The use of injection wells, a preferred method for disposal of various fluids such as wastewater or brine (salt water), is a popular topic in the news media lately due to a suspected link between use of these wells and earthquakes.
Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, the United Kingdom, and most recently Youngstown, Ohio and central West Virginia have been experiencing frequent, small earthquakes. On New Year’s Eve, a 4.0 magnitude earthquake struck just outside of Youngstown, Ohio. This quake was just one of 11 earthquakes experienced in the area since March, 2011.
D&L Energy, whose affiliate Northstar Disposal Services LLC operates the Youngstown well, voluntarily shut the well down after the tenth earthquake occurred. Soon after, Ohio Governor John Kasich’s administration placed a temporary moratorium on injection wells within a 5-mile radius of Northstar No. 1, the particular Youngstown well believed to be the cause of the quakes.
This occurred less than a year after Arkansas declared a moratorium on disposal wells due to earthquakes during the development of the Fayetteville Shale. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources believes that fracking waste pumped into Northstar No. 1 has been seeping into a previously unknown fault line and, as a result, has caused this seismic activity.
The chairman of the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Cornell University analogizes by saying the water pressure essentially “greases the wheels of the earthquake process that is there naturally and causes the earthquakes to occur at lower stress levels than they might normally have needed to occur.” At the same time, for the seismic activity to occur, the wastewater would need to be injected specifically into a stress region.
Seismographs from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory were set up in Youngstown and concluded that the earthquake occurred nearly 2 miles below the surface, the same depth as the well. Ohio has over 177 injection wells throughout the state.
However, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ director stated that the Northstar No. 1 well is the only well that has been related to seismic activity in the state since injection wells were first installed in the 1970s.
Some state senators have called for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to intervene and for an indefinite, statewide moratorium on the use of injection wells.
A statewide moratorium could present a major problem, both for the livelihoods of thousands of Ohio residents as well as for other states who rely on these injection wells for disposal of water generated from oil and gas activities in those states.
Prior to its shutdown, nearly 5,000 42-gallon barrels of brine water were pumped into Northstar No. 1 daily. A majority of this water came from oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania. A similar situation has arisen in West Virginia, which experienced 10 quakes in 2010 and another one in January 2012.
After the initial quakes in 2010, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection worked with Chesapeake Energy to reduce the amount of fluid being injected into its disposal wells in the area.
According to news reports, Chesapeake Energy had recently begun to slowly increase the amount of injected fluid when the latest earthquake struck. While West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection believes there is a link between the earthquake and Chesapeake Energy’s increased injection fluid, there currently is no evidence that these events are related.
The company is skeptical that any link exists given that the earthquake occurred 6 miles from the disposal well, nearly 3 miles below the well’s disposal zone, and 25 earthquakes have been reported within 100 miles of the current seismic activity since 2000, one of which struck before the injection well was even drilled.
Since seismic monitors were not present at the site, the link between the quakes and the increased injected fluid remains unproven. Studies attempting to link earthquakes to underground injection are ongoing.
U.S. EPA has not yet weighed in on this issue, but as the news media continues to focus on the issue and public concerns continue to rise, that may change.
This article was prepared by Heather M. Corken (firstname.lastname@example.org or 713 651 8386) and Kristen Roche (email@example.com or 713 651 5303) from Fulbright’s Environmental Law Practice Group.
Henry Fountain, Ohio: Sites of Two Earthquakes Nearly Identical, N.Y. Times, Jan. 3, 2012, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/03/science/earth/ohio-sites-of-two-earthquakes-nearly-identical.html?_r=1&ref=us.
Julie Carr Smyth, Company cautions against linking well, Ohio quakes, The Washington Times, Jan. 12, 2012, available at http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/jan/12/company-cautions-against-linking-well-ohio-quakes/.
Joe Vardon, State links quakes to work on wells, The Columbus Dispatch, Jan. 1, 2012, available at http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/local/2012/01/01/state-links-quakes-to-work-on-wells.html.
Edward McAllister, Avoiding Fracking Earthquakes May Prove Expensive, Scientific American (Jan. 3, 2012), available at http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=avoiding-fracking-earthquakes-expensive.
Ohio Connects Quakes to Injection Well, Previously Unknown Fault Line Nearby, Business Journal Daily (Jan. 12, 2012), available at http://business-journal.com/ohio-connects-quakes-to-injection-well-previously-unknown-fault-line-nearb-p20690-1.htm.
Spencer Hunt, A seismic shift in Ohio’s concerns over earthquakes, The Columbus Dispatch, Jan. 9, 2012, available at http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/local/2012/01/09/a-seismic-shift.html.
Joe Vardon, State links northeast Ohio quakes to injection wells, The Columbus Dispatch, Dec. 31, 2011, available at http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/local/2011/12/31/new-quakes.html.
The Associated Press, W.Va. DEP: Injection, quakes could be tied, Star Gazette, Jan. 13, 2012, available at http://www.stargazette.com/article/20120113/NEWS11/120113015/W-Va-DEP-Injection-quakes-could-tied.
The Associated Press, Chesapeake skeptical of quake-drilling connection, Charleston Gazette, Jan. 13, 2012, available at http://wvgazette.com/News/Business/201201130127.