Sunday, March 31, 2013

Fracking records unsealed in Pennsylvania by Betsey Piette

Posted on March 31, 2013 by dandelionsalad
Dandelion Salad
Stop the Frack Attack
Image by N-ree-K via Flickr
by Betsey Piette,, March 26, 2013
Philadelphia  — Since 2005, a provision of the federal Energy Policy Act popularly labeled the “Halliburton Loophole,” allowed the giant corporations profiting from drilling in major shale formations across the U.S. to withhold information on the hundreds of potentially toxic and carcinogenic chemicals that make up fracking compounds. The law provided them protection for “trade secrets.”
This industry tactic to restrict oversight and limit potential litigation was supplemented by state laws like Pennsylvania’s Act 13 that prohibited disclosure of the impact of harmful chemicals whenever lawsuits were settled with major fracking corporations.
Under the terms of Act 13, doctors treating patients suffering from injuries or illnesses suspected to be caused by fracking were prohibited from disclosing exactly what chemicals were involved or the nature of their patient’s illness. While some provisions of Act 13 have been overturned by state courts, this one has not.
On top of these legislative covers, all too frequently lawsuits regarding water or air contamination stemming from fracking were settled with a ubiquitous “nondisclosure” clause prohibiting plaintiffs from revealing just what damage they suffered.
If a rancher’s cattle dropped dead after drinking fracking wastewater, scientists were prohibited from testing the dead animals to find out just what chemicals they had ingested.  If children became ill after exposure to air or water contaminated by fracking chemicals, no doctor could sound a general alarm.
Crack in fracking industry’s armor
A judge’s ruling in a western Pennsylvania court is being seen by many as the first crack in the fracking industry’s armor.
On March 20, Judge Debbie O’Dell-Seneca reversed an order by a Washington County court that sealed records from a lawsuit against several Marcellus Shale gas companies involving property damage and health impacts from air and water pollution caused by natural gas operations.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Observer-Reporter filed the case to unseal records stemming from a case initiated by Stephanie and Chris Hallowich against Range Resources, Mark West Energy Partners, and Williams Gas/Laurel Mountain Midstream Partners, which was originally settled in July 2011. The drilling companies sought to keep the records out of public scrutiny. Areas around Pittsburgh have been particularly hard hit by unfettered drilling for natural gas.
As is the case with most complaints involving fracking, the parties reached a settlement outside the courtroom. It is known that Range Resources agreed to pay the Hallowich family $750,000.
Amicus briefs supporting the newspapers’ lawsuit were filed on behalf of Philadelphia Physicians for Social Responsibility and several doctors and scientists who argued in support of greater transparency concerning fracking’s health impacts.
Earthjustice attorney Matthew Gerhart, who filed a brief, called the court’s ruling “a victory for everyone who believes that we need more information about the environmental and health consequences of fracking.”
A key part of Judge O’Dell-Seneca’s ruling challenged the corporations’ claim that they had the same right to privacy as individuals to keep records from being unsealed. She determined that Pennsylvania’s constitution does not protect the right of privacy for businesses.
Records expose role of DEP
The fallout from this historic ruling remains to be seen. Many cases across Pennsylvania concerning contamination from drilling in the Marcellus Shale either were resolved through out-of-court settlements with nondisclosure clauses or were never contested for lack of verifiable evidence.
The anti-fracking group StateImpact Pennsylvania quickly posted all 971 pages it obtained from the unsealed Hallowich settlement. The family had sued after their children were sickened from nearby drilling activities, but were forced to agree to a strict gag order in order to reach settlement.
The unsealed court records reveal several references to the plaintiff’s concern about the lack of adequate inspections or oversight by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. The DEP failed to keep complete records of their investigation, including having no record of testing a Hallowich neighbor’s water that revealed high levels of the cancer-causing chemical acrylonitrile.
The DEP inspector who did the investigation subsequently left the state agency to work for Range Resources.
The DEP’s failure to adequately test well water impacted by fracking chemicals or to report their findings to homeowners has long been a key concern for communities impacted by fracking across Pennsylvania.
As part of their settlement the Hallowich family had to sign an affidavit that “no medical evidence” definitively linked their children’s illnesses to drilling activity.
Potentially far-reaching impact
Already families who reached similar out-of-court nondisclosure settlements with drilling companies are asking if the latest court ruling applies to them as well.  Some, who had agreed earlier to a confidential settlement, are asking if this decision lifts their gag order.
The drilling industry is currently pushing a campaign designed to convince people that the industry has “made peace” with environmental activists by agreeing to voluntary “tough new fracking standards” and that now fracking should be safe and therefore “more acceptable.”
While activists say the drilling industry’s practices are as unsafe as ever, the industry’s goal is to push the expansion of fracking by going around any potential state or local restrictions.
One court ruling won’t turn around the lack of government control, but it can give the anti-fracking community a new weapon to fight with.
Piette’s essay, “Drilling into the abyss: Why hydraulic fracturing is not a solution for global energy needs or global warming,” won a first prize at the Havana Book Fair this February, in a contest called “Thinking Against the Mainstream,” run by the Cuban Ministry of Culture.

