Questions have been raised about whether the technique of using hydraulic fracturing (commonly called “fracking”) to release oil gas from underground rocks is a cause of earthquakes. A recent study suggests that there is a direct correlation between fracking and localized earthquakes, but that this connection is due to the reinjection of wastewater into the ground after the fracturing of the rocks, rather than being caused by the hydraulic fracturing itself.  Understanding this connection between reinjection and earthquakes can help companies which are drilling for oil and gas to gain greater public support and approval for fracking operations, while also reducing their own legal exposure and potential liability.

A study by The Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America (Jan. 5, 2015) reported links between hydraulic fracking and earthquakes in Ohio and in Pennsylvania. E & E EnergyWire (Jan. 5, 2015) reported that Oklahoma similarly is experiencing a substantial increase in earthquakes in the last few years as fracking activity has increased. The process of fracking involves drilling into the land and then directing a high-pressure mixture of water, chemicals, and sand into the rock in an effort to fracture the rock and release the gases – natural gas, petroleum and brine.

Fracking and Waste Water Wells

The Ohio/Pennsylvania study showed that fracking is causing slippage or movement in previously unknown fault lines near the wells. Scientists are finding that part of the problem is the large number of injection wells which get much more waste and at higher pressures than other gas or oil wells. It is the wastewater wells that are causing the seismic readings more than the fracking wells that capture the gas. The volume of the injected materials results in the fault cracks to widen which, in turn, raises the risk for slippage and for earthquakes. The mixture, once it is underground, can travel for miles, which can alter the fault line pressure and sometimes trigger the slippage and earthquakes.

The Ohio and Oklahoma Studies

In the Ohio study, several mild earthquakes near Youngstown, Ohio prompted a geological study which confirmed that the fracking-related earthquakes are increasing as fracking surges. Two quakes near Youngstown, Ohio were of 2.8 and 3.0 magnitude on the Richter scale. Youngstown is on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border. The study showed that of the seven wells, the activity at the two closest to the fault coincided with earthquakes. Seventy-seven earthquakes that could be correlated to fracking activities were discovered between March 4 and March 12, 2014. All 77 earthquakes happened about 1.9 miles underground and were discovered through seismic monitoring. The Ohio study was conducted at Miami University in Ohio by a seismology professor, a geologist, and a graduate student.

E&E EnergyWire, through its review of U.S. Geological Survey data from 1975 through 2014, found that Oklahoma has also suffered numerous earthquakes that correlate with the increase in fracking activities. In 2014, there were 585 earthquakes that registered three or more on the Richter scale, the most for any state in the country, including California. From 1975 to 2008, before the practice of fracking expanded, Oklahoma only had an average of three magnitude three earthquakes in a given year. Even as recently as 2013, there were only 100 earthquakes of magnitude three or larger in Oklahoma.

There is some concern that the quakes may also be related to re-injection of waste-water produced by the fracking process. The upward trend is alarming to geologists and local officials because fracking has become prosperous for many states and communities are already concerned about water contamination. The increase in earthquakes in areas of high oil and gas production is part of the overall discussion of how fracking should be regulated by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (“PADEP”) and what energy companies can do to address emerging and complications issues surrounding the process.  These studies raise the question of whether energy companies engaged in fracking should develop new practices or shift to off-site disposal of wastewater to avoid any potential contribution to the increase in earthquakes.  PADEP’s regulation involves assessing the risks such as how deep the wells should be, the types of sediments that are impacted, and providing possible remedies.

Philadelphia Environmental Lawyers for Michelman & Bricker, P.C. Help Businesses Understand Fracking Risks, Consequences and Alternatives For Addressing Community Concerns

Philadelphia environmental lawyers at Michelman & Bricker, P.C. have the technical knowledge, business understanding, and legal acumen to properly advise clients on a full range of environmental issues. This advice includes explaining why communities are concerned about studies showing how some fracking activities may be  causing earthquakes,  what studies are being done to help analyze and correct these issues, how companies can address these issues to reduce their own risks, and what options are available for treating wastewater that has generated much of the recent concern.  Our Philadelphia environmental lawyers help clients comply with regulatory requirements and avoid environmental enforcement actions.

Call us at 215-557-9440 to schedule an appointment or submit our online contact form. With offices conveniently located in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Longmeadow, Massachusetts, our firm handles environmental law matters in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Puerto Rico.