A New Year's Eve earthquake measuring 4.0 has put some oil and natural gas drilling activity on hold in the Youngstown, Ohio area. The state suspended the use of five wells into which companies inject wastewater from oil and gas drilling until further injections are deemed safe.
The 4.0 magnitude quake was just the latest in a string of temblors that began after D&L Energy started injecting brine, a byproduct of drilling for oil and gas, into the wells in 2010. The Youngstown area is not known for major seismic activity, but the Ohio Seismic Network reports that this was the 11th quake in a sequence beginning on 11 March 2011. The wastewater injection wells associated with the quakes have been multiplying recently, as the natural gas hydraulic fracturing -- or fracking -- boom continues in Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, and elsewhere.
And this is just the latest incident that appears to link natural gas drilling to seismic activity. Quakes in Oklahoma and other states have also been blamed on fracking, an issue that adds fuel to an already very contentious fire surrounding the natural gas boom around the country. Notably, there isn't all that much debate among experts that fracking (or its cousin in the geothermal energy realm), which involves injecting massive amounts of water, chemicals, and sand into cracks in the rock deep underground, can cause earthquakes. The debate lies in just how big an earthquake it might cause. As Peter Fairley explained here at EnergyWise, it is possible that even very small earthquakes can eventually "unlatch" a seismic fault and cause larger quakes.
The decision to suspend activity around the wells in question in Ohio seems prudent in an area that has no major fault lines to speak of and still managed to shake considerably on New Year's Eve. In a statement, even the executive vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, Thomas Stewart, lauded the move: "It was the correct course of action to ensure the safety and peace of mind for area residents." He added, though, that his industry group considers this to be "a rare and isolated event that should not cast doubt about the effectiveness or usage" of the injection wells in question. For the record, Ohio has more than 180 total wastewater injection wells in use.
Not everyone agrees that this is so isolated an incident, however, and there are some ongoing investigations into induced seismicity that hopefully will soon shed light on the subject. Most notably, the National Academies of Science and Engineering will release a report sometime in 2012 on induced earthquake activity across a number of energy technologies.
Halting the activity around the specific Youngstown wells that appear linked to the quakes may help locally, but as natural gas drilling expands rapidly through huge swaths of the country, this is unlikely to be the last time it makes the earth move.
(Image via jermlac/Flickr)