Oklahoma Earthquakes, Fracking and Assumptions

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CHESAPEAKE ENERGY: Chesapeake has announced it will invest more than $1 billion in developing a nationwide infrastructure and network for compressed natural gas and liquid natural gas fueling stations and biofuel investments.


In 2010 Oklahoma had 1,047 earthquakes. However, not one of them was the magnitude of the 5.6 quake that occurred on November 5, 2011. The quake tremors were felt in Tulsa but also as far away as Wisconsin and South Carolina. The question that now seems to be on everyone’s mind is, “Could fracking be the culprit of this seismic ruckus?”

In order to answer this question intelligently one must: 1) understand what fracking is, 2) understand the basics of fault systems, tectonic plates, and Oklahoma’s geological formations, and 3) know, in the context of a geological lens of time, whether or not a 5.6 earthquake in Oklahoma is actually an out-of-the-ordinary event.

Fracking is the term used for hydraulic fracturing, a proven technique which allows producers to safely recover natural gas and oil from deep shale formations, usually occurring several thousand feet below the earth’s surface.

The fracking process expands or creates fissures in underground shale formations through horizontal drilling and injecting large amounts of water, and small amounts of sand into the shale formations. This allows the natural gas and oil to flow.

Fracking is an extremely important method of oil and gas recovery. And, since the 5.6 earthquake in Lincoln County, it’s becoming part of a national debate about the environment, energy recovery methods and the domestic energy industry. According to Bruce Vincent, immediate past chairman of the Independent Petroleum Association of America () and president of Swift Energy, “One of the biggest threats to the energy industry is on the regulatory side through the Environmental Protection Agency () and their position on hydraulic fracturing of wells. It’s a serious concern because about 90 percent of natural gas wells drilled in the next decade will need to be hydraulically fractured.”

The recent Lincoln County earthquake has increased concerns about fracking and its potential impact on seismic activity. When a disaster occurs people need to make sense of the ‘how and why.’ When one considers that fracking expands existing fissures or creates new ones, and water is injected at high pressure back into the rock formations, many people would make a leap of logic between the two events, and assume that the fracking process accelerates, or even instigates earthquakes.

Before accepting this as fact, it’s important to remember that most people are not seismologists, nor are they petroleum geologists. According to the U.S. Census Bureau there are 312,592,455 people living in the United States. Of this number, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, there are 5,760 geoscientists in the United States of which a small percentage are seismologists, and there are 6,390 petroleum geologists working in the oil and gas industry. These professionals have spent years studying geology, mineralogy, petrology, stratigraphy, structural geology, physical sciences, a myriad of advanced engineering courses, physics, geophysics, chemistry, mathematics, computer science, technical writing, and must be able to engage in complex analytical thinking, spatial visualization, and infer conclusions from complex data.

The point is, when it comes to fracking, just because many people think something, it doesn’t mean it’s credible, or correct. An uninformed, uneducated majority opinion is no substitute for inferences and conclusions based on minority scientific expertise and facts. For instance, speaking of another earth-related matter, for a very long time the majority of people believed the earth was flat, because by the looks of things, it seemed to be the most logical conclusion.

Leaps of laymen’s logic do not equal years of scientific expertise, experience and education. Seismologists’ and petroleum geologists’ insight into the issue of earthquakes and fracking is based on years of research, study, scientific fact, data and a thorough understanding of what drives the earth’s geological processes.

These geological processes, according to David Curtiss, executive director, American Association of Petroleum Geologists, take hundreds of thousands of years and more. “People naturally think in terms of decades, and 80 or 90 years seems like a long time. Geologists think in terms of millions of years. Our lens of time for cause and effect is different.” It is this difference, Curtiss says, that the public needs to be aware of in order to better understand earthquakes. “The fact is, this recent earthquake could have a connection to geological processes that occurred hundreds of years ago, if not more.”

According to Austin Holland, research seismologist, Oklahoma Geological Survey, “Earthquake processes take tens of thousands of years. To try to make the determination, based on our fifty years of earthquake monitoring, that fracking causes earthquakes is like taking one photo still of a movie you have never seen, and then explain what the entire movie is about.”

Dr. Mark Zoback, Benjamin M. Page Professor, Department of Geophysics, Stanford University and president, American Rock Mechanics Association, says, “To put the impact of fracking in context for the layman, the amount of energy produced by fracking is equivalent to a gallon of milk falling from a kitchen counter. Or, you can think of as like a large firecracker.” Zoback points out that the recent 5.6 earthquake in Oklahoma occurred approximately five miles (about 26,000 feet) below the surface of the earth. Fracking in Oklahoma is performed at depths of 3,000-5,000 feet, according to Larry Wise, director and head of field operations, Nitro Petroleum. Fracking has also been done to depths up to 20,000 feet according to some petroleum engineers. It’s also interesting to note that no earthquakes have ever been reported in Nowata, Washington and Jackson counties, areas where fracking is performed.

Regarding the safety of the fracking process, hydraulic fracturing has been conducted in Oklahoma for over 60 years. In addition to there being no conclusive proof that fracking causes earthquakes, according to the Oklahoma Hydraulic Fracturing Review State Review, January 2011, more than 100,000 wells have been hydraulically fractured and the state has not identified any instances where hydraulic fracturing has harmed groundwater. Curtiss points out, “I’ve worked in the energy industry for years. I think it’s important for people to understand that those working in the industry have families, children, and grandchildren too. Therefore, they are just as committed to the stewardship and care of the environment as everyone else, if not more because of the responsibility they have due to the work they do.”

Fracking may become the next issue used to attack our nation’s energy producers. In Oklahoma it means an attack on the industry that contributes 20 percent annually to Oklahoma’s state revenues, generates $51.7 billion in the state for goods and services, and provides nearly 72,000 jobs directly related to the oil and natural gas industry, and generates an additional 228,000 jobs due to the job multiplier effect.

When it comes to the energy industry and Oklahoma, it’s good to keep in mind that jumping to a conclusion about an issue without the knowledge required to understand it, is ignorantly “biting the hand that feeds us.” Oklahomans cannot afford to do this.

For more information about the fracking process and an informative video visit www.cavu-resources.com

Updated 07-12-2012

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