July 28 (UPI) — Oil and gas companies can prevent earthquakes by reducing the rate of wastewater injection, according to a new study.
To extract oil and gas trapped deep in rock deposits, fossil fuel companies use hydraulic fracturing, or the injection of high-pressure fluids deep into the Earth’s crust.
Because these injection fluids are filled with toxic chemicals, the resulting wastewater must be disposed of safely.
Most operations blast dirty water deep underground at ancient injection sites, but several studies—from Central America and the Appalachians to Sichuan, China—have linked this practice to increases in regional earthquakes.
In the latest study, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, scientists combined field studies with geological models to predict the effects of wastewater injections on local fault systems.
Scientists have begun to study the effects of injecting wastewater through the Val d’Agri oil field in southern Italy, the largest onshore oil field in Western Europe. The injections caused hundreds of small earthquakes.
“The earthquakes were detected within hours of the injection,” study co-author James Dietrich said in a press release.
“The cause-and-effect relationship was clear,” said Dietrich, professor emeritus of geophysics at the University of California, Riverside.
Using seismic data and records of wastewater injection activity, the researchers built a model to predict the effects of injections on local fault systems.
Using this model, the scientists were able to accurately reproduce the seismic events recorded between 1993 and 2016.
Both the model and laboratory experiments helped Dietrich and his research partners demonstrate the indirect effects of small shifts in error pressure caused by wastewater injection.
After demonstrating the accuracy of their new model using historical data, the scientists simulated the effects of different sewage injection rates on the seismic rate across the Val d’Agri oil field.
The analysis showed that the low injection rate was sustainable and did not cause earthquakes.
The model predictions were confirmed in field tests, where a decrease in the injection rate was recorded with a decrease in seismic activity across the Val d’Agri.
In order to combat climate change, most policy makers agree that fossil fuel extraction must be phased out in favor of green energy.
But this won’t necessarily mean the end of wastewater injections and human-caused earthquakes – many carbon capture technologies trap carbon dioxide by injecting it deep into the earth.
“One of the biggest drawbacks to this is that huge amounts of fluid injected into the ground have the potential to trigger earthquakes,” Dietrich said. “How can this be managed? We’ve learned a little here that might help along those lines, and related problems like hydraulic fracturing.”
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