Articles copyright 1995-2013 Workers World. Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article is permitted in any medium without royalty provided this notice is preserved.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Fracking's Latest Scandal? Earthquake Swarms Caused by Wastewater Injection Wells

Turns out that when a barely regulated industry injects highly pressurized wastewater into faults, things can go

by Michael Behar, Mother Jones, March-April 2013
AT EXACTLY 10:53 P.M. on Saturday, November 5, 2011, Joe and Mary Reneau were in the bedroom of their whitewashed and brick-trimmed home, a two-story rambler Mary's dad custom-built 43 years ago. Their property encompasses 440 acres of rolling grasslands in Prague, Oklahoma (population 2,400), located 50 miles east of Oklahoma City. When I arrive at their ranch almost a year later on a bright fall morning, Joe is wearing a short-sleeve shirt and jeans held up by navy blue suspenders, and is wedged into a metal chair on his front stoop sipping black coffee from a heavy mug. His German shepherd, Shotzie, is curled at his feet. Joe greets me with a crushing handshake—he is 200 pounds, silver-haired and 6 feet tall, with thick forearms and meaty hands—and invites me inside. He served in Vietnam, did two tours totaling nine years with the Defense Intelligence Agency, and then, in 1984, retired a lieutenant colonel from the US Army to sell real estate and raise cattle. Today, the livestock are gone and Joe calls himself "semiretired" because "we still cut hay in the summers."
On that night in November, just as he and Mary were about to slip into bed, there was "a horrendous bang, like an airliner crashing in our backyard," Joe recalls. Next came 60 seconds of seismic terror. "The dust was flying and we were hanging onto the bed watching the walls go back and forth." Joe demonstrates by hunching over and gripping the mattress in their bedroom. He points to the bathroom. "The mirror in the vanity exploded as if somebody blew it out with a shotgun." When the shaking stopped, Joe surveyed the damage. "Every corner of the house was fractured," he says. The foundation had sunk two inches. But most frightening was what Joe discovered in the living room: "Our 28-foot-tall freestanding chimney had come through the roof." It had showered jagged debris onto a brown leather sofa positioned in front of their flat-screen TV. Joe shows me the spot. "It's Mary's favorite perch. Had she been here…" He chokes up.
Joe and Mary Reneau
Joe and Mary Reneau Photographs by Ben Sklar
The earthquake registered a magnitude 5.7*—the largest ever recorded in Oklahoma—with its epicenter less than two miles from the Reneaus' house, which took six months to rebuild. It injured two people, destroyed 14 homes, toppled headstones, closed schools, and was felt in 17 states. It was preceded by a 4.7 foreshock the morning prior and followed by a 4.7 aftershock.
The quake baffled seismologists. The only possible culprit was the Wilzetta Fault, a 320-million-year-old rift lurking between Prague and nearby Meeker. "But the Wilzetta was a dead fault that nobody ever worried about," says Katie Keranen, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of Oklahoma. We're driving in her red SUV, just south of the Reneaus' property, when she stops to point out where the quake tore open a footwide fissure across State Highway 62. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) maintains a database of seismically risky areas. Its assessment of the Wilzetta Fault, Keranen notes, was "zero probability of expected ground motion. This fault is like an extinct volcano. It should never have been active."
When the Wilzetta mysteriously and violently awakened, Keranen wanted to know why. So she partnered with scientists from the USGS and Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. The morning after the initial foreshock, Keranen's team scrambled to install three seismometers around Prague. They did so in time to capture the quake system in unprecedented detail. She says, "We got this beautiful image of the fault plane." Within a week, her team and other scientists had placed a total of 25 devices around the fault zone. One is buried in the Reneaus' backyard. Now, having completed a yearlong study (just published in the journal Geology), Keranen's research indicates the Oklahoma earthquakes were likely attributable to underground injection of wastewater derived from "dewatering," separating crude oil from the soupy brine reaped through a drilling technique that allows previously inaccessible oil to be pumped up. "Pretty much everybody who looks at our data accepts that these events were likely caused by injection," Keranen concludes.
"We still feel tremors weekly," complains Joe Reneau. "They rattle our windows." The couple hasn't bothered to rehang family photos in their living room. Instead, the framed snapshots are stacked in tidy piles on a coffee table.
Such seismic activity isn't normal here. Between 1972 and 2008, the USGS recorded just a few earthquakes a year in Oklahoma. In 2008, there were more than a dozen; nearly 50 occurred in 2009. In 2010, the number exploded to more than 1,000. These so-called "earthquake swarms" are occurring in other places where the ground is not supposed to move. There have been abrupt upticks in both the size and frequency of quakes in Arkansas, Colorado, Ohio, and Texas. Scientists investigating these anomalies are coming to the same conclusion: The quakes are linked to injection wells. Into most of them goes wastewater from hydraulic fracking, while some, as those in Prague, are filled with leftover fluid from dewatering operations.
The impact of fossil fuels is no secret, but until now the short list of dirty energy's villains never included water. Together, oil and gas extraction and production generate about 878 billion gallons of wastewater annually, roughly what tumbles over Niagara Falls every two weeks. More than a third is injected back into disposal wells. With natural gas production on the rise—it has jumped 26 percent since 2007, chiefly because fracking now makes it economically viable to pursue gas trapped in shale deposits—and unconventional practices such as dewatering ramping up domestic oil development, the wastewater deluge is expected to get worse. Operators are injecting more water than ever into drilling wells, while boring new wells to accommodate the overflow. Yet nobody really knows how all this water will impact faults, or just how big an earthquake it could spawn. In the West, small quakes don't often cause much damage because of stricter seismic regulations but also because the underground formations—buckled, with younger rock—absorb all but the biggest events. Induced quakes, however, are happening primarily in flatter states, amid more rigid rock, making them more destructive—a stone makes a bigger splash when it's hurled into a glassy pond than a river of raging whitewater.
For its part, industry is doing its best to avoid discussing the issue publicly, even as its leading professional guild, the Society of Petroleum Engineers, recognized the matter was serious enough to call its first-ever meeting devoted to "injection induced seismicity." Held in September, the SPE's 115-member workshop sought to "better understand and mitigate potential risks." When I reached out to SPE coordinator Amy Chao, she told me, "I appreciate your interest but press is not allowed to attend in any fashion." My requests to speak with geophysicists at leading oil and gas companies implicated in injection-induced earthquakes were also ignored or denied. I did manage to speak with Jean Antonides, vice president of exploration for New Dominion, which operates one of the wells near the Wilzetta Fault. He informed me that people claiming to know the true source of the Oklahoma quakes are "either lying to your face or they're idiots."
Nonetheless, there's growing concern among state officials. After a spate of quakes linked to injection wells shook northern Arkansas, the state's oil and gas commission declared a moratorium on underground wastewater disposal activities within a 1,000-square-mile area encompassing the towns of Guy and Greenbrier and required seismic-risk studies in the greater Fayetteville Shale area. Affected residents filed a class-action lawsuit against Chesapeake Energy and BHP Billiton Petroleum—the first time anyone has sued oil and gas companies for causing an earthquake. After an injection well was linked to quakes in Youngstown, Ohio, Gov. John Kasich issued an executive order requiring operators to conduct seismic studies before the state will issue well permits. So far, Ohio is alone in this regard; no other state—or the federal government—requires any type of seismic-risk assessment for all of its injection wells. And that worries scientists: "Nobody is talking to one another about this," says William Ellsworth, a prominent USGS geophysicist who's published more than 100 papers on earthquakes. Among other mishaps, Ellsworth worries that a well could pierce an unknown fault "five miles from a nuclear power plant."
THE EPA CLASSIFIES AND REGULATES underground injection wells—some 700,000 and counting—based on what goes into them. There are six categories. Class VI wells sequester carbon dioxide; Class V wells store nonhazardous fluids; nuclear waste is stashed in Class IV wells; Class III wells are used in mining salt, uranium, copper, and sulfur; industrial chemicals get stored in Class I wells. Wastewater from oil and gas operations is discharged—typically by injecting it under pressure—into Class II wells.
There are at least 155,000 Class II wells in the United States. Of these about 80 percent are involved in recovering hydrocarbons, predominantly through slick-water hydrofracking, a technique developed by Halliburton. Fracking fluid—water blended with lubricants, thickeners, disinfectants, and other compounds—is pumped into well bores at extremely high pressures. Eventually, the fluid reverses course and—along with millions of gallons of salt water that resides underground—ascends to the surface. The "flowback," now laden with natural gas, is collected, the gas is extracted, and the residual fluid is pumped into disposal wells. There are roughly 40,000 of these, and they can be up to 13,000 feet deep.
The extraction process itself doesn't generally produce earthquakes. This is because of something known as pore pressure, a measurement of how much stress a fluid exerts into the "pores" of surrounding rock. The whole aim of fracking is to rapidly increase pore pressure just long enough to cleave fissures into sediment and free trapped gas, after which time pore pressure equalizes, easing the subterranean stress. Only rarely is pore pressure high enough in a fracking well to cause an earthquake that can be felt at the surface.
But while fracking wells are intended to withstand high pore pressure, wastewater disposal wells are not. When pore pressure spikes in disposal wells, it can move rock. Disposal wells are drilled into vast, permeable formations—think giant sponges—where there's plenty of space for water to spread out. But because water is heavy, the more of it that is sluiced into a well, the more it weighs on the rock below. And as Scott Ausbrooks, a geologist with the Arkansas Geological Survey, points out, "Water does not like to be squeezed." Eventually it finds an escape route, "just like a room of people. The more you put in, the more crowded it gets, and at some point, people are going to start being pushed out the doors."


