A new study in the journal Geology is the latest to tie a string of unusual earthquakes, in this case, in central Oklahoma, to the injection of wastewater deep underground. Researchers now say that the magnitude 5.7 earthquake near Prague, Okla., on Nov. 6, 2011, may also be the largest ever linked to wastewater injection. Felt as far away as Milwaukee, more than 800 miles away, the quake—the biggest ever recorded in Oklahoma--destroyed 14 homes, buckled a federal highway and left two people injured. Small earthquakes continue to be recorded in the area.
The recent boom in U.S. energy production has produced massive amounts of wastewater. The water is used both in hydrofracking, which cracks open rocks to release natural gas, and in coaxing petroleum out of conventional oil wells. In both cases, the brine and chemical-laced water has to be disposed of, often by injecting it back underground elsewhere, where it has the potential to trigger earthquakes. The water linked to the Prague quakes was a byproduct of oil extraction at one set of oil wells, and was pumped into another set of depleted oil wells targeted for waste storage.
Scientists have linked a rising number of quakes in normally calm parts of Arkansas, Texas, Ohio and Colorado to below-ground injection. In the last four years, the number of quakes in the middle of the United States jumped 11-fold from the three decades prior, the authors of the Geology study estimate. Last year, a group at the U.S. Geological Survey also attributed a remarkable rise in small- to mid-size quakes in the region to humans. The risk is serious enough that the National Academy of Sciences, in a report last year called for further research to “understand, limit and respond” to induced seismic events. Despite these studies, wastewater injection continues near the Oklahoma earthquakes.
The magnitude 5.7 quake near Prague was preceded by a 5.0 shock and followed by thousands of aftershocks. What made the swarm unusual is that wastewater had been pumped into abandoned oil wells nearby for 17 years without incident. In the study, researchers hypothesize that as wastewater replenished compartments once filled with oil, the pressure to keep the fluid going down had to be ratcheted up. As pressure built up, a known fault—known to geologists as the Wilzetta fault--jumped. “When you overpressure the fault, you reduce the stress that’s pinning the fault into place and that’s when earthquakes happen,” said study coauthor Heather Savage, a geophysicist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.