NRC: Fracking-earthquake connection not a huge problem


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Hydraulic fracturing - commonly known as fracking - has been responsible for just two earthquakes ever around the world, according to the National Research Council.

Acting on a request from Congress and the Department of Energy, the NRC released a special report titled, " Induced Seismicity Potential in Energy Technologies ", which sought to uncover the connection between energy extraction techniques (like fracking and oil well drilling) and earthquakes.

While the report did reveal that fracking and other similar activities can cause earthquakes, the number of such seismic events was relatively small.

Over the past 90 years, human activity has been proven to be the cause of only 154 earthquakes, which were all classified as either small or moderate. Of those, 60 were in the United States and only two were the result of fracking.

This is compared to the annual average of about 14,450 global earthquakes registering a magnitude of 4.0 or higher each year.

One of the key findings of the report was that the injection or extraction of fluid into or from the earth could affect subsurface pore pressure and thus cause a seismic event. Operations that try to maintain a balance between the amount of fluid put in and taken out of the earth might induce fewer seismic events, according to the report.

This finding might help to explain why fracking has been behind the two tiny earthquakes, which were in Oklahoma (2.8 magnitude) and England (2.3). The natural gas extraction process sees millions of gallons of chemical- and sand-laced water injected into the ground to crack shale rock, releasing the hydrocarbon. Once this water is removed from the well, it needs to be disposed of and drilling wells for this purpose is a common technique in the industry.

Thus, there are a number of opportunities for fracking operations to potentially alter subsurface pore pressure and cause seismic activity.

Despite these risks, the very low number of earthquakes connected to fracking likely means that there isn't much seismic risk posed by such activities.

"There's a whole bunch of wells that have been drilled, let's say for wastewater and the number of events have been pretty small," professor of economic geology at the Colorado School of Mines and report chairman Murray Hitzman said. "Is it a huge problem? The report says basically no. Is it something we should look at and think about? Yes."

Geological Survey seismologist William Ellsworth told The Associated Press that he agreed with the NRC's findings, stating, "hydraulic fracturing does not seem to pose much risk for earthquake activity."

While the report does show that humans are responsible for some seismic activity, the amount is very, very small. Still, it is unlikely that the findings of the report will quell some of the protests that have been rising up around the country (and in other parts of the world) over fracking.

Its opponents maintain that fracking can contaminate groundwater, despite the findings of several major studies to the contrary. These critics have helped to shape public opinion about the natural gas extraction technique, putting operators behind the proverbial eight-ball when it comes to convincing landowners and municipalities to let them drill.

Fixing this public opinion issue will be essential for not only the natural gas industry but the U.S. as a whole, as fracking has allowed America to become the top producer of the hydrocarbon worldwide. Further, it appears that natural gas will be a major part of the solution to the world's energy needs over the coming decades as many countries seek to move away from nuclear power.

In order to combat this, the International Energy Administration released a special World Energy Outlook, titled Golden Rules for a Golden Age of Gas , which sought to build a consensus between the industry and its critics.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

This article appears in: News Headlines , Commodities , Technology
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