Drillers inject high-pressure fluids into a hydraulic fracturing well, making slight fissures in the shale that release natural gas. The wastewater that flows back up with the gas is then transported to disposal wells, where it is injected deep into porous rock. Scientists now believe that the pressure and lubrication of that wastewater can cause faults to slip and unleash an earthquake.
how fracking causes earthquakes
Illustration: Leanne Kroll. Animation: Brett Brownell
With the oil and gas boom generating record amounts of wastewater, these rooms are getting increasingly jam-packed. Exactly how much? The EPA tracks volumes but wouldn't provide them; agency officials declined numerous requests for interviews. Companies are also pumping into denser rock, or into deeper formations that are inherently unstable. "There's much more injection going on today where there wasn't injection before," says Cliff Frohlich, associate director of the Institute for Geophysics at the University of Texas-Austin, who recently identified a cluster of wells at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport as the likely culprit for nearby earthquakes.
Too much wastewater in a disposal well forces liquid downward and outward, he adds. It can meander for months, creeping into unknown faults and prying the rock apart just enough to release pent-up energy. Frohlich describes this as the "air hockey" effect. A puck on an air hockey table won't move even if the table is tilted upward a few degrees. "It would just sit there," he says. "But when you turn on the air, it reduces the friction and the puck will slide. There are faults most everywhere. Most of them are stuck, because rock on rock is pretty sticky. But if you pump a fluid in there to reduce the friction, they can slip."
THAT'S EXACTLY WHAT HAPPENED in northern Arkansas, where, according to state geologist Ausbrooks, water from several injection wells pushed apart the two sides of a fault, "allowing it to slip and start popping off the earthquakes"—thousands of them. Ausbrooks, along with Stephen Horton, a University of Memphis seismologist, identified the source: a previously unknown 7-mile-long fault that hadn't budged in modern times. Though not huge, the fault is still long enough to generate a magnitude-6.0 earthquake. (In 1993, when an equal-size temblor hit Klamath Falls, Oregon, it killed two people and caused $7.3 million worth of damage—in a rural area.)
While the largest faults in the United States are documented and mapped—the San Andreas, New Madrid, Cascadia, and dozens of others—"there are faults everywhere, and some are too small to be seen," explains Mark Zoback, a professor of geophysics at Stanford University who was on the National Academy of Engineering committee that investigated the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. "A fault can be missed that could produce an earthquake large enough to cause some moderate damage."
Scarier still is that any fault, no matter how minuscule, can instigate the domino effect scientists have observed during injection-induced earthquakes. "The scenario we worry about is one earthquake spawning another," says the USGS's Ellsworth. This phenomenon was evident in Oklahoma, Keranen says, where "we had one fault-plane go, a second one, and then a third one. They ruptured in sequence." The first tremor in Prague sprang from a minor fault that collided with a larger fault, sparking the quake that trashed Joe and Mary Reneau's home, along with a dozen others.
How far from the site of an injection well could a quake occur? Scientists aren't sure. In Arkansas, along the fault discovered by Ausbrooks, tremors emanated nearly 10 miles. Had those quakes collided with another fault, the shaking might have extended much farther. "Once it starts moving, it's like a chain reaction," notes Ausbrooks.
ALL THESE FACTORS WERE IN PLAY in Youngstown, where D&L Energy Group conducted an experiment, burrowing 200 feet into solid rock known as the Precambrian layer, according to Heidi Hetzel-Evans, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Tremors began three months after wastewater entered the well. The strongest, a 4.0, struck on New Year's Eve. Wastewater had seeped nearly 2,500 feet beyond the bottom of the borehole into an unknown fault. "There will be no more drilling into Precambrian rock in Ohio," Hetzel-Evans dryly tells me.
John Armbruster, a seismologist at Lamont-Doherty who was among those summoned to Youngstown, told me, "This well caused these earthquakes. There were no felt earthquakes in Youngstown in 100 years." Within a year of the well opening, there were "12 felt earthquakes. After the well was shut down, the number decreased dramatically. You'd need Powerball odds for that to be a coincidence."
There is no shortage of evidence. After quakes struck near Trinidad, Colorado, in 2011, the USGS set up a monitoring network. "A magnitude-5.3 earthquake occurred within two kilometers of two high-volume injection wells," says Justin Rubinstein, who is part of a new USGS project to study human-induced seismicity. "These earthquakes were caused by fluid injection." Ditto in Dallas; as UT-Austin's Frohlich points out, "These earthquakes could have been anywhere. They weren't. Virtually all of them were near injection wells."
earthquake swarm oklahoma
Earthquakes near Prague, Oklahoma, from November 5, 2011, through December 4, 2011. Red indicates 2.2 magnitude; magenta represents the 5.7-magnitude quake. KellyMcD/Flickr
Ellsworth, who peer-reviewed Keranen's study, has researched earthquakes for more than 40 years and is a recipient of the Department of the Interior's highest honor for his contributions to seismology. He studied geophysics at Stanford, earned his doctorate from MIT, and is the former president of the Seismological Society of America. When I asked him if there is any doubt among his colleagues about what produced the quakes in Arkansas, Colorado, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Texas, he replied, "Injection of wastewater into Class II wells has induced earthquakes, including the ones you cite." Rubinstein agrees: "In my opinion, it's pretty clear in all of these cases—Youngstown, Arkansas, DFW, Trinidad, and Oklahoma—that injection wells were the cause."
