Shale and Fracking
In a study that echoes earlier research in the United States, seismic scientists in Calgary have confirmed that hydro-fracturing rock for fossil fuels—the process better known as fracking—caused a series of earthquakes near the Alberta town of Fox Creek in 2014 and 2015.
“Analyzing seismic data for the time period,” Cantech Letter reports, researchers based at the University of Calgary “attributed the series of earthquakes to two separate phenomena. Instantaneous quakes were found to result from increases in underground pressure along fault lines caused by the ongoing fracking operations, while later-occurring quakes (up to months after drilling) were found to stem from the long-term presence of fracking fluid left underground, which brought about pressure changes in the rock formations.”
The findings suggest a similar outlook for Alberta to the experience in Oklahoma, where the injection into rock formations of pressurized waste fracking fluid was conclusively linked to an increase in earthquakes in the great plains state from two or three per year, to several every day. Recently, the occurrence of fracking-linked earthquakes near the state’s Cushing oil storage hub raised concerns for U.S. national energy security.
The new Alberta findings “should inform future policy decisions around the industry,” University of Calgary seismologist David Eaton, who co-authored the study, told Cantech Letter. “It’s our hope that we can take this knowledge and use it to improve the existing regulations. We’re also hoping it will improve both risk assessment and mitigation strategies by industry.”
Experience in Oklahoma, however, shows that once high-pressure injections into new and existing underground fault lines begin, the earthquakes they cause may be hard to stop. Oklahoma now faces “many, many years of earthquakes as that energy dissipates through the system,” said one researcher. The same may be in store for Alberta and British Columbia, where hydro-fracking is widespread.
The other earthquake in the United States this week was physical: a 5.8 magnitude tremblor that hit Sunday evening, less than 1.6 kilometres from what Bloomberg calls “arguably one of the country’s most important strategic assets—the largest crude oil trading hub in North America, with almost 60 million barrels of stored crude,” near Cushing, Oklahoma.
More disturbing for Oklahomans, the outlet adds, the event “raises questions over the state’s ability to do anything about the significant rise in earthquakes, which has been linked to oil and gas activity.”
The Midwest state had known only rare earthquakes until 2008, when it experienced two. Last year, quakes registering at least 3.0 magnitude shook the state nearly once every eight hours. But when earthquake activity approaches the vast tank farms of Cushing, posing a threat to the country’s major oil supply and distribution hub, “they suddenly become an issue of national security,” the news service asserts.
“Seismologists believe the quakes are the result of wastewater injection wells used by the oil and gas industry” to pump more than a billion barrels a year of brine laced with heavy metals—produced along with extracted oil—back underground. “From 2009 to 2014,” Bloomberg notes, “disposal volumes shot up 81%.”
Last year, state officials placed limits on the amount of wastewater disposal wells could inject, and the number of daily quakes fell by half. “It’s the closest thing we have to a smoking gun,” said Jeremy Boak, director of the Oklahoma Geological Survey. After the latest quake, regulators ordered more wells to shut, Reuters reports.
But the pattern of quakes has revealed the limited effect of the new rules. “For about six months, the story was that these restrictions were working,” Dan McNamara, a U.S. Geological Survey research geophysicist in Denver, told Bloomberg. “Then the 5.8 hit. The small events may be trending down, but the frequency of the largest ones is going up, and that is what’s troubling about this latest cluster of activity, particularly around Cushing.”
Two years ago, McNamara discovered “a fault line directly beneath Cushing’s enormous oil tanks that was previously unknown to geologists—the same fault that was activated on Sunday,” adds the outlet. The 46.3-million-barrel facility is the world’s largest oil storage operation.
And now, the Denver geophysicist adds, it’s probably too late to stop Oklahoma shaking even it were to halt wastewater injection entirely. Years of fracking and injection into the state’s fractured rock foundations have created pressures that will continue to generate “many, many years of earthquakes as that energy dissipates through the system.”
This time, at least, the earthquake did not interrupt activity at the oil hub, which was open for business last Monday.
British Columbia finally got to “yes” with one of a score of companies that have dangled potential investments in liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals before the provincial government, after Premier Christy Clark made developing an industry based on the fossil fuel a centrepiece of her economic plan.
Woodfibre LNG, owned by the Royal Golden Eagle (RGE) Group of Singapore, said on Friday it would proceed with a $1.6-billion terminal at Squamish, northwest of Vancouver and near the highway to the resort town of Whistler, after Clark offered reduced rates for grid electricity to power its facility. Clark has made the same offer to any other LNG proponent, many of which have proposed instead to run their facilities from gas drawn from their product pipeline.
The premier boasted that the project will create 650 construction and 100 operational jobs over its 25-year life.
“From a climate point of view, it’s certainly a step in the wrong direction for British Columbia,” Josha MacNab, B.C. director at the Pembina Institute, told the National Observer. Even powered by electricity, MacNab noted, “gathering and transportation of the natural gas needed to feed [the terminal] would take up 6% of B.C.’s legislated 2050 emissions limit.”
The symbolic commitment may also draw new attention to the scale of the province’s shale gas resource—one that CBC News recently profiled at length. “The national broadcaster noted that the Montney formation, which stretches 130,000 square kilometres in a football-shaped diagonal from northeast British Columbia into northwest Alberta, is estimated to hold the equivalent of 90 billion barrels of oil—roughly half the full extent of Alberta’s tar sands/oil sands region—mostly in gas. That reservoir is larger than the Marcellus shale centred in Pennsylvania, about 20 times the size of Texas’ Eagle Ford gas field.
“Yet the Montney has received only a fraction of the attention, at least from the public at large,” CBC writes. “For oil and gas types, the gold rush is already on.”
Clark’s announcement may excite fossil investors who were already expected to spend more than $34 billion developing the Montney play over the next four years. But enthusiasm was more limited outside industry and Clark’s political circle. Her announcement was boycotted by Squamish Nation Chief Ian Campbell, who said it was “too early to celebrate because the environmental conditions set out by the Squamish Nation have yet to be met,” Global News observed
He noted that “the Squamish Nation set out its 25 conditions to specifically protect sensitive land and marine habitats in and around the proposed project site,” and “only when all those conditions have been resolved will we sign the deal.”