Weatherford Democrat

November 15, 2013

What to make of the shake

Experts agree: injection wells could be factor in area earthquakes, including 7 recent ground shakers in NE Parker County


Weatherford Democrat

— By JUDY SHERIDAN

The series of recent earthquakes in northern Parker County could have been a domino effect triggered by a single injection well, according to John Wickham, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Texas at Arlington.

“Once the stress is released on one small fault, it moves a bit and pushes the rocks that are on the end of the fault and increases the stress there. That can trigger another earthquake,” he said. “I’m not familiar with the area; I’m just saying what’s possible.”

The earthquakes — seven between Nov. 5 and Nov. 8 — were recorded west of Briar, south and east of Springtown, in the Reno area — with an aftershock in Newark — and near Azle, with magnitudes ranging from 2.4 to 3.0.

While natural causes cannot be ruled out because stress is always building up in the earth’s crust, it is more likely that an injection well — used to dispose of fracking waste — is to blame, Wickham said.

“The research indicates that earthquakes are not caused by fracking,” he said, “but they could be linked to the injection wells that go a lot deeper, 10,000 feet or more.

“It’s well known that when you put fluids under pressure in a rock formation, it can release natural stress buildup.”

It is improbable, but possible, Wickham said, that the small quakes will lead to larger ones.

“Sometimes that does happen,” he said, “but we’re not near the tectonic plate boundaries in Texas. The larger earthquake action takes place along the plate boundaries in California, Japan, the coast of Chile. The largest recorded in Texas is a 5.0. The largest ever recorded is on the order of 9.”

The scale is not linear in terms of the amount of energy released, Wickham said, but logarithmic.

“The difference between a 1 and 2 is a factor of 30,” he said, “the difference between a 4 and 5 is a factor of 900.”

Ed Ireland, executive director of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, believes, like Wickham, that the earthquakes were not caused by the actual drilling for natural gas.

“The level of drilling is low,” he said, “There are only 35 rigs in all of the Barnett Shale, compared with 200 in 2008.”

Ireland said scientists have observed seismic activity around disposal wells but have not proven whether it’s a random correlation or a real connection.

“My understanding is that three things have to be present if there is induced seismic activity,” he said, “There has to be a fault — and there are faults in Parker County — the fault has to be under pressure already, and the disposal well has to be injected at such a pressure that it relieves the strain on a fault.

“In some cases, where there is a question, operators reduce the injection pressure.”

Ireland said Cliff Frohlich, associate director and senior research scientist at the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics, is the expert when it comes to earthquakes and injection wells.

Frohlich, who studied seismographic data collected on the Barnett Shale from 2009-11, thinks the data “suggests that injection-triggered earthquakes are more common than is generally recognized.”

He authored an article entitled “Two-year survey comparing earthquake activity and injection-well locations in the Barnett Shale, Texas,” published in 2012 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

In the article Frohlich hypothesizes that “injection only triggers earthquakes if injected fluids reach and relieve friction on a suitably oriented nearby fault that is experiencing regional tectonic stress.”

His study uncovered 67 earthquakes — eight times as many as have been reported — with magnitudes 1.5 and larger, with “all 24 of the most reliably located epicenters — the spot on the Earth’s surface above an earthquake’s point of origin — occurring in eight groups within 3.2 km of one or more injection wells.”

In Johnson County, while nine of the 27 injection wells were near earthquakes, the other 18 reportedly did not occur  “near wells with similar injection rates.”