Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission Bans Fracking Disposal Wells Due to Earthquakes

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The Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission has voted unanimously to ban disposal wells for unconventional gas drilling wastes in a region that has been inundated with earthquakes. The decision requires the immediate closure of one disposal well and prohibits the construction of new wells in a 1,150 square-mile radius. Operators have also closed an additional three disposal wells on their own initiative, the Associated Press reports.

Earthquakes have become unusually common in some areas of Arkansas where increased unconventional gas related drilling is taking place. Residents insist that there is a correlation between the quakes and the area’s wastewater disposal wells. After monitoring hundreds of earthquakes, the largest a magnitude-4.7 in February, investigators began confirming the connection.

The Oil and Gas Commission discovered that four disposal wells were situated on a fault line responsible for dozens of earthquakes this year alone. As reported by the Associated Press, “after two of the four stopped operating in March, there was a sharp decline in the number of earthquakes. In the 18 days before the shutdown, there were 85 quakes with a magnitude 2.5 or greater, but there were only 20 in the 18 days following the shutdown, according to the state Geological Survey.”

For Commission director Larry Bengal, the dramatic reduction in seismic events was enough evidence to justify the ban. “We have to side with that public safety concern and address that in a way that maybe science does not totally support,” he said.

In April, gas industry giant Chesapeake Energy spokesman said the company disagreed with the alleged relation. “We believe there is a lot of natural seismicity in this area and there’s a lot more sub-surface data, and science and facts that need to be brought to bear.”

However, when a scourge of more than 800 earthquakes occurred in Guy, Arkansas over a span of six months, Chesapeake and another operator, Clarita, temporarily suspended their use of injection wells.

The gas industry has widely advertised their use of underground disposal of fracking wastes with the hope that it will alleviate concerns of wastewater reentering the public water supply without adequate treatment

Some fracking critics, like Dr. Theo Colborn of The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, suggest that wastewater injection in disposal wells reintroduces the risk to groundwater, “creating yet another source of extremely toxic chemical contamination.”

The risk in seismically sensitive areas like those in Arkansas are much higher, according to biochemist Dr. Ronald Bishop of State University of New York, Oneonta. Regions which are “seismically active or intensively fissured pose greater risks for contamination than regions which are geologically sensitive,” he told DeSmogBlog.

Arkansas’ increase in quakes shows the kind of geological sensitivity Dr. Bishop is concerned about. Yet, the Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission has not banned unconventional gas drilling in the area, only the use of disposal wells.

Earthquakes pose an enormous threat to the integrity of unconventional gas and disposal wells, potentially damaging cement casings, the sole barrier protecting underground aquifers from contamination. 

Concerns about this issue have sparked several research projects. The Energy Institute at The University of Texas at Austin is initiating a comprehensive study of fracking technology, including its effects on seismic activity. The National Academies has also assigned a committee from the National Research Council to investigate the connection between injection technologies, like carbon capture and storage and fracking, and induced seismic activity. 

But according to a geology professor at Marshall University, geologists have known for 50 years that underground fluid injection can cause quakes.

Another expert, Jack Century of J.R. Century Petroleum Consultants Ltd., says that high-pressure injection can have powerful effects underground. “When we start perturbing the system by changing fluid pressure, we have the potential for activating faults.” And “once local seismicity starts, it can’t be turned off.”

The decision by the Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission may have come too late. It remains to be seen whether the disposal well ban will lead to a reduction of quakes.

Image Credit: Arkansans for Gas Drilling Accountability

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Since the Basel earthquake, it should be known by operators that mere water injection in a fault can reactivate it. And putting toxic wastewater into a faulty area is a sure way to find it everywhere …

Any geologist/geophysicist employed by a company or a state is aware of these basic facts. Yet injection was done.

We shall investigate the management - state side and company side, because I cannot imagine that the technical geological reports did not mention these problems.

There appears to be just entirely too much hatred toward the natural gas industry. I would say just be careful just what you read and who it comes from. Where do most of the funds come from to buy these experts? The coal and nuclear industry! People complain about truck traffic, noise, roads being destroyed. Yes it is an inconvenience but once the area (field) is developed then all this will be gone and the gas will be produces for many years later in peace. As for the roads the companies destroying the trucks pay enough fees and permits to repair them better than they were. However this money goes into the big pool in the state and can be used wherever they want. Maybe a nice new road for commuters to get to Little Rock? This should be taken up with your representatives not the gas companies. Why does coal and nuclear hate the gas industry? They cannot compete with the low cost! I am not against green energy but we are years from being able to do that efficiently and natural gas is just a bridge to get there. If we had not been able to tap these unconventional gas plays our economy would be in the toilet, yea way beyond what it is now. What we must escape is dependence on foreign energy. If we could trade oil for grain or other products it would be fine but instead it is our riches. Unconventional gas plays have given us 40-50 years to prefect green power and make it economical. Right now our economy cannot bear doubling the cost of energy and that is where green power is now. As for nuclear they can never compete. Too many regulations, too much bureaucracy. I have never heard of the natural gas industry evacuating 140,000 people and contaminating the land to the point it cannot be inhabited for the next few hundred years. As for coal just download the Arkansas fishing regulations and look through the lakes in the back. You will find many that say don’t eat the fish because they are contaminated with mercury from the coal fired power plants. This cannot be cleaned up! These are the people putting up most of the funds to protest the gas companies! Gasland showed a lot of things that looked like bad contamination but I would challenge him to go back now and find any sign or trace of contamination. Show me any case that the gas industry has not cleaned up a mess completly. Just remember who is buying these people.