Does industry concur? Jim Gipson, director of media relations for Chesapeake Energy, operator of the wells under DFW airport and a now-closed well near Greenbrier, Arkansas, declined my request for an interview. Hal Macartney, geoscience adviser for Pioneer Natural Resources, which owns some of the wells implicated in the Colorado quakes, dodged my calls and emails for three weeks. Even those not implicated directly with quake-causing wells are staying silent. Hydrofracking pioneer Norman Warpinski, who works for Halliburton, refused comment. Geophysicist Mark Houston and managing partner Steve Sadoskas, at oilfield-services provider Baker Hughes, wouldn't talk. Julie Shemeta, founder of MEQ Geo, a firm that does seismic consulting for oil and gas exploration, said she was too busy for a 15-minute phone call even though I offered her a two-month window to schedule it.
I'm not the only one getting rebuffed. There is "a lack of companies cooperating with scientists," complains seismologist Armbruster. "I was naive and thought companies would work with us. But they are stonewalling us, saying they don't believe they are causing the quakes." Admitting guilt could draw lawsuits and lead to new regulation. So it's no surprise, says Rubinstein, "that industry is going to keep data close to their chest." When I ask Jean Antonides, New Dominion's VP of exploration, why the industry is sequestering itself from public inquiry, he replies, "Nobody wants to be the face of this thing." Plenty of misdeeds are pinned on oil and gas companies; none wants to add earthquakes to the list.
The USGS's Ellsworth tells me that some operators track seismic data near well sites but won't share it, and so far there is no state or national regulatory requirement to do so. And the "Halliburton Loophole" written into the 2005 energy bill at the behest of then-Vice President (and former Halliburton CEO) Dick Cheney excludes hydrofrackers from certain EPA regulations, among them provisions related to "the underground injection of fluids…related to oil, gas, or geothermal production activities." Upshot: "It's an age where information has exploded, but this is an area where we're still working in punch cards," Ellsworth says.
A cracked wall on the Reneau's property in Prague, Oklahoma. After the November 2011 earthquakes, it took the Reneaus six months to rebuild their home. 
Just knowing the daily volumes of water being pumped into a well would yield critical clues. "There is a correlation that shows the largest earthquakes tend to be associated with the largest volume wells," adds Ellsworth. Ideally, the USGS would get real-time data. But operators are only required to track monthly volumes, and those tallies are often delayed six months or more. By then, it's too late. Rubinstein wants "industry to actually give us hourly or daily injection pressures and volume, so we can model where the fluids are going and predict how the stress evolves over time…and be able to come up with some probabilistic sense of how likely you are to generate an earthquake."
As for Keranen's explosive research on the Wilzetta Fault, New Dominion's Antonides is recruiting his own scientists to produce a report challenging it. Meanwhile, he has his own theories. "The traffic driving across the freeway could have caused it," he says, adding that another "trigger point" is the two large aquifers that bracket the fault. Drought has reduced their water levels, "removing a lot of the weight" and allowing the ground underneath to "rebound" and perhaps release energy in a pent-up fault. "All this stuff is tied together—the aquifers, plus trucks driving across the freeway, plus water disposal, plus 50-story buildings—the whole system of man." (This hypothesis has some basis in reality. Scientists in Taiwan fear that the weight of a skyscraper unhinged faults underlying Taipei. Though no such structure, it must be said, is found within 50 miles of Prague, Oklahoma.)
Nine days after the New Year's Eve quake in Youngstown, D&L Energy Group issued a statement that said, "There has been no conclusive link established between our well and the earthquakes. Proximity alone does not prove causation." In March 2012, state officials published a report explicitly detailing the connection, noting that the recent quakes were "distinct from previous seismic activity in the region because of their proximity to a Class II deep injection well. In fact, all of the events were clustered less than a mile around the well." But D&L still questions the new findings—even though the quakes petered out soon after the company voluntarily shut down its well.
AUSBROOKS AND HORTON PARTNERED for nearly a year to research the Arkansas earthquakes, driving around the state to install seismometers and collect data. And yet when it came time to publish the results in a leading scholarly journal, Seismological Research Letters, Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe forced Ausbrooks to remove his name as coauthor. Ausbrooks' boss at the Arkansas Geological Survey is Bekki White, who did two decades of consulting for the petroleum industry prior to her current post. "Ms. White conferred with our office," Matt DeCample, a Beebe spokesman, tells me. "We felt that putting the state and/or Mr. Ausbrooks as a coauthor would represent additional academic credentials beyond their usual scope of work. The survey is in the business of data collection, not interpreting that data and reaching conclusions." When I ask Ausbrooks for a better explanation, he laughs nervously. "Oh, let's just say, I want to say, but I can't. I'll just put it this way: There's money and politics involved." (The state collects $14 million in property taxes from Chesapeake Energy alone.)
Joe and Mary Reneau.
Fracking is an area where conflicts of interest seem particularly apt to emerge. In December, UT-Austin was forced to retract a much-ballyhooed study showing that fracking didn't pollute groundwater after Bloomberg News and an independent analysis by the Public Accountability Initiative revealed that the lead author (and former head of the USGS), Charles Groat, had received an undisclosed 10,000 shares a year and an annual fee ($58,500 in 2011) from a fracking company. The head of UT-Austin's Energy Institute, Raymond Orbach, also stepped down. (Groat is now the head of the Water Institute of the Gulf in Louisiana; Orbach remains at UT.)
