One of these years, and it is starting to feel like years, we'll have what we assume will be the go-ahead for fracking in the UK.  The general feeling is that Cuadrilla had what is simply some bad luck. Fracking and earthquakes just seems to be as improbable an event as, well, discovering massive quantities of natural gas in Blackpool. Good luck/bad luck for Cuadrilla, but no permanent damage done and certainly nothing emanating from the bowels of the earth to put the shale genie back in the bottle anywhere else.  I'm not quite sure if DECC realise the damage this has done to fracking worldwide. Every anti fracker uses earthquakes these days, what with taps on fire being either old hat or discredited. Once the report finally surfaces, one can at least say that no one could accuse them of doing a rushed job on it.  In the big scheme of things, the gas has been there since the Carboniferous period and it ain't going anywhere, but on a narrow economic view,  this is going to cost whoever is in power in a few years several hundred millions in delayed corporation tax.

How improbable are earthquakes? This from the United States Geological Survey highlights the old issue in "controversial" shale gas. Print the controversy, ignore the solution. Last week the mainstream media said:

Oil and gas production may explain a sharp increase in small earthquakes in the nation's midsection, a new study from the U.S. Geological Survey suggests.

The rate has jumped sixfold from the late 20th century through last year, the team reports, and the changes are "almost certainly man-made."

Always eager to hop on the controversial wagon, especially if the alternative is to wade through some of that boring science stuff,  the AP blamed shale for earthquakes and the rest is history. History repeats itself here when the boring, prosaic, dare we even say scientific reality, that corrects the initial story doesn't make it to the papers. Certainly not to the correction page. The result is that even when a deputy Secretary of the Interior tries and clears up the story, he gets completely ignored by the mainstream press:

Last week, following the publication of an abstract intended to preview an upcoming talk by a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientist, a number of news articles started popping up about new scientific evidence of a link between unconventional oil and gas production here in the United States, and seismic activity (earthquakes).

Unfortunately – although not surprisingly given the limited information available in the abstract – the accuracy of these media reports varied greatly. With this blog post, I want to clarify a few points about USGS’s important and ongoing work to study induced seismicity.

Science will continue to play a critical role as the Obama administration moves forward with an all-of-the-above strategy for American energy. USGS’s contributions to this effort, including scientist Bill Ellsworth’s work on the correlation between wastewater injection sites and seismicity, represent an important part of the overall dialogue about how we can continue to expand domestic oil and gas production safely and responsibly.

The story continues to point out that the story was preliminary to a presentation due April 18, but since the press seemed to get the wrong end of the stick,  Mr Deputy Secretary made some fairly definitive statements:

USGS’s studies do not suggest that hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking,” causes the increased rate of earthquakes. USGS’s scientists have found, however, that at some locations the increase in seismicity coincides with the injection of wastewater in deep disposal wells

We also find that there is no evidence to suggest that hydraulic fracturing itself is the cause of the increased rate of earthquakes. The fact that the disposal (injection) of wastewater produced while extracting resources has the potential to cause earthquakes has long been known. One of the earliest documented case histories with a scientific consensus of wastewater inducing earthquakes, is at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal well, near Denver. There, a large volume of wastewater was injected from 1962-1966, inducing a series of earthquakes (below magnitude 5).

It's worth noting how small a problem this is in the big scheme of things.  But journalists in pursuit of "controversial shale gas" stories seem to have lost all sense of proportion as they pursue the "balance" needed by their stories.

Not all wastewater disposal wells induce earthquakes. Of approximately 150,000 Class II injection wells in the United States, including roughly 40,000 waste fluid disposal wells for oil and gas operations, only a tiny fraction of these disposal wells have induced earthquakes that are large enough to be of concern to the public.

Perhaps we'll hear more balance next week when the presentation is made, but the media absolutely hate a story where nothing happens, so expect  it to be either ignored or the media will pick up on this:

 Although we cannot eliminate the possibility, there have been no conclusive examples linking waste-water injection activity to triggering of large, major earthquakes even when located near a known fault.

A reasonable person would admit that one can never eliminate possibility. But delusional people seeking out catastrophe either for narrow political or economic ends or as symptom of paranoid schizophrenia will hop on this as example of how we must use the precautionary principle.

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  • Andy

    Ever since I quoted Lynn Helm's warning about what environmentalists wanted to do to shale and how they would do it in court, and his retraction the next day I have been very interested in Obama administration energy policy. They have apparently gone from permatorium to "all of the above" (with the exception of Keystone XL) with no explanation of their pivot. Today he has issued an executive order to ensure natural gas is enabled with "...[url=]close interagency coordination is important for effective implementation of these programs and activities[/url]." No real mention of shale oil.<br /><br />If this Working Group enables shiny new steel to be drilled from fresh painted drilling rigs, in new shale basins and get pumped by new pipelines to new markets which will enable new products, no one should have any problems.

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