Thoughtful well placement could mitigate property risks from fracking quakes
By Gloria Gonzalez, November 20, 2015
Fracking activities are contributing to the rising number of earthquakes in Oklahoma and other states, but the risks to property can be reduced, according to a geological expert.
Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, is an oil and gas production technique that involves injecting water under high pressure into a bedrock formation to increase the flow of oil and gas to a well from petroleum-bearing rock formations.
The injection of fluids in fracking and other activities is one of the contributing causes to increased seismicity, Bill Leith, senior science advisor for the U.S. Geological Survey based in Reston, Virginia, said at the National Association of Insurance Commissioners 2015 fall meeting in National Harbor, Maryland on Thursday.
“The phenomena of earthquake triggering is well-established,” he said. “And there have been many cases in which earthquakes have been turned on and turned off by beginning and ending injection.”
Risk management concepts that can be implemented to minimize the risk posed by fracking-induced quakes includes avoiding fluid injection in known fault areas and locating injection wells away from population centers and critical facilities, Mr. Leith said.
“The risk from earthquakes can be minimized by taking various actions and by thoughtful decisions about permitting,” he said. “Risk is the thing that we can control by our own actions, by taking steps to mitigate the hazard.”
Fracking is rarely the cause of “felt” earthquakes, but fracking activities have been found responsible for quakes up to magnitude 4.5 in Canada during shale gas recovery, Mr. Leith said. The Richter scale assigns a number to quantify the magnitude of energy released by an earthquake.
About 150 million Americans live in areas exposed to natural quake hazards — double the number of Americans who lived in quake-vulnerable areas in 1990, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Oklahoma has experienced a “remarkable” increase in the number of quakes in the 3.0 or greater range, he said, with recorded quakes at this level soaring from 109 in 2013 to 585 quakes in 2014.
“The increase in the seismicity implies that larger earthquakes are possible,” Mr. Leith said. “That is increasing the hazard. The construction in Oklahoma is at a higher risk, and we’ve seen a higher risk of damage to houses in the suburbs of Oklahoma City and up in the northern part of the state as a result of these small to moderate earthquakes.”
In October, Oklahoma Insurance Department Commissioner John Doak required insurers to notify their policyholders about their coverage of earthquakes arguably or actually resulting from fracking activities. Some insurers in the state have amended their policy forms to cover damages resulting from fracking, others have waived the man-made earthquake exclusion and a third group still excludes fracking-induced quakes, creating significant confusion in the marketplace, according to the bulletin.
New Study: Fracking Pollution Poses Major Threat to California’s Air, Water
Scientists’ Warnings Come Too Late to Shape State’s Weak Fracking Regulations
July 15, 2015
SACRAMENTO, Calif.— A study released today by the California Council on Science and Technology warns that fracking and other oil extraction techniques emit dangerous air pollution and threaten to contaminate California’s drinking water supplies. Millions of Californians live near active oil and gas wells, which exposes them to the air pollutants indentified in the report.
The troubling findings come a week after Gov. Jerry Brown’s oil officials finalized new fracking regulations that do little to address such public health and water pollution risks.
“This disturbing study exposes fatal flaws in Gov. Brown’s weak fracking rules,” said Hollin Kretzmann of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Oil companies are fouling the air we breathe and using toxic chemicals that endanger our dwindling drinking water. The millions of people near these polluting wells need an immediate halt to fracking and other dangerous oil company practices.”
Last week the state’s Department of Conservation began implementing new fracking regulations and finalized an assessment of fracking’s health and environmental risks, even though the science council had not finished evaluating fracking’s dangers. The science council is an independent, nonprofit organization that advises California officials on policy issues.
Today’s report concludes that fracking in California happens at unusually shallow depths, dangerously close to underground drinking water supplies, with unusually high chemical concentrations. That poses a serious threat to aquifers during the worst drought in California history.
Air pollution is also a major concern. In the Los Angeles area, the report identifies 1.7 million people — and hundreds of daycare facilities, schools and retirement homes — within one mile of an active oil or gas well. Atmospheric concentrations of pollutants near these oil production sites “can present risks to human health,” the study says.
