Oil and gas extraction can trigger small, slow-moving, long-lasting earthquakes, which scientists at Canadian fracking fields have documented for the first time.
A team of researchers from the Canadian Geological Survey has documented a new type of earthquake caused by slow ruptures near an active gas well. This helps explain how almost imperceptible tremors from oil and gas extraction can lead to seismic slips and larger earthquakes.
The study found that about 10 percent of the roughly 350 earthquakes recorded over a 5-month period within a few kilometers of an active gas well in British Columbia, Canada, ruptured more slowly and lasted seconds longer than normal fracturing tremors.
“We assumed that [fracking] Seismologist Rebecca Harrington of Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany, explains that induced earthquakes behave like most other earthquakes and have roughly the same rupture speed of two to three kilometers per second.
Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracturing, is a process used by the oil and gas industry that involves pumping pressurized fluids into a drilled well to create small fractures in subterranean rock.
By its very design, hydraulic fracturing causes small, barely detectable earthquakes to extract oil and gas trapped underground. The process also pumps huge amounts of sewage back underground, which could put pressure on existing geological fault lines.
Using a network of seismic stations around an injection well, the researchers found evidence of a hard-to-detect process that had been predicted but not yet documented near fracking sites.
The new type of documented “slow slip” signal, called hybrid-frequency wave seismicity for its distinguishing features, releases as little as a seismic energy of 2.0 or less.
Based on previous modeling and studies, high-pressure fracturing is believed to trigger seismic slips that interact with nearby faults, stress rocks and lead to larger seismic events, with hybrid waveforms being new evidence that this transition occurred—a few kilometers from gas wells.
The study follows growing concerns that hydraulic fracturing “generates greater and greater earthquakes,” Harrington and colleagues write in their paper, which was published with funding from the Open Science Initiative.
The largest earthquake caused by faulting hit China in 2018 with a magnitude of 5.7, which is the same as, for example, the naturally occurring earthquake in Pakistan that left at least 20 people dead in 2021. So although these earthquakes from Man-made are rare, but they have the potential to cause serious harm.
In recent years, studies have linked distant earthquakes to fracturing, finding that fluid injection can cause earthquakes “much faster and farther” than previously thought.
This type of research, which seeks to understand how fracking causes minor tremors that lead to larger earthquakes, provides important clues linking extractions to earthquake damage, not least for populations living near fracking sites who have long opposed the practice, fearing that the Damage to property, water supplies and livelihoods.
Geologist Gillian Folger wrote in The Conversation circa 2019: “In the absence of a known mechanism by which hydraulic fracturing can cause earthquakes more than a mile or two from drilling sites, operators have often denied responsibility for such earthquakes. “.
Much of this research has been spurred by the dramatic increase in seismic activity in the midwestern United States in the past few decades, along with observations of tremors lasting months or even years after extraction.
Moreover, a 2013 study showed that oil and gas fields that are stressed by sewage disposal are prone to medium-sized earthquakes caused by other large earthquakes thousands of kilometers away, with seismic centers under other continents.
While some seismologists argue that a better understanding of earthquakes caused by fracturing helps to manage and mitigate the associated risks, and that induced earthquakes are rare, the question on many people’s minds is whether fracking should occur at all, given the the path of our planet. A path to catastrophic global warming that can only be avoided if we phase out fossil fuels.
At this point, this body of research looking at earthquakes from fracking also has some serious ramifications for already controversial carbon capture and storage technologies, which have yet to be widely demonstrated and also involve the injection of carbon trapped deep in the earth.
“An earthquake-induced rupture of an artificial carbon dioxide reservoir would negate costly efforts to keep the gas out of the atmosphere, as well as expose the local population to health risks – so understanding how to manage these risks is essential in developing this technology,” Folger wrote.
The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.
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