Seismologists and geophysicists who work in academia often consult for the oil and gas industry. For example, Stanford's Zoback is on the board of the Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America, a nonprofit oil and gas advocacy group whose charter is to "effectively deliver hydrocarbons from domestic resources to the citizens of the United States." Its members include Halliburton, Chevron, BP, and ConocoPhillips. During our conversations, he peppers his answers to my queries with caveats. "People forget that earthquakes are a natural geologic process, and in most of the cases, what the [injection wells] are doing is relieving forces already in the Earth's crust on faults that would have someday produced an earthquake anyway—maybe thousands of years from now. The oil industry has a history of operating 155,000 [wells] without a problem. Now we have a handful of cases. Without seeming like I'm taking industry's side, where is the problem?"
Keranen, too, juggles conflicting interests. When we talk, she occasionally cuts herself off mid-sentence and then confesses, apologetically, "I have to be careful what I say." Her research on the Prague quakes hasn't been published, and she seems concerned it might antagonize those who will decide on her academic tenure. Randy Keller is the chair of the University of Oklahoma's ConocoPhillips School of Geology and Geophysics. In 2007, the energy behemoth donated $6 million to the university, earning it top billing. Keller is also director of the Oklahoma Geological Survey, which has a mandate to "promote wise use of Oklahoma's natural resources." Such alliances make it difficult for him to point fingers. In December 2011, the OGS published an official position statement on induced seismicity, emphasizing that quakes could easily originate through natural dynamics and that "a rush to judgment" would be "harmful to state, public, and industry interests."
When I emailed Keller in October to inquire whether the OGS had modified its assessment in the face of Keranen's findings, he replied, "We do feel that the location of these events…the nature of the aftershock sequence, and the focal mechanisms can be explained by a natural event." A few hours later, he sent me a follow-up. "I wonder if you understand what I was trying to say. We have never flatly said that the injection wells did not trigger the earthquakes. Our opinion is that we do not yet have the data and research results to make a definitive statement about this issue." Keranen walks the same line, saying that her study will show that wastewater injection "very potentially" roused the Wilzetta Fault. Politics aside, there's widespread scientific consensus that unregulated wastewater injection presents a serious risk to public safety. "We're seeing mid-5.0 earthquakes, and they've caused significant damage," Rubinstein says. "We're beyond nuisance."
So what would the scientists do? One option is to require operators to check geological records before drilling new wells. The Wilzetta, mapped during Oklahoma's 1950s oil boom, could have been avoided. Another approach is using high-frequency sound waves to render three-dimensional images of underlying faults—technology that oil and gas companies already employ to hunt for untapped reservoirs. For existing wells, operators could set up seismometers to capture the tremors that often portend larger events. Finally, simply pumping less water into wells might mitigate earthquakes. Horton attempted to test this tactic in Arkansas. "We suggested reducing the amount of fluid they were injecting and continue [seismic] monitoring. We actually submitted a proposal to the industry to do that and they blew us off." Ohio's regulations for Class II wells, effective as of October, encompass many of these proposals.
Stanford's Zoback is not opposed to regulation, so long as it's not a knee-jerk reaction: "Three things are predictable whenever earthquakes occur that might be caused by fluid injection: The companies involved deny it, the regulators go into a brain freeze because they don't know what to do, and the press goes into a feeding frenzy because they get to beat up on the oil and gas industry, whether it is responsible or not. While I'm making a joke here, there is currently no framework for scientifically based regulation. Assessing and managing the risk associated with triggered seismicity is a complex issue. The last thing we want to implement is a bunch of new regulations that are well meaning but ineffective and unduly burdensome."
Getting regulators to agree on new rules is not going to be easy, because the connection between injection wells and earthquakes is inherently circumstantial. Seismologists can't situate sensors miles underground the instant an earthquake occurs, which means they might never be absolutely certain that wastewater and not natural forces led to the rupture. Frohlich puts it this way: "If you do the statistics, smoking causes lung cancer. But that doesn't mean that smoking caused your lung cancer." Ultimately, the courts may decide how much evidence is enough, if the lawsuit in Arkansas goes to trial.
Until then, the Reneaus face more home repairs and an uncertain future. When I leave, Joe walks me out to the driveway. Resurfaced after it buckled in the quake, it's already showing hairline cracks from recent tremors. Joe blames injection wells but thinks culpability will be hard to come by. "My theory is that even if God came down and said, 'You oil company guys are at fault,' they would still deny it. The only thing that's going to stop this is another big earthquake."
*It should be noted that the United States Geological Survey used two different techniques to estimate the earthquake magnitude at 5.6. The Global Centroid-Moment-Tensor Project at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University used different methods to measure it at 5.7. As Justin Rubinstein of the USGS told us, this type of variance is not unusual, and the measurements are considered consistent.

