April 24, 2015

USGS study looks at links between oil and gas activity, earthquakes

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Research has identified 17 areas in the central and eastern United States with increased rates of induced seismicity. Since 2000, several of these areas have experienced high levels of seismicity, with substantial increases since 2009 that continue today.Image via USGS

A United States Geological Survey explored how human activity in relation to oil and gas production and drilling can cause earthquakes.

The areas studied included two regions in New Mexico, one in northern New Mexico and another in southeastern New Mexico. In all, the report studied “17 areas within eight states with increased rates of induced seismicity.”

Much of the attention is on Oklahoma, where the bulk of the new seismic activity has been found. The report was also released just days after the state of Oklahoma acknowledged a link between the disposal of wastewater from oil and gas wells and increased seismic activity.

The injection of water to dispose of waste from oil and gas activities appears to have a higher link to earthquakes than hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking.

The full USGS report is available here (PDF). The map shows increased seismic activity in seismically stable areas across the country, from Pennsylvania to New Mexico in areas where oil and gas drilling is present.

“This new report describes for the first time how injection-induced earthquakes can be incorporated into U.S. seismic hazard maps,” Mark Petersen, Chief of the USGS National Seismic Hazard Modeling Project, said in a statement announcing the report. “These earthquakes are occurring at a higher rate than ever before and pose a much greater risk to people living nearby. The USGS is developing methods that overcome the challenges in assessing seismic hazards in these regions in order to support decisions that help keep communities safe from ground shaking.”

From the report:

We acknowledge that natural earthquakes could occur within the defined zones during the stated time windows; however, we treat the seismicity as induced for this study because the earthquakes are all located near deep fluid injection wells or other industrial activities capable of inducing earthquakes.

“Predicting when and where induced seismicity will occur in the future is challenging,” the report states.

Oklahoma is again cited.

“In Oklahoma, activity rates have varied exponentially, and earthquakes have migrated several tens of kilometers over a year or two,” the report says. “These changes may be related to oil and gas exploration activity but they also may depend on physical processes, which are poorly understood.”

The report says that further study is needed on a number of things, including on whether there is a link between the total volume of fluids injected and the maximum magnitude of an induced earthquake.

The Raton Basin was the subject of a 2014 study on “ongoing seismicity in the Raton basin” which found “deep injection of wastewater from the coal-bed methane field is responsible for inducing the majority of the seismicity since 2001.”

An earthquake near Trinidad, Colorado, just across the New Mexico border from Raton, registered 5.3 on the Richter scale and was the most powerful earthquake in Colorado in 40 years.

In addition to the Raton Basin in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, the study also looked at increased seismic activity in “Dagger Draw,” an area in Eddy County in the middle of the oil patch.

The Dagger Draw area was an area where no earthquakes larger than a certain size occurred in 2014, which the report says shows “this year’s seismicity may or may not be a good predictor of next year’s activity.”

The U.S. Energy Information Agency cited the top 100 oil and natural gas fields in the country on Friday as part of the agency’s “Today in Energy” series.

The top 100 largest oil and natural gas field locations are plotted using latitude-longitude of the approximate center of the field. Dot diameter is relative to its 2013 proved reserves.  Image via U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on Form EIA-23L and DrillingInfo

The top 100 largest oil and natural gas field locations are plotted using latitude-longitude of the approximate center of the field. Dot diameter is relative to its 2013 proved reserves.
Image via U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on Form EIA-23L and DrillingInfo

The Raton Basin is represented on the natural gas map while the Dagger Draw area in southeastern New Mexico is represented on the oil map.

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