I’m a scientist, I believe in proof »« Recent North Star wankery

Don’t worry, we’ll fix it by flying really fast in reverse

You all remember Lex Luthor’s scheme in the original Richard Donner Superman movie, right? Of course you do, you’re all nerds. But we nerds are all pedantic and love to start monologuing, so I’ll tell you what it was anyway.

Luthor was going to set off a nuclear bomb in the San Andreas fault and cause a giant earthquake so that California would slide into the sea, creating new, valuable ocean front real estate that he would buy up, making himself fabulously rich.

Grand plans to cause devastating earthquakes are staples of cheesy comic book villainy; they’re also a regular part of the diet of conspiracy theorists. Did you know the High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) is actually a scheme by the Illuminati/Men in Black/New World Order to take over the world by inducing earthquakes? It’s true. Bad guys cause earthquakes.

So what should we make of the recent disclosure that fracking causes earthquakes?

Before January 2011, Youngstown, Ohio, had never had an earthquake since observations began in 1776. In December 2010, the Northstar 1 injection well came online, built to pump wastewater produced by hydraulic fracturing projects in Pennsylvania into storage deep underground. In the year that followed, seismometers in and around Youngstown recorded 109 earthquakes—the strongest of the set being a magnitude 3.9 earthquake on December 31, 2011.

In a new study analyzing the Youngstown earthquakes, Kim finds that the earthquakes’ onset, cessation, and even temporary dips in activity were all tied to the activity at the Northstar 1 well. The first earthquake recorded in the city occurred 13 days after pumping began, and the tremors ceased shortly after the Ohio Department of Natural Resources shut down the well in December 2011. Also, the author finds that dips in earthquake activity correlated with Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day, and Thanksgiving, as well as other periods when the injection at the well was temporarily stopped.

Further, the author finds that the earthquakes were centered in an ancient fault near the Northstar 1 well. The author suggests that the increase in pressure from the deep wastewater injection caused the existing fault to slip. Throughout the year, the earthquakes crept from east to west down the length of the fault away from the well—indicative of the earthquakes being caused by a traveling pressure front.

Comic book supervillains aren’t real. We’ve got the oil companies instead.

Comments

  1. Space Monster says

    Well, according to some coworkers, a 3.9 magnitude earthquake “is a nothing!” so fracking is fine.

    Of course, these are the same coworkers who regularly proclaim that climate change isn’t happening because Al Gore and that Obama is a socialist. (Hah, if only!)

  2. davidct says

    If you are like most of us a consumer of fossil fuels, this is partially your fault. Of course cutting back may not help since much of the new fracked energy is to be exported.

  3. blf says

    There are also a variety of concerns over the safety of aquifers. Although I am familiar with the subject, from what I have read, these concerns cannot be dismissed.

    Add in the conspiratorial-sounding fart of Big Oiled™ involvement — about as nasty and lie-mongering as the Nuclear Poer is Safe©, Efficient™, and Non-polluting® gibberish — and fracking all begins to resemble Big Tobacco™.

  4. violetknight says

    Seems like this would be a no-brainer. I remember that Denver had some unusual earthquakes in the 60s because of waste fluid injection from Rocky Mountain Arsenal. I’m sure there are differences with fracking, but it sounds at least roughly analogous.

  5. starskeptic says

    “creating new, valuable ocean front real estate that he would buy had already bought up.”
    - not THAT is pedantic…

  6. tsig says

    We’re gonna drill a real deep hole, pack it with explosives and set them off.

    What could go wrong?

  7. roxchix says

    Physorg tried so hard to reword the abstract that they ended up leaving out key nuance.

    the Physorg text:

    “The author suggests that the increase in pressure from the deep wastewater injection caused the existing fault to slip. Throughout the year, the earthquakes crept from east to west down the length of the fault away from the well—indicative of the earthquakes being caused by a traveling pressure front.”

    That does kind of make it sound like the pressure from the the fluid in the disposal wells related to fracking is building up on the fault and causing the strain that causes the earthquakes.

    the actual abstract text

    “We conclude that the recent earthquakes in Youngstown, Ohio were induced by the fluid injection at a deep injection well due to increased pore pressure along the preexisting subsurface faults located close to the wellbore. We found that the seismicity initiated at the eastern end of the subsurface fault—close to the injection point, and migrated toward the west—away from the wellbore, indicating that the expanding high fluid pressure front increased the pore pressure along its path and progressively triggered the earthquakes’

    Increasing the pore pressure across the fault effectively ‘unclamps’ the fault, and moves it into the failure envelope (slip versus stick), thus, the fracking triggers release of regional strain that was pre-existing.

    It’s a subtle but key difference, and important to understand wrt policy discussions.

    This phenomenon has been known for decades, with new instruments and data techniques we can now more accurately locate the hypocenters to get a more 3-D view of subsurface structures. The problem here is the failure to develop a clear public policy between local and state level officials and the energy companies that outlines acceptable risk parameters.

  8. says

    @10
    roxchix

    thus, the fracking triggers release of regional strain that was pre-existing.

    wait, that means that such techniques as fracking could actually be the CURE for major earthquakes. Instead of letting the stored energy build and build until one big release, we can release a few small ones, which would be much safer. Neat.

    Not sure if it could be used in all locations, but I hope someone is looking into it.

  9. roxchix says

    @11
    Again, it’s not the hydraulic fracturing that is triggering the EQs, it’s the wastewater re-injection. This is also seen in geothermal systems, traditional petroleum systems with injection wells, even in wastewater injection systems separate from energy fields.