But Gov. Brown’s new fracking regulations do not address deadly air pollutants like particulate matter and air toxic chemicals. A recent Center analysis found that oil companies engaged in extreme oil production methods have used millions of pounds of air toxics in the Los Angeles Basin.
Among the science council’s other disturbing findings:
California places no limits on how close oil and gas wells can be to homes, schools or daycare facilities, which can expose people to dangerous air pollution from fracking and other oil extraction procedures.
Serious concerns are raised over the oil industry’s disposal of fracking waste fluid and produced water into open pits and the use of oil waste fluid to irrigate crops.
The health and water pollution impacts of fracking chemicals that could be present in oil waste that’s dumped into open pits “would be extremely difficult to predict, because there are so many possible chemicals, and the environmental profiles of many of them are unmeasured.”
Wildlife habitat can be fragmented or lost because of fracking and other oil development – and fracking-related oil development in California “coincides with ecologically sensitive areas” in Kern and Ventura Counties.
Confirmation that many oil industry wastewater injection wells are close to active faults — a practice has triggered earthquakes in other states. The science council identified more than 1,000 active injection wells within 1.5 miles of a mapped active fault — and more than 150 are within 656 feet.
“These troubling findings send a clear message to Gov. Brown that it’s time to ban fracking and rein in our state’s out-of-control oil industry,” Kretzmann said. “California should follow the example set by New York, which wisely banned fracking after health experts there concluded this toxic technique was just too dangerous.”
Contact: Clare Lakewood, (510) 844-7121, firstname.lastname@example.org The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 900,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
Report: Fracking Risk to CA is Aquifer Contamination, Not Quakes
By Suzanne Potter, July 10, 2015
SACRAMENTO, Calif – A new report says hydraulic fracturing can contaminate groundwater when the excess water is not properly disposed of, but is not linked to earthquakes in California.
In January, a study by the Seismological Society of America linked a series of earthquakes in Ohio to fracking, and there have been similar claims in other states as well.
The new study released Thursday comes from the California Council on Science and Technology and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Jane Long, the lead scientific researcher, says hydraulic fracturing poses some safety concerns but they’re manageable.
“A lot of things people were concerned about are things that are not as big a problem as they think they are,” says Long. “And some of the practices are things that need to change and need more attention.”
The report says the oil companies should phase out percolation ponds used to dispose of excess water because toxic fracking chemicals can get into the aquifer. And it recommends companies put aside about a third of the chemicals currently in use because there’s not enough data about them.
The Center for Biological Diversity points to the finding that oil operations can pollute the air in their immediate vicinity. Long is optimistic that the report will spur further reforms.
“Some of them are going to be recommendations that will be very easy to act on right away and I think they will be acted on and some of them are going to require some process,” she says.
The report was required by the 2013 passage of State Senate Bill 4, which established new safety measures for fracking, rules that went into effect on July 1.
Quake experts think fracking maps may predict future temblors
Experts creating models to gauge future activity
By Sean Cockerham, Tribune News Service Washington Bureau, April 23, 2015 10:02pm
WASHINGTON — As earthquakes triggered by oil and gas operations shake the heartland, the federal government is scrambling to predict how strong the quakes will get and where they’ll strike.
The U.S. Geological Survey released maps Thursday that show 17 areas in eight states with increased rates of manmade earthquakes, including places such as North Texas, southern Kansas and Oklahoma where earthquakes were rare before fracking sparked a U.S. drilling boom in recent years.
Seismologists are using the maps in an attempt to create models that can predict the future of such quakes.
“These earthquakes are occurring at a higher rate than ever before and pose a much greater risk to people living nearby,” said Mark Petersen, chief of the USGS national seismic hazard modeling project.
Studies show the earthquakes primarily are caused by the injection of drilling wastewater from oil and gas operations into disposal wells, said Bill Ellsworth, a seismologist with the USGS.
