in a swarm covering nearly 2,000 square kilometers, as shown by analysis of modeled pore pressure increase at relocated earthquake hypocenters.
- Earthquakes are induced at distances over 30 km from the disposal wells. These distances are far beyond existing criteria of 5 km from the well for diagnosis of induced earthquakes.
- The area of increased pressure related to these wells continually expands, increasing the probability of encountering a larger fault and thus increasing the risk of triggering a higher-magnitude earthquake.
“Earthquake and subsurface pressure monitoring should be routinely conducted in regions of wastewater disposal and all data from those should be publicly accessible. This should also include detailed monitoring and reporting of pumping volumes and pressures,” said Keranen. ‘In many states the data are more difficult to obtain than for Oklahoma; databases should be standardized nationally. Independent quality assurance checks would increase confidence. “