    In theory, targeted injection could creating creeping faults instead of sticking faults, but we don’t know nearly enough about the subsurface and fault interactions yet for that level of geoengineering. In theory we could trigger a nearly continuous series of small EQ and release strain that might have built up to a large New Madrid type EQ, on the other hand, what controls the size of an earthquake is how much of a fault slips at once (among other things), and we could just as easily bring a larger fault plane into failure mode than would otherwise have failed at once and trigger a larger EQ than nature would have thrown at us in any one place.

    The energy companies are doing this research, but it’s proprietary. We need more publicly funded research to make it publishable, or incentives for the energy companies to share their data logs. (actually, we need both, because the energy companies have the best subsurface data at the needed scale for the vulnerable areas).

  10. robro says

    Youngstown, Ohio, had never had an earthquake since observations began in 1776…

    This is a bit surprising, particularly given the existing fault. Even if it’s ancient and largely dormant you might still expect some activity on it or on others around it (faults generally come in networks). It’s my understanding that low-level temblors are ubiquitous around the world. I felt my first earthquake in East Tennessee. The ground is more fluid than we might think.

    Also, who was observing earthquakes in 1776 around Youngstown, Ohio, when the area wasn’t settled until somewhat later (1790s)…and how?

    And a 3.9 earthquake isn’t serious. They happen around California all the time, of course, and generally go unnoticed. Even the USGS doesn’t rush to report them. If these Youngstown quakes jump to the 5+ range then earthquakes might be a concern.

    That said, there are quite a few reasons to be concerned about pumping hydraulic fracturing wastewater into the ground. I would personally be more concerned about the potential pollution of water supplies than earthquakes.

    Also, I hope no one gets the idea that they can control earthquakes by pumping water into faults to induce small ones…oh wait.

  11. unclefrogy says

    I would think that the proprietary additives used in fracking might make the water penetrate better thus acting more like a penetrating lubricant then water alone. Making it more likely to spread.
    Unless you plan to inject this kind of lube along the entire fault the only thing that will be accomplished would be to move the strain to some other part of the fault with unpredictable results.

    uncle frogy

  12. says

    And a 3.9 earthquake isn’t serious. They happen around California all the time, of course, and generally go unnoticed.

    because of course the whole world has earthquake-proofing in their building codes and all the buildings everywhere are build with earthquakes at least being considered a possible hazard…

  13. antigone10 says

    because of course the whole world has earthquake-proofing in their building codes and all the buildings everywhere are build with earthquakes at least being considered a possible hazard…

    This is actually one of the major problems that I keep seeing when talking about climate change. I live in Minnesota- a lot of people made fun of the east coast for their “snowmagedon” stuff when they were getting snow we would consider a dusting. But because we live in an area that is known for heavy snowfall, we have snow plows. And plenty of salt. And drainage systems that can handle the snowmelt. And areas to dump the snow when there gets to be too much on the road. And generally more experience winter driving so there are less accidents. And all of the other infrastructure things that exist and we don’t notice or think about until they break.

    There isn’t a place on the planet that doesn’t have some sort of natural disaster. We figure out how to handle the natural consequences of living where we live as best we can (unless you’re ND) and life goes on. It’s when we start getting entirely NEW natural disasters that we haven’t had to deal with before when the problems crop up.

  14. Space Monster says

    As I alluded to in my earlier post, I think it is approaching Tea Party levels of stupid to conclude that because California routinely and naturally has small earthquakes that therefore human induced small earthquakes in regions that have rarely or never seen them naturally are a-ok and maybe even desirable. Seeing some people use that dubious so-called reasoning here makes me even more convinced that absolutely nothing will stop us from extracting and burning every drop of oil or gas that we can find. Pity, it was a really nice planet for a while.

  15. Nick Gotts says

    or incentives for the energy companies to share their data logs – roxchix@12

    How about a law that says they have to release the data, or the CEO goes to jail?

  16. says

    Speaking (or writing) as someone who has lived most of my life in Southern California:

    Just for the record, a 3.whatever is not “nothing”. The one we had here, last month, felt pretty strong, and it knocked things down and askew. It was also the foreshock to a 5.1 earthquake. There were a lot of aftershocks, too. Believe me, even a 2-pointer can be quite a jolt when you’re right on top of it.

    Earthquakes are bad enough when they’re all natural. I can’t imagine thinking that it’d be okay to induce them, anywhere.

  17. says

    While the earthquakes in that area may have been of a rather low-property-damange nature (rather than, say, a disasterous 5 or above,) I think it’s important to emphasize that they went from no noticeable earthquakes to earthquakes that can knock your furniture over.

    I think some emphasis on how the many other fracking sites could be increasing earthquake risk is appropriate.

    *Geology isn’t my strong suit so don’t just feel free to shoot me down if I’m mistaken, shoot me down quickly.

  18. says

    If you are like most of us a consumer of fossil fuels, this is partially your fault.

    No it’s not. The moral responsibility for any form of environmental damage lies entirely with the people who directly and knowingly cause it. Attempts to spread the blame over wider society are foolish and serve only to absolve the actual responsible parties.

  19. notyet says

    I should probably try to sell this to the oil company PR dept. instead of giving it away for free. Picture a stock photo of the aftermath of the SF earthquake and a voice-over saying, “We all know how dangerous the stored energy of tectonic plate movement can be when released all at once.” Now switch the picture to a peaceful scene with the Northstar 1 wellhead in the background and the voice continues, “But in Youngstown Ohio, we have removed the danger by releasing that stored energy in small harmless amounts through the use of our ‘Devastating Earthquake Prevention Technology.’ Wouldn’t you feel safer if we were fracking your neighborhood too?” If they ever use that, I want a cut.

  20. notyet says

    I just went back and read 11. Shit, brianpansky beat me to it. Hey brian can we at least split the money?