The fact there have been many small earthquakes “raises the likelihood of larger earthquakes,” Ellsworth said. While most of the quakes have been modest, a 5.7-magnitude earthquake near Prague, Oklahoma, in 2011 destroyed 14 homes and was felt as far away as Milwaukee.
The USGS is working on a model, to be released at the end of the year, that can predict the hazards a year in advance.
People who live in areas with manmade quakes can use the forecasting information to upgrade structures to be safer and in order to learn what they should do in case of an earthquake, he said.
“Many of these earthquakes are now occurring in areas where people have not been familiar with earthquakes in the past,” Ellsworth said. “So there’s just a lot of basic education that is worth doing.”
The USGS maps show the earthquakes are mostly in Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas, but also Colorado, Ohio, Arkansas, Alabama and New Mexico.
“What we’ve seen is very, very large volumes of wastewater being injected over many different areas in the midcontinent, Oklahoma principally but also Kansas, Texas and other states,” Ellsworth said.
Fracking produces large amounts of wastewater, which oil and gas companies often pump deep underground as an economical way to dispose of it without contaminating fresh water. That raises the pressure underground and can effectively lubricate fault lines, weakening them and causing earthquakes.
While there was some initial skepticism, it’s become increasingly accepted that oil and gas activities are behind the surge in American earthquakes since 2008. Southern Methodist University researchers said in a research paper this week that these activities were the most likely cause of a rash of earthquakes that hit an area northwest of Fort Worth, Texas, from November 2013 to January 2014.
Oklahoma was rocked with nearly 600 earthquakes big enough for people to easily feel last year.
The Kansas Corporation Commission, a state regulatory agency, has responded to the earthquakes there with new rules that limit how much saltwater drilling waste can be injected underground. Ellsworth said seismic researchers were watching Kansas closely to see whether the new rules reduced the quakes.
CONCORD — A mysterious earthquake fault slices under central Concord, its jagged, quarter-mile-wide seam running beneath a critical fuel-pumping facility, traversing the edge of a refinery processing 166,000 barrels of crude oil daily, and undercutting strip malls and homes.
While its big sisters, the San Andreas and Hayward fissures, grab the headlines, the Concord Fault — with its 11-mile-long fracture zone stretching from the Carquinez Strait to the Mount Diablo foothills — is also capable of producing a catastrophic earthquake, geologists say. And with critical infrastructure in its path, particularly refineries and a vulnerable railroad bridge not far away, a large seismic event could leave the entire northern half of the state without easy access to fuel — disrupting transportation and the transmission of electricity and water, according to a recent study.
The Concord fissure may be largely ignored by the general public. But not by geologists.
“The Concord Fault is significantly more active than the fault that caused the Napa earthquake,” said Chris Wills of the California Geological Survey, referring to the 6.0 wine country temblor last August that caused more than $400 million in damage. “Nobody would be surprised if a magnitude-6 earthquake happened on the Concord Fault tomorrow.”
Make no mistake, Concord’s contribution to the Bay Area’s geologic activity is significantly smaller than the San Andreas and Hayward zones. Updated U.S. Geological Survey estimates indicate a 3 to 4 percent probability of a magnitude-6.7 or higher earthquake over the next 30 years on the Concord or lower Green Valley Fault, a connected Solano County segment, compared with 6.4 percent for the San Andreas and 14.3 percent for the Hayward Fault.
The Concord Fault creeps a measly 4 to 5 millimeters annually, while the Hayward slips 9 millimeters and San Andreas 25 millimeters.
The last catastrophic temblor on the Contra Costa-Solano combo fault struck more than 400 years ago, but geologists still say it’s important to monitor.
“At some point in time that system has to fail — we just don’t know exactly when,” said David Schwartz with the USGS. Even if the Concord Fault only produces a 5.0 quake, it could cause significant damage, Schwartz said.
The great unknown
On Oct. 23, 1955, a 5.4 quake — the Concord Fault’s last major temblor — was felt from San Jose to Sacramento. It caused $1 million in damage ($8.7 million in today’s dollars) and one fatality, according to the USGS. Windows shattered, brick walls cracked and moved, chimneys shifted and wine bottles crashed from liquor store shelves.