Major Failure: A Graphic Example of the Risks of Modern Well Completion

by Bob Cavnar, this small planet, March 27, 2013

Last week, on March 18th, 2013, LeNorman Operating, based in Oklahoma City, was engaging in multiple well operations on their lease in Hemphill County, Texas.  Halliburton was on location, fracking their Ruth 87-2H well, a Granite Wash completion; simultaneously, Cased Hole Solutions, as reported by witnesses, was perforating another well with wireline nearby on the same drilling pad.  A note here:  One of the advances in drilling and completion technologies brought to land from offshore operations is the ability to directionally drill multiple wells from one location or “pad.”  The advantage is efficiency and smaller geographic footprint.  The disadvantage, among others, is the danger of multiple operations on a single location (i.e., see Deepwater Horizon blowout causes).

As reported by industry website, Drilling Ahead, Halliburton was pumping the frac job at a reported 8,500 p.s.i. (pounds per square inch) when the 7″ production casing parted about 100′ below ground level.  This sudden upward force also parted the surface pipe just below the casinghead, and the entire assembly, including the frack stack and the attached frac iron, became a giant bottle rocket, landing on the wireline truck.  Miraculously, no one was killed, and the only injury was the operator in the wireline truck, sustaining a concussion.  I was able to confirm the incident through the Texas Railroad Commission Blowouts and Well Control page.  Before I talk about the causes of an accident like this, I’ll note that since January 1, 2011, in Texas alone, there have been 67 reported blowouts and well control problems; remarkably, reported injuries in these incidents were only 4; there was one fatality.  Of these 67 incidents, 5 were related to casing failures during frack jobs.

The post accident photos published by Drilling Ahead and floating around the industry are impressive and can give the reader a sense of the extreme forces that oilfield tubulars and equipment sustain during drilling, completion, and production operations.  Here are a few of the pics:

IMG 1075 Major Failure: A Graphic Example of the Risks of Modern Well Completion Technologies
Side view of the frack stack lying on top of the destroyed wireline truck.

IMG 1117 Major Failure: A Graphic Example of the Risks of Modern Well Completion Technologies
This hole is where the wellhead was. They were extremely fortunate the well didn’t blow out.

IMG 1133 Major Failure: A Graphic Example of the Risks of Modern Well Completion Technologies
Clear view of the bottom of the casinghead, surface pipe and production pipe.

Catastrophic casing failures, while relatively rare, can have profound consequences.  You’ll recall that potential casing failure and loss of well integrity was one of the principal concerns during the blowout of the Macondo well in the Deepwater Gulf of Mexico in 2010.  If you lose integrity, you lose control, and the well is open to the world.  Luckily here, this well stayed dead after the frackstack blew off.  In many cases, that doesn’t happen and the well blows out with nothing on top to work with to regain control.

Casing failure has a several causes; manufacturing flaws, damage while handling, or improper setting are most common.  Most frack jobs are pumped directly down the casing, rather than using a small diameter tubing run inside.  Operators do this to get a higher pump rate, and/or lower injection pressures, allowing for larger frack jobs.  In order to do a casing frack, however, the casing has to be set or “hung off” in the casinghead by “stacking” weight below the slips.  Stacking weight below the slips essentially puts “slack” in the casing allowing for thermal contraction that occurs when you pump cold frack fluids into a warm well.  As steel contracts, tremendous forces are exerted on the pipe itself, as well as the pipe threads and couplings.  If enough slack is not put in the pipe, its rated tensile strength can be exceeded during thermal contraction, and it will part, as we saw in this case.  Worse yet, the upward force can also be exceeded on the protection casing around it, in this case, the surface pipe, and it can also fail.  When that happens you have a gigantic bottle rocket.

