Was lack of government regulation at fault?
It’s a common complaint these days: government regulations have gotten out of hand (see here and here), they're stifling the American economy, "killing economic growth." Generalities like those are hard to refute, or prove for that matter. So let's take a look at specific regulations which were designed to protect the public from injection wells used to dispose of fracking wastes … but because they weren’t comprehensive, when it came to earthquakes, they were no better than, well, no regulation.
In 2011, from March to November, nine small earthquakes were reported in and around Youngstown, Ohio. That's more than one earthquake per month. All were of 2.7 magnitude (Mw) or less. Given that prior to 2011, no earthquakes centered in the area had been recorded, something unusual seemed to be going on. Some speculated that maybe the proximity of the quakes to a deep injection well -- a Class II well used to dispose of fracking waste water [pdf] (there are 144,000 [pdf] Class II wells in the United States) -- might be the culprit. After all, all nine quakes had occurred within a one-mile radius of the well [pdf] and injection wells in Texas and Arkansas had been linked to similar bouts of seismicity. (There’s also that USGS study from last year that reported a significant uptick in the number of minor earthquakes in the United States in recent years.)
Only after a tenth event occurred in the area, on December 24, did the state take action. Less than a week after that magnitude 2.7 quake, Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources requested that injections cease at Northstar 1, the only operational disposal well in the area [pdf]. Within 24 hours of the shutdown, a 3.9 quake hit.
With only one other quake larger than magnitude 2 occurring since Northstar 1's shutdown -- a magnitude 2.1 on January 13, 2012 -- seismically, Youngstown has been as quiet as a dormouse since. Nevertheless, there were cautionary statements against jumping to conclusions before all the evidence was in.
"There has been no conclusive link established between our well and the earthquakes. Proximity alone does not prove causation. Making assumptions and judgments before all the necessary data is collected and reviewed is simply irresponsible and unfair." --From D&L Energy, injection well operator
And James Zehringer, the director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, stated that
"our research doesn't point to a clear and direct correlation to drilling at this site and seismic activity."
New Peer-Reviewed Paper Offers Evidence of Link
A paper by Won-Young Kim of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory appearing last month in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth has now provided that link in the form of a detailed seismicity study of the area. The results are pretty conclusive.
- While a total of only 12 earthquakes were large enough to be recorded in real time between March 2011 and January 2013, Kim's detailed analysis uncovered a total of 109 quakes (magnitude 0.4-3.9). Keep in mind that Youngstown is a location, Kim points out, "where there were no known earthquakes in the past."
- The period of earthquake activity tracked the operational life of the Northstar 1 well (the only one of five disposal wells drilled in the area that came online during this period). The quake activity:
- Began 13 days after the start of injection of fracking wastes,
- Dropped off when disposal activity lessened (e.g., during holidays), and
- Decreased in strength before ceasing altogether about a month after the well operations ceased.
And, perhaps most important, the seismic activity beneath Northstar 1 can be tied to the existence of a previously unknown fault line. While being close to a fault isn't the only condition that must be met for earthquakes to occur, it is the most important [pdf].
So How Did This Happen?
For the most part this is a case, as best as I can tell, of "no harm, no foul." All those tremors and shakes were no doubt alarming for the folks in and around Youngstown, but it appears that any resulting damage was minor, and there were no injuries let alone fatalities. We can all be thankful for that.
Still, the possibility exists that this could have been worse.
The good news is that, in the words of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources [pdf], "Future earthquakes [like the ones at Youngstown] can be avoided."
So why weren’t they avoided in Yougstown then? Apparently because no one realized that a fault line ran beneath the site of the Northstar 1 injection well. Ironically, the data needed to make that determination was already available, collected by Battelle Memorial Institute during drilling of the well as part of a "piggyback" program [pdf] to map Ohio’s subsurface geology in areas where little data exists. However, because of a shortfall of funds, the data were never analyzed (until the quakes began). And, because providing the data was not required by either Ohio or federal regulations, the data were not provided to either Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources or the Environmental Protection Agency.
As NRDC's Briana Mordick explains in this blog post, because of Northstar 1's Class II status as an injection well, the EPA does not require its owners to include seismic activity in their selection of a site for those wells. States, however, may promulgate stricter regulations that do if they chose to. Suffice it to say, Ohio was not such a state.
Had Ohio required the sharing of such geophysical data collected during well development, the regulators might have nixed the well before any of this started, and sited it elsewhere. Taking a step to correct this oversight, Ohio changed its permitting process [pdf] for Class II deep injection wells with the aim of avoiding future problems with induced seismicity. As currently written, though, the changes have led to questions about whether the new rules are strong enough to make a difference. And of course whether they’re new and improved or just new, they pertain to Ohio and not the nation.
And that, my friends, is why we need government oversight and regulation where public welfare is at stake -- to make sure that companies check off all the boxes, even the seismic ones.