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Spooked by Quakes, Oklahoma Toughens Fracking Rules

Canadian regulators stick with less stringent regulations despite growing risks from mega-fracking.

Andrew Nikiforuk 9 Mar

Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about the energy industry for two decades and is a contributing editor to The Tyee. Find his previous stories here.

After recording swarms of earthquakes caused by hydraulic fracturing, Oklahoma has introduced tougher regulations than those used by any Canadian energy regulator.

Last month the Oklahoma Corporation Commission ordered all drillers to deploy seismic arrays to detect ground motion within five kilometres of hydraulic fracturing operations over a 39,000-square-kilometre area in the centre of the state.

The commission, which regulates the industry, also lowered the minimum level of earthquakes at which operators must change practices from the current 2.5 magnitude to 2.

In addition, frackers must suspend their operations immediately for up to six hours after causing a 2.5 magnitude earthquake which can be felt at the surface.  

The commission created the new earthquake protocol after hydraulic fracturing operations set off more than 70 earthquakes of at least 2.5 magnitude since 2016.

Canada’s energy regulators only make companies stop operations if they cause a magnitude 4 earthquake.

The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER), for example, doesn’t shut down an operation until it causes a magnitude 4 event. Even then the halt is temporary. 

British Columbia’s Oil and Gas Commission requires operators “to immediately report” seismic events greater than magnitude 4 or unusual ground motion experienced by people within three kilometres of their operations.  

In an attempt to reduce seismic activity, once thought to be solely caused by waste water injection, Oklahoma shut down wells and ordered the reduction of fluid volumes in 700 waste water disposal wells by 800,000 barrels per day between 2014 and 2015.

They also stipulated that if a waste water injection site triggered a 3.5 magnitude quake, it had to shut down operations.

In contrast neither B.C. nor Alberta, where the industry holds the record for causing magnitude 4-plus earthquakes by high volume fracking, have limited injection fluid volumes or permanently shut down a well.   

Hydraulic fracturing, a chaotic brute force technology that blasts open deep shale rock with pressurized injections of sand, water and chemicals, has dramatically increased the production of oil and gas in North American in recent years.

It has also industrialized rural areas, contaminated groundwater, increased methane leaks and introduced seismic hazards to regions that were once seismically quiet.

Phil Rygg, director of public and corporate relations for B.C’s Oil and Gas Commission, said it will examine Oklahoma’s regulations.

“Each jurisdiction has its own unique geology and ensures the regulatory framework meets those specific needs — the commission will look to see if any of the recent changes apply in British Columbia,” said Rygg.

In 2016 the B.C. regulator mandated the use of seismic arrays to detect fracking-related tremors in two drilling zones, and in 2017 it required industry to file ground motion reports within certain drilling zones.

With the advent of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, the oil and gas industry has changed seismic patterns throughout northeastern B.C. and set off more than 1,000 earthquakes since 2009.

Between January 2016 and October 2017, the B.C. oil and gas industry triggered 355 events ranging in magnitude from 0.5 to 3.9.

Most of the tremors — 249 events — were clustered in the Montney formation where industry is fracking a giant shale formation for high-value condensate or natural gas liquids for use in the oilsands.

Since 2012, the oil and gas industry’s connection to earthquake activity in the region has been monitored by the BC Seismic Research Consortium.

In its 2017 annual report, seismologist Alireza Babaie Mahani noted concerns about potential damaging quakes.

“Although, most induced events in northeast British Columbia have small magnitudes (< 3), shallow depth of these events can be a controlling factor in the observation of large ground motion amplitudes that can be concerning to the public and infrastructures such as the BC Hydro Site C project,” he wrote.

Insurance brokers, dam builders, seismic scientists, groundwater experts and local citizens have raised concerns about the growing seismic hazards posed by fracking operations throughout North America.

In Alberta, fracking has induced earthquakes in both southern and central parts of the province.

In the last three years, frackers have set off hundreds of tremors near the town of Fox Creek, where residents are concerned about public safety, property values, water shortages and groundwater contamination.

According to the Alberta Energy Regulator, which rarely reports earthquakes on a timely basis, the fracking industry induced 264 earthquakes near Fox Creek in 2017 alone. It is the only area in Alberta where the province’s regulations on fracking and seismic hazards currently apply.

“Seismology experts at the Alberta Geological Survey (AGS) have reviewed the Oklahoma requirements and concluded that they mimic Alberta’s seismic monitoring and response rules,” said Ryan Bartlett, a spokesman for the AER.

In recent years fracking operations have tended to use higher power and inject more fluids and sand into longer horizontal wells to exploit low quality shale formations.

That trend has raised concerns among seismic experts because research now shows that even small volumes of fluid injected into the earth can cause significant earthquakes, and increasing volumes of fluid injected brings more earthquake activity.

One 2018 Alberta study concluded that “We show that induced earthquakes are associated with completions that used larger injection volumes (104 to 105 cubic meters) and that seismic productivity scales linearly with injection volume.”

And scientists at Stanford University have warned that small earthquakes triggered by industry could be indicators of bigger quakes to come and “may act like canaries in a coal mine.”

Nor is it easy to stop earthquakes once industry has triggered them. Several magnitude 4 earthquakes rocked Oklahoma this week. 

In B.C. and Alberta, fracking operators are now putting together supersized or “cube development” projects with a dozen or more well bores that reach multiple underground layers simultaneously.

“The total fluid volume is probably going to be very high with these cube developments and that means the potential for triggering a number of earthquakes could be large if faults are active in the area,” Gail Atkinson, a seismic hazard expert at the University of Western Ontario, warned recently.

But when asked about cube development or the growing trend toward mega- fracking, Canadian regulators said they were not worried about more earthquakes.

“Cube development refers to all parts of a reservoir being stimulated — and is not new,” said Rygg.

The Alberta Energy Regulator’s Ryan Bartlett initially replied that studies show “that there is no cumulative effect associated with hydraulic fracturing and induced seismicity.”

But when questioned by The Tyee, he double checked and replied “In an area that has been found to be geologically susceptible, increased volumes from hydraulic fracturing may cause increased seismic activity.”

Oklahoma, the fifth-largest oil producer in the U.S., is so pro energy development that it initially denied the industry could be causing earthquakes and even forbid cities and counties from banning fracking activities.

In 2011, when waste water injection triggered a 5.7 earthquake, the communications director for then-governor Mary Fallin described why earthquakes weren’t even raised at an energy conference.

“The problem is, some people are trying to blame hydraulic fracturing (a necessary process for extracting natural gas) for causing earthquakes,” wrote Alex Weintz in an email. “So you see the awkward position that puts us in. I would rather not have to have that debate.”

But there is no debate any longer. 

Waste water disposal and hydraulic fracturing has so rattled the state and upended the seismic patterns that the government even set up an entire website devoted to earthquakes.

The site says that Oklahoma experienced 623 earthquakes in 2016 of magnitude 3 or greater compared with 109 in 2013.

“This rise in seismic events has the attention of independent scientists, citizens, policymakers, media and industry,” says the site.

In Canada, it is harder to track earthquake activity caused by industry because regulators are reporting less regularly and many scientific papers can not be accessed by the public.

In addition, energy regulators have not dedicated a public website to tracking seismic hazards caused by the oil and gas industry in western Canada.

ESG Solutions, a company that helps the energy industry record its seismic activity, recently noted that it had acquired or processed a record 1.2 million passive microseismic events last year — largely due to the increase in hydraulic fracturing across North America. 

This article was supported by those who generously contributed to the Rafe Mair Memorial Fund for Environmental Reporting on The Tyee. To find out more or contribute, click here.  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Politics, Environment

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