The December 2022 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

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
Photo: iStockphoto

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 activitySince 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.

The Conversation (0)
This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

Keep Reading ↓Show less