Manmade earthquakes are on the rise and will continue to increase due to the effort to produce more energy and store waste water and carbon dioxide in the earth.
A new report, Induced Seismicity Potential in Energy Technologies (2012) by the Board on Earth Sciences and Resources (BESR), discusses in detail these “induced earthquakes.” It has been published by the National Research Council and is available from the National Academies Press.
Earthquakes attributable to human activities are called “induced seismic events” or “induced earthquakes.” In the past several years induced seismic events related to energy development projects have drawn heightened public attention. Although only a very small fraction of injection and extraction activities at hundreds of thousands of energy development sites in the United States have induced seismicity at levels that are noticeable to the public, seismic events caused by or likely related to energy development have been measured and felt in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Texas.
Since the 1920s we have recognized that pumping fluids into or out of the Earth has the potential to cause seismic events that can be felt. Seismic events in Basel, Switzerland between 2006 and 2008 were felt by local residents and were related to geothermal energy development. A string of small seismic events in Arkansas, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Texas in the past several years has been related to waste water disposal associated with oil and gas production. These seismic events have brought the issue of induced (human-caused) seismicity firmly into public view.
Ensuring a reliable 21st century energy supply for the United States presents seminal economic, environmental, and social challenges. A variety of conventional and unconventional energy technologies are being developed to meet this challenge including new technologies associated with shale gas production and geothermal energy. Energy technologies may also produce wastes. “Waste” water is often produced during oil and gas drilling and is generally managed either by disposal through pumping the fluids back into the subsurface or by storage, treatment, or reuse. Carbon dioxide may also be generated as a byproduct of energy production and may be captured and similarly pumped into the ground for storage.
Anticipating public concern about the potential for energy development projects to induce seismicity, the U.S. Congress directed the U.S. Department of Energy to request that the National Research Council examine the scale, scope, and consequences of seismicity induced during fluid injection and withdrawal activities related to geothermal energy development, oil and gas development including shale gas recovery, and carbon capture and storage (CCS). The study was also to identify gaps in knowledge and research needed to advance the understanding of induced seismicity; identify gaps in induced seismic hazard assessment methodologies and the research to close those gaps; and assess options for steps toward best practices with regard to energy development and induced seismicity potential.
Three major findings emerged from the study:
(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.
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.
Energy technology projects that are designed to maintain a balance between the amount of fluid being injected and withdrawn, such as most oil and gas development projects, appear to produce fewer seismic events than projects that do not maintain fluid balance. Hydraulic fracturing in a well for shale gas development, which involves injection of fluids to fracture the shale and release the gas up the well, has been confirmed as the cause for small felt seismic events at one location in the world.
Waste water disposal from oil and gas production, including shale gas recovery, typically involves injection at relatively low pressures into large porous aquifers that are specifically targeted to accommodate large volumes of fluid. The majority of waste water disposal wells do not pose a hazard for induced seismicity though there have been induced seismic events with a very limited number of wells. The long-term effects of a significant increase in the number of waste water disposal wells for induced seismicity are unknown.
Projects that inject or extract large net volumes of fluids over long periods of time such as CCS may have potential for larger induced seismic events, though insufficient information exists to understand this potential because no large-scale CCS projects are yet in operation. Continued research is needed on the potential for induced seismicity in large-scale CCS projects.
Induced seismicity in geothermal projects appears to be related to both net fluid balance considerations and temperature changes produced in the subsurface. Different forms of geothermal resource development appear to have differing potential for producing felt seismic events. High-pressure hydraulic fracturing undertaken in some geothermal projects has caused seismic events that are large enough to be felt. Temperature changes associated with geothermal development of hydrothermal resources has also induced felt seismicity.
Governmental response to induced seismic events has been undertaken by a number of federal and state agencies in a variety of ways. However, with the potential for increased numbers of induced seismic events due to expanding energy development, government agencies and research institutions may not have sufficient resources to address unexpected events. Forward-looking interagency cooperation to address potential induced seismicity is warranted.
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.
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 address the potential risks associated with induced seismicity.
National Academies Press
Induced Seismicity Potential in Energy Technologies