The concerns over hydraulic fracturing mostly focus on its effects on ground water.  Much of that concern comes from worries that frack fluids will reach ground water sands that have been penetrated by oil and gas wells, concerns which are dismissed by the industry who claims that surface casing and cement protects those sands.  I believe surface pipe and cement does protect ground water much of the time, but the procedure is not failsafe and the industry claim is certainly not true 100% of the time.  There are strict rules in most states, including Texas, that specify surface pipe depths, strength, cement quality and cement volume.  However, just like we saw after the Deepwater Horizon incident, those rules only work if they are followed and enforced.  What we are seeing in Texas, as well as other shale boom areas, is lots of activity on many locations, not enough inspectors, and many workers who may not be trained as well as they should.  Going fast with lots of operations and light oversight can result in catastrophic failures.  Here was one.

Hopefully we learn from it.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Oklahoma's largest ever earthquake found to be fracking related [Prague, OK, Nov 6, 2011, 5.7 magnitude, destroyed 14 homes, injured 2 people]

by Joe Wertz, StateImpact, March 26, 2013

A University of Oklahoma seismologist’s research, released today, provides further evidence that Oklahoma’s largest-recorded earthquake was triggered by injection wells used by the oil and gas industry.
Katie Keranen’s findings, published today in the geoscience journal Geology, adds to a growing chorus of scientific evidence suggesting that injection and disposal wells are likely causing an uptick of earthquakes in the continental United States.
The research centered on a sequence of earthquakes that occurred in November 2011 near Prague, Okla. They included a 5.7-magnitude quake on Nov. 6, the largest quake  triggered by injection wells to date, according to the research.
The analysis suggests that injection-induced earthquakes could be larger than previously thought,  and that they could occur on much longer timescales.
“This is basically a different class of induced earthquake,” Keranen tells StateImpact.
Click here to read a copy of the research, which was published March 26 by the geosciences journalGeology.
Oklahoma’s November 2011 earthquake was the state’s largest recorded with modern instrumentation. Two people were injured in the quake, which destroyed 14 homes, “buckled” pavement and was felt in 17 states, according to the paper.
Keranen’s analysis — co-written with Columbia University’s Heather Savage and Geoffrey Abers, and the U.S. Geological Survey’s Elizabeth Cochran — is based on data collected from more than a dozen seismometers deployed during the November 2011 earthquake sequence and is correlated with data collected by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, the state’s oil and gas regulator.
Prague is situated near a fault line and an oil field that was heavily used in the 1950s and 1960s. Petroleum production in the area has dwindled since then, but in the early 1990s, operators started installing injection wells in the oil field. Such wells are used to “recover” oil and gas from depleted reservoirs, or to store toxic waste fluid produced during drilling.
Currently, when seismologists evaluate the likelihood that an earthquake was induced by injection wells, they look for earthquakes that occur within months of fluid injection. But Keranen’s research suggests a much longer lag between cause and effect:
“Here we present a potential case of fluid injection into isolated pockets resulting in seismicity delayed by nearly 20 years from the initiation of injection, and by 5 years following the most substantial increase in wellhead pressure.”
Her findings also suggest that induced earthquakes could be larger than previously thought, since this type of deep waste fluid injection has the potential to unlock tectonic stresses built up over decades.
More than 1,400 earthquakes were recorded in Oklahoma in 2011, the most seismically active year on record, data show. Oklahoma isn’t alone. Seismic activity has also increased in other states throughout the middle of the country. Seismologists suspect that oil and gas activity may have triggered earthquakes in Texas, Arkansas, Colorado and Ohio.
Regulators in Arkansas voted to ban injection wells from one particular region after a series of earthquakes was recorded in that state in 2011. Oil and gas regulators in Colorado now require a review by a state seismologist before injection well permits are issued, and Illinois has installed a “traffic light” system that would require injection wells to stop operating if related earthquakes cause a public safety risk.
But earthquake risks aren’t a part of rule overhauls in California, Texas or New York, E&E’s Mike Soraghan reports. And no such changes are being considered in Oklahoma, the Corporation Commission’s Matt Skinner told StateImpact in January. Skinner didn’t immediately respond to questions about the new research.
Oklahoma’s official seismologist — the Geological Survey’s Austin Holland — is skeptical of the link between injection wells an earthquakes, a view shared by the Corporation Commission and the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association, a trade group that lobbies for the interests of oil and gas producers. More data is needed, Holland says.
In a policy paper written in response to the new research, the Geological Survey says “the interpretation that best fits current data is that the Prague Earthquake Sequence was the result of natural causes.” [Unbelievable!]