What makes the Concord Fault particularly worrisome to regional planners, so much so that it was highlighted in a December study by the Association of Bay Area Governments, is its potential impact on regional and statewide fuel distribution. Without gasoline, every other crucial need, including water, electricity and transportation, will be affected.
In its report, ABAG studied three theoretical earthquakes — a 7.9 on the San Andreas, a 7.0 on the Hayward and 6.8 on the Concord.
“Originally, we were just going to explore the San Andreas and Hayward faults, but we realized that (there are) a lot of key infrastructure assets in (the Concord) region,” said study author Michael Germeraad, an ABAG resilience planner.
Five Bay Area refineries — all but two are within a couple miles of the fault — processed 235 million barrels of crude in 2012, about 40 percent of the state’s total, according to ABAG. In addition, Kinder Morgan operates a pumping station nearby that receives processed crude from all the refineries and pipes it out to terminals across Northern California and Nevada.
That pumping station, a critical piece of fuel infrastructure, lies directly above the Concord Fault.
Built in the 1950s, the station receives products from eight facilities and pumps the refined crude through pipelines. It can store about 1 million barrels, but normal inventory is half of that, said Melissa Ruiz, a Kinder Morgan spokeswoman. Its five outgoing pipelines serve Chico, Fresno, Reno, Sacramento, San Jose, Stockton and surrounding cities, in addition to seven military facilities and public airports.
The company has facilities and pipelines in active fault areas throughout California but has never lost a pipeline or tank to a quake and maintains its infrastructure to industry rules and regulations, Ruiz said.
In its report, ABAG said it had concerns because pipelines can fail due to soil liquefaction — where hard soil loses strength during strong ground shaking — and fault rupture. Knowing pipeline material, age, weld types and other factors would help scientists know where failures are “more likely,” but that information isn’t available.
“Damage to the Concord station would interrupt fuel transmission across the northern half of the state,” the report concluded.
The study also found that if one Bay Area refinery was damaged, they would all likely suffer damage because of their close proximity to each other, and because they are built on similar soils and have similar construction.
“A conservative restoration estimate of damaged refineries is months,” the study found for the Concord quake scenario.
The Tesoro Golden Eagle facility in Martinez sits on 2,206 acres just feet from the fault. Built in 1903, Golden Eagle employs about 650 workers and is the fourth-largest refinery in California.
Spokeswoman Patricia Deutsche said refinery officials are aware it sits next to the fault and a liquefaction zone, but she said the facility follows industry design standards. Piles are driven down hundreds of feet into bedrock, equipment has been retrofitted and the Avon Wharf, an oil terminal located on aging timber piles along the southern shore of Suisun Bay, just received environmental clearance for retrofit up to state quake standards, she said.
Seismic assessments of Bay Area refineries are done every five years, and the building code requirements consider the level of possible ground shaking from any nearby fault, said Gayle Johnson, senior engineer with Simpson Gumpertz & Heger, a national engineering firm.
Johnson, who has investigated the performance of industrial facilities in more than 20 earthquakes worldwide, said since the refinery retrofit programs began in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there has been a “ton of upgrade work done.”
While fuel infrastructure may be the top concern for the region, a large quake could disrupt other major lifelines. The Benicia-Martinez rail bridge, located between the two vehicle spans, is particularly vulnerable, according to ABAG, and could face “significant or complete damage.”
Liquefaction along the Carquinez Strait could cause dredged water channels to slough into the shipping pathways. Runways could rupture at Buchanan Field, which sits adjacent to the fault. Delta levees could breach, creating flooding and impacting drinking water quality, ABAG found.
Two-thirds of the power generated in the region is produced by natural gas facilities, many along the Carquinez Strait.
“In the event natural gas lines are damaged, these facilities will be unable to generate electricity,” the study found.
Still, Wills warns that what will happen during a significant quake on the Concord Fault is largely a mystery.
“How it releases is not that well known,” he said.