National Research Council report: Actions needed to control potential earthquakes from gas industry

June 15, 2012 by Ken Ward Jr.

There’s been a lot written about the potential for the nation’s natural gas drilling boom to be connected to earthquakes (see here, here and here, for example) — including here in West Virginia.

And today, we got at least some answers, with the release of a new report, “Induced Seismicity Potential in Energy Technologies” by a panel appointed by the National Academy of Science’s National Research Council. Opponents of the Marcellus Shale drilling boom may not like some of the results. For example, a press release starts off this way:

Hydraulic fracturing has a low risk for inducing earthquakes that can be felt by people …

But hold on, and read the rest of the sentence:

… But underground injection of wastewater produced by hydraulic fracturing and other energy technologies has a higher risk of causing such earthquakes, says a new report from the National Research Council.

The release goes on:

In addition, carbon capture and storage may have the potential for inducing seismic events, because significant volumes of fluids are injected underground over long periods of time. However, insufficient information exists to understand the potential of carbon capture and storage to cause earthquakes, because no large-scale projects are as yet in operation. The committee that wrote the report said continued research will be needed to examine the potential for induced seismicity in large-scale carbon capture and storage projects.

Here are the three major findings from the report:

(1) the process of hydraulic fracturing a well as presently implemented for shale gas recovery does not pose a high risk for inducing felt seismic events;

(2) injection for disposal of waste water derived from energy technologies into the subsurface does pose some risk for induced seismicity, but very few events have
been documented over the past several decades relative to the large number of disposal wells in operation; and

(3) CCS, due to the large net volumes of injected fluids, may have potential for inducing larger seismic events.

The report says:

Induced seismicity associated with fluid injection or withdrawal is caused in most cases by change in pore fluid pressure and/or change in stress in the subsurface in the presence of faults with specific properties and orientations and a critical state of stress in the rocks. The factor that appears to have the most direct consequence in regard to induced seismicity is the net fluid balance (total balance of fluid introduced into or removed from the subsurface), although additional factors may influence the way fluids affect the subsurface. While the general mechanisms that create induced seismic events are well understood, we are currently unable to accurately predict the magnitude or occurrence of such events due to the lack of comprehensive data on complex natural rock systems and the lack of validated predictive models.

 The report goes on:

Although induced seismic events have not resulted in loss of life or major damage in the United States, their effects have been felt locally, and they raise some concern about additional seismic activity and its consequences in areas where energy development is ongoing or planned. Further research is required to better understand and address the potential risks associated with induced seismicity.

And importantly, regarding injection wells where drilling wastes are disposed of:

Fluid injection in proximity to a favorably-oriented fault system with nearcritical stresses has an increased potential to generate felt induce seismic events in the absence of nearby extraction that could help maintain reservoir pressure. Class II injection wells used only for the purpose of water disposal normally do not have a detailed geologic review performed and often data are not available to make such a review. Thus, although fluid pressure in the injection zone and the fracturing pressure of the injection zone can be measured after the disposal well is drilled, the location of possible faults is often not known as part of standard well siting and drilling procedures.

 Finally, the report recommends:

Methodologies can be developed for quantitative, probabilistic hazard assessments of induced seismicity risk. Such assessments should be undertaken before operations begin in areas with a known history of felt seismicity and updated in response to observed, potentially induced seismicity. Practices that consider induced seismicity both before and during the actual operation of an energy project can be employed in the development of a “best practices” protocol specific to each energy technology and site location.

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