The New York Times and Its Anti-Fracking Cargo Cult

'Some say' the Times' reporters should have paid attention in 8th grade Earth Science class.

Another day, another distorted and fear-mongering attack from the Old Grey Lady on America’s natural gas industry.

Headline: Add Quakes to Rumblings Over Gas Rush
(originally published under the headline “Some Blame Hydraulic Fracturing For Earthquake Epidemic”; link may require subscription/signup)

Nine quakes in eight months in a seismically inactive area is unusual. But Ohio seismologists found another surprise when they plotted the quakes’ epicenters: most coincided with the location of a 9,000-foot well in an industrial lot along the Mahoning River, just down the hill from Mr. Moritz’s neighborhood and two miles from downtown Youngstown.

At the well, a local company has been disposing of brine and other liquids from natural gas wells across the border in Pennsylvania — millions of gallons of waste from the process called hydraulic fracturing that is used to unlock the gas from shale rock.

Here, the Times conflates two dissimilar processes in an attempt to create fear and worry about natural gas. Follow below the jump, and allow me to explain.

As excited as the Times may be to have the words “fracking” and “earthquakes” in the same headline, there is not a single shred of a scintilla of an iota of evidence that the well-completion process known as hydraulic fracturing has ever caused an earth-shifting seismic event.

But the Times would like you to associate the two.

Wikipedia image.

The Youngstown, OH well featured in the linked article is a deep injection well.

There are thousands of deep injection wells in the U.S. They are used for the disposal of all kinds of hazardous and non-hazardous liquid waste, from all kinds of industries.

Construction of deep injection wells is normally regulated by a state agency. Here in Louisiana, Underground Injection Control is a totally separate agency from the oil and gas regulatory body. All they do is regulate underground injection, and there are elaborate well construction standards designed to prevent shallow water resources.

An injection well is typically vertical, as shown in the accompanying diagram. The fluids are injected into permeable rock layers that are separated from drinking water sources by impermeable beds and thousands of feet.

The expected life of an injection well is many years. During that period of time, millions of barrels may be injected. The intention is for the injected fluid to stay put forever, out of sight and out of mind.

As the Times article notes, a deep injection well at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal in Colorado was suspected of causing seismic activity — after injection of 165 million gallons (nearly 4 million barrels) of wastewater. Injection in several wells in Arkansas has been suspended until a connection to earthquakes can be investigated, but as yet there is no proven link.

I’m willing to concede that a deep injection well might be capable of causing an earthquake. That might happen if there were a fault in the vicinity of the injection zone. The introduction of millions of barrels of fluid into an existing fault might – might – provide sufficient lubricity to make movement along that fault more likely. It would not make for a stronger earthquake than would be possible without the injection.

But here’s the key point: it does not matter whether the injected fluid is industrial waste, fracking fluid or mother’s milk.

The fluid used in fracking is 99% water. You would have to run a lab analysis to determine the trace chemicals in the other 1%. Any seismic effect, if true, would happen because of the introduction of a large quantity of fluid – of any type – into an existing fault.

Horizontal oil and gas wells are a whole ‘nother kettle of fish from deep injection wells.

Horizontal wells drilled for production into a shale zone are stimulated by fracturing to help the impermeable rock give up the gas or oil inside. A frac job on a new well is a limited process lasting a day or a few days at most. The volumes pumped into the well are not intended to stay downhole as in injection wells, but are intended to flow back out.

Like deep injection wells, horizontal production wells are separated from drinking water supplies by thousands of feet of rock. Wells are designed with protection of shallow water sources a key consideration.

{Quick analogy: If fracking a well is like a getting a shot with hypodermic needle, an injection well is like a continuous IV. They differ in volume, in pressure, and duration. They’re simply not the same thing.}

There is not a shred of evidence that fracking a production well has ever caused a damaging seismic event. Coincidence does not establish causation, and major earthquakes have happened in areas where seismic activity is rare. The strongest earthquake ever in North America was the New Madrid (MO) quake (200th anniversary this week!); there was nary a Halliburton truck in sight.

Our nation is enjoying an unprecedented boom in natural gas production. If asked to design the ideal fuel for our times, one would be hard-pressed to improve on clean-burning, abundant, American natural gas. The Times‘ irrational, anti-science vendetta against gas is particularly confounding in light of the economic opportunity gas development represents for upstate New York.

Cross-posted at my blog.

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