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UK DECC Commissioned Report Recommends Hydraulic Fracturing in Britain

by Charlotte Doerr

The practice of fracing (referred to as “fracking” in the UK) in the United Kingdom has once again come under scrutiny.  The UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) commissioned an independent panel to examine a possible relationship between the practice and certain earthquakes which took place in April and May 2011.  The earthquakes occured near the site of the UK’s only fracing operation in Preese Hall, near Blackpool.  On April 17, 2012, the panel published its findings in a report

Fracing is the practice of pumping water, sand and chemicals into shale rock at a high pressure in order to extract reserves of natural gas stored within the shale rock, known as "shale gas."  The report considered the impact such a process may have on seismic activity.  The report concluded that the fracing operation (which was suspended following the earthquakes) had caused the earthquakes, thus providing some of the first evidence of this connection.  However, the report also found that the risk that fracing could cause an earthquake resulting in significant damage was "very low." 

The report recommended that fracing be allowed in the UK but, given that there is evidence of a connection between fracing and seismic activity, a number of safety provisions should be put in place to mitigate against seismic risks arising from fracing.  The safety provisions include:

  • conducting a detailed assessment of the relevant area prior to fracing taking place, including: performing baseline seismic monitoring so that seismic risk of the area can be determined; using both geological and geophysical data to determine the existence of any active faults in the area; and using ground motion prediction models to consider and assess the possible impact of any earthquakes; and
  • implementing a "traffic light" system with real-time monitoring of seismic activity during the fracking process.  A "red light" would be triggered by any seismic tremor meauring 0.5 local magnitude (a level lower than the size of the 2011 earthquakes) or higher.  The triggering of a red light would require the cessation of fracing and the taking of certain safety procedures including, allowing fluid to flow back to the surface.

In conjunction with the publishing of the panel’s report, the DECC is inviting public comment on the recommendations made by the report until May 25, 2012.

The DECC has stated that no decision will be made as to whether fracing operations for shale gas can be resumed until all comments in response to the report have been received and considered.

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New York: Senate Bill Calls For Earthquake-Hydraulic Fracturing Study

by James A. Pardo and Brandon H. Barnes

The link between hydraulic fracturing activity and seismic activity has been the subject of much discussion of late, including on this blog (see "USGS Study Concludes Increased Seismicity May Be Attributable to Hydraulic Fracturing," posted on April 4, 2012).  Ohio has put in place new rules for deep-well injection disposal of used fracing water, in an attempt to avoid the small earthquakes that occurred in Youngstown last Fall.  New York is now weighing in on the issue.  State Senator Tony Avella recently introduced a bill  that would require a seismological impact study related to hydrofracking to be performed by a state university.  Sen. Avella’s bill would require that the study consider potential seismic effects both locally and state-wide; that it recommend activities or practices to mitigate future seismic activity; and that it provide a plan to monitor for seismic activity in the future. 

The bill proposes to fund the study through appropriations from the general budget, which was the death-knell for a similar piece of legislation introduced earlier this year that would have funded a state university study of fracing’s health effects.  Given New York’s tight fiscal environment, and the fact that federal studies of a possible fracing-earthquake link are already underway, we expect this bill to meet the same fate as the health study.  Sen. Avella, fully aware of the fate of the heath study bill (which he sponsored) likely is making a political statement with this latest legislation.  Nevertheless, stakeholders need to be aware that the earthquake-fracing link is one that is catching increased attention from federal and state authorities, and likely will remain an issue for some time.

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USGS Study Concludes Increased Seismicity May Be Attributable to Hydraulic Fracturing

by James A. Pardo and Brandon H. Barnes

A recently released United States Geological Survey (USGS) abstract, "Are Seismicity Rate Changes in the Midcontinent Natural or Manmade?," has added fuel to the debate over whether hydraulic fracturing can cause earthquakes.   Noting that the increased rate of >3.0 magnitude quakes in certain regions in the Midwest is unprecedented outside of volcanic settings or main shock, the abstract authors conclude that "[w]hile the seismicity rate changes … are almost certainly manmade, it remains to be determined how they are related to either changes in extraction methodologies or the rate of oil and gas production." 

To date, the "earthquake debate" has focused not on the fracking process itself, but on the disposal of fracking wastewater by way of deep well injection – a process that some claim caused the recent earthquakes in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Youngstown, Ohio.  But the real debate will be over whether fracking as a technique for gas extraction can cause increased seismic activity, something that Cuadrilla Resources concluded happened last year in western England.  While far from a definitive conclusion linking fracking to earthquakes, the language employed by USGS – "how they are related" – may suggest that USGS believes such a link to exist.  Either way, USGS’s conclusions are certain to fuel a debate where the stakes already are high.  If the fracking process can be causally linked to earthquakes, regulators may begin requiring seismic studies as a condition for obtaining a well permit; and such studies can be very expensive. 

USGS will present the full results of its study on April 18 at the Seismological Society of America annual meeting.

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