Disposal of fracking waste induces earthquakes, study suggests, signaling dangers for Northern BC

More and more studies are finding earthquakes common in areas where shale gas development is booming. An increase in tremors in northeastern BC leads the provincial and federal government to investigate.

Shale gas basins in North America. Source: National Energy Board website.

A new Texas study reports that shale gas projects induce earthquakes.

The study by Texan seismologist Cliff Frohlich found that small earthquakes near injection wells in Texas were more common than previously recorded, strengthening a growing scientific consensus that the shale gas industry is inducing earthquakes.

The study gives British Columbians another reason to worry about the burgeoning industry as shale gas boom-towns of northeastern BC have  experienced more frequent earthquakes. 

“It’s one more log on the fire,” University of Victoria environmental studies professor Karena Shaw, who co-authored a paper on BC’s shale gas industry for the Canadian Political Science Review, said.

Between 2009 and 2011, more than 30 earthquakes have shaken the Horn River Shale basin in northeastern BC, where hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" occurs. Earthquakes reached 4.3 magnitude in some cases.

Concerns over the unprecedented number of earthquakes in the region sparked a provincial investigation into whether the tremors could be linked to shale gas activities in the region. 

“We expect to have the investigation complete and findings released in the coming months,” communications coordinator Maria Reschke of the BC Oil and Gas Commission told The Vