Monday, July 29, 2013

Man Made Earthquakes

Slipping from the vein of "natural" disasters, the USGS has recently released a study that confirms that Hydraulic Fracturing or "Fracking" wastewater stored in wells can cause traditionally stable faults to slip causing earthquakes.

While the debate of ethics vs economics is waged, the stats that the USGS cites are tough to ignore:
"The number of earthquakes has increased dramatically over the past few years within the central and eastern United States. More than 300 earthquakes above a magnitude 3.0 occurred in the three years from 2010-2012, compared with an average rate of 21 events per year observed from 1967-2000." 
Mother Jones also has an article and a .gif that illustrates the process from well to earthquake:

Drillers inject high-pressure fluids into a hydraulic fracturing well, making slight fissures in the shale that release natural gas. The wastewater that flows back up with the gas is then transported to disposal wells, where it is injected deep into porous rock. Scientists now believe that the pressure and lubrication of that wastewater can cause faults to slip and unleash an earthquake.
Illustration: Leanne Kroll. Animation: Brett Brownell
So what?
While 3.0M quakes rarely, if ever cause damage or injury, the quakes resulting from this method of storing wastewater have been linked to tremors in the 5-6.0M range. From a codes and building perspective, the Midwest is still grappling with how best to offer affordable safe room options in building back smarter that earthquakes and the codes to withstand moderate shaking are not on their radar. As such, the damage from smaller magnitude quakes will continue to impact homeowners because their the exception, not the rule in Tornado Alley. 
House damage in central Oklahoma from the magnitude 5.6 earthquake on Nov. 6, 2011. Research conducted by USGS geophysicist Elizabeth Cochran and her university-based colleagues suggests that this earthquake was induced by injection into deep disposal wells in the Wilzetta North field. Learn more about that research at: Photo Credit: Brian Sherrod, USGS.
While there are preparations underway to respond to a catastrophic quake similar to the New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811 that caused the Mississippi River to backflow for a period of time, nothing is being done now to protect against smaller, more frequent shaking.

Who's going to Pay for all this?
After a disaster: flood, hurricane, fire, hail or wind storm, the battle between homeowner and insurance company begins. The combination of under-informed homeowner's who don't fully understand their insurance policies and the insurer's who aren't interested in paying out every claim can be a tension-filled dance taking weeks to resolve. Given that coverage for quake damage probably isn't in most of the home and business owner policies, the impacts of these events are going to become a growing concern. Couple this with the fact that there is evidence that these quakes are precipitated by activities undertaken by private companies and the questions like: who should be responsible for paying to cover the damages begin to be asked?

I don't see this being a problem until someone is crushed by a collapsing chimney or there are serious injuries resulting from a man-made quake and then questions about liability and financial compensation will push this to the forefront of the national conversation given how much money the Natural Gas Industry is currently making.

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