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Jury Still Out on USGS Earthquake Data

Environmental groups and supporters of the oil and gas industry have different opinions over claims by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) that an increase in earthquakes in the Midcontinent region are more than likely caused by wastewater injection well activities.

Scientists from the USGS earthquake research center in Menlo Park, CA, in an advance on a research paper, said there has been a six-fold increase in the number of earthquakes of 3.0 magnitude or greater in the Midcontinent area since 2001, over 20th century levels (see Shale Daily, April 2). They placed activity near the coalbed methane field of the Raton Basin, located along the Colorado-New Mexico border, just west of Trinidad, CO.

America's Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA) noted the sparse nature of the information published so far. "It is very hard to draw conclusions based on an unpublished abstract. There is, however, a difference between disposal injection wells and hydraulically fractured wells and many media reports confuse the two."

ANGA added that although there are more than 140,000 wastewater disposal wells in the United States, "only a handful [are] potentially linked to seismic activity. We are committed to monitoring the issue and working with authorities where there are concerns, but it should be noted that currently there is no scientific data associating hydraulic fracturing with earthquakes that would cause damage."

"We're happy that the federal government and the USGS are stepping up and providing some additional research," Deborah Nardone, director of the Sierra Club's Natural Gas Reform campaign, told NGI's Shale Daily on Wednesday. "Hopefully they will point to the fact that there needs to be better oversight on some of the rules that govern the way in which [hydraulic fracturing] is handled and the way in which its waste products are dealt with."

In a blog post on Wednesday, Interior Department Deputy Secretary David Hayes said news reports about a scientific link between unconventional oil and gas drilling and earthquakes began popping up last week.

"The accuracy of these media reports varied greatly," Hayes said. "Science will continue to play a critical role as the Obama administration moves forward with an all-of-the-above strategy for American energy. USGS's contributions to this effort, including...work on the correlation between wastewater injection sites and seismicity, represent an important part of the overall dialogue about how we can continue to expand domestic oil and gas production safely and responsibly."

The American Petroleum Institute (API) echoed that sentiment, saying that any underground activity can cause seismic vibrations.

"As seismologists and geologists across the country have already determined, the activity that occurs during the hydraulic fracturing process does not produce vibrations of noticeable size," API said. "The minute vibrations occurring during this process may not even be detectable to humans. This is based on a 60-plus year history of these operations."

USGS researchers plan to discuss the increase in earthquakes at the annual Seismological Society of America (SSA) conference, which is being held April 17-19 in San Diego. The USGS presentation, entitled "The M5.8 Central Virginia and the M5.6 Oklahoma Earthquakes of 2011," is scheduled for April 18 at 3:45 p.m.

Last month Ohio regulators said a dozen small earthquakes in northeastern Ohio over the last year may have been triggered by a wastewater disposal well in Youngstown (see Shale Daily, March 12). In 2011, Arkansas established a moratorium on wastewater disposal wells in an area of the Fayetteville Shale after similar quake activity was reported there (see Shale Daily, July 29, 2011; March 4, 2011).

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