Monday, March 25, 2013

Earthquakes: States deciding not to look at seismic risks of fracking


States deciding not to look at seismic risks of drilling

by Mike Soraghan, E&E reporter, EnergyWire, March 25, 2013
Nine months after a National Academy of Sciences panel said oil and gas regulators should take steps to prevent man-made earthquakes, officials in key states are ignoring quake potential as they rewrite their drilling rules.
Two major drilling states, California and Texas, are overhauling their drilling rules without looking at the seismic risks linked to deep injection of drilling and hydraulic fracturing wastewater. New York regulators dismissed earthquake concerns in their drawn-out process of updating drilling rules.
One possible exception, though, may be Illinois. Comprehensive legislation introduced there mirrors the "traffic light" regulation system suggested in the NAS report. That system would allow small earthquakes but would shut down wells when public safety is at risk.
World map
Locations of earthquakes linked by scientists to human activity. Click the map for a larger version. Map courtesy of the National Research Council.
The NAS panel, chaired by Colorado School of Mines professor Murray Hitzman, said earthquakes associated with drilling can pose a risk to public health and safety.
"The regulatory body affiliated with the permitting of wells should include, as part of each project's operation permit, a mechanism (such as a 'traffic light' mechanism) for the well operator to be able to control, reduce, or eliminate the potential for felt seismic events," the panel wrote in its report (Greenwire, June 15, 2012).
U.S. EPA has also looked at earthquakes related to energy development. But its study has stalled in the draft stage, and EPA officials say they have no timetable for issuing a final report (EnergyWire, March 19, 2013).
Geologists have known for decades that deep injection of industrial waste can lubricate faults and unleash earthquakes. One of the most famous instances of man-made earthquakes, or "induced seismicity," occurred in the late 1960s at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal near Denver, where the Army manufactured chemical weapons.
Some earthquake researchers now say the nation's drilling boom, fueled by advances in high-volume hydraulic fracturing, could be spurring a rash of such man-made quakes.
Most seismologists agree that the specific process of hydraulic fracturing presents little or no risk of triggering earthquakes that damage property or injure people. [Except for the 5.6 in Oklahoma in 2011 maybe?]
But injection wells are a different story. Fracking and production of shale gas produce millions of gallons of wastewater far saltier than seawater and laced with toxic and even radioactive chemicals. Some can be reused, but eventually, what comes to the surface must be disposed of. Usually, that's into injection wells.
Very few of the 40,000 brine disposal wells in the country have been linked to seismic ruptures. But in the shale drilling boom of the last few years, earthquakes have been linked to injection wells in Arkansas, Colorado, Ohio, West Virginia, Oklahoma and Texas.
The "traffic light" protocol recommended by the NAS panel suggested a gradual approach to injection wells for regulators, which are usually state oil and gas agencies.
At first, they could require operators to scale back how much fluid they're injecting if a well gets linked to seismicity. But if the earthquakes were to continue and threaten serious damage or injury, wells would be shut down under such a protocol.
The panel's report, done for NAS's National Research Council, also said regulators should evaluate the possibility of an earthquake at potential injection sites. That is not done for wells that receive oil and gas waste in most states.

State breakdowns

Texas has had some of the best-documented seismic activity around brine wells. Researchers have linked injection to earthquakes in the Haynesville Shale in east Texas and the Barnett Shale in the Dallas area (EnergyWire, Aug. 7, 2012). Chesapeake Energy Corp. shut down two wells linked to quakes near the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.
The Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas production, is doing a large-scale revision of its rules without looking at man-made earthquakes.
DFW airport map
A map from a study by University of Texas research scientist Cliff Frohlich shows the proximity of injection wells, or salt water disposal wells, to earthquakes near the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport in 2009. Click the map for a larger version. Map courtesy of the National Research Council.
"The geology of states vary greatly, and Texas has a long history of safe injection," said Gaye McElwain, spokeswoman for the Texas Railroad Commission, which oversees oil and gas, not trains. "Our staff also are closely following various studies that are being conducted to determine possible man-made causes of recent seismic events."
California is not known to have had earthquakes linked to fracturing or deep injection. But it has more experience with damaging and lethal earthquakes than other states.
And oil and gas companies are just beginning to develop the Monterey Shale in Southern California, which could spit up millions of gallons of water to be injected underground.
California's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) is revising its underground injection rules in the wake of criticism from U.S. EPA that they are insufficient to protect groundwater and examine the effect of wells in too narrow of an area (EnergyWire, Nov. 21, 2012).
California officials say they don't see the need to look at injection wells and earthquakes, saying existing rules are sufficient.
"While seismicity is not specifically mentioned in the California Code of Regulations, DOGGR believes it is adequately addressed," said agency spokesman Don Drysdale. "Operators must evaluate oil and gas reservoirs prior to injection, and that evaluation includes faulting."
Donald Clarke, the geologist who served as vice chairman of the NAS panel, said the state has been giving close scrutiny to injection wells in recent years.
"It's tightened up a lot," Clarke said. "The sad part is, they're understaffed to be doing all this."
Stanford University geophysics professor Mark Zoback, who authored a widely cited article on the traffic light protocol last year, also said California's existing safeguards seem adequate.
"If they're requiring operators to evaluate for faulting, then they are addressing the issue," Zoback said.
New York's regulators have been mixed on the dangers of drilling-related quakes. In drafting regulations that would open upstate New York to drilling and hydraulic fracturing, officials at the Department of Environmental Conservation dismissed the possibility of earthquakes, saying there is "essentially no increased risk to the public."
But the agency also hired a geologist to look at the earthquake issue (EnergyWire, Feb. 7).
Ohio shut down an injection well in 2012 and rushed to implement emergency seismic rules for injection after a well was linked to repeated earthquakes in Youngstown. The beefed-up rules allow state officials to order seismicity tests before a well is drilled and specify the volume and pressure of fluids injected. Once the well is operating, the Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management can monitor it and force it to shut off.
Ohio's concerns didn't spread, though some states have taken smaller steps. An example is Colorado, where oil and gas officials are requiring a review by the state geological survey before granting new injection permits.
Other states are still waiting. Oklahoma oil and gas official have allowed drilling companies to inject their wastewater next to an active fault that ruptured in 2011, causing a magnitude-5.6 earthquake (EnergyWire, July 25, 2012).