Where Will Disposal of Wastewater from Fracking and Other Drilling Trigger Earthquakes?

Injection wells that dispose of wastewater from oil and gas drilling operations can trigger earthquakes. Stanford releases a free tool to predict the risk

2 min read
Oil drilling equipment
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It’s pretty clear by now that wastewater injection, a way of disposing of the brackish water used in fracking and other oil and gas drilling processes, can cause earthquakes. But, to date, the response to these injection-caused earthquakes has been reactive. After a recent earthquake in Oklahoma, the state ordered a shutdown of 37 disposal wells in the area.

Map of Oklahoma earthquake activity Since 2008, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of earthquakes, in Oklahoma. The events have been more clustered in the vicinity northeast and east of Oklahoma City and generally southwest of Tulsa. Image: USGS

This week, researchers at Stanford released a free software tool to enable energy companies and regulatory agencies to be more proactive—to calculate, before drilling a well in a particular spot, the probability that an injection there will trigger an earthquake. The Fault Slip Potential tool uses information about known faults in an area, the way stresses act in the earth, and estimates of how much wastewater injection will increase the pore pressure (that is, the pressure of groundwater trapped within tiny spaces inside the rocks below the surface).

“Our tool provides a quantitative probabilistic approach for identifying at-risk faults so they can be avoided,” said graduate student Rall Walsh in a statement to the media. “Our aim is to make using this tool the first thing that’s done before an injection well is drilled.” For the project—funded by the Stanford Center for Induced and Triggered Seismicity (SCITS) and developed in collaboration with ExxonMobil—Walsh worked with Stanford professor Mark Zoback.

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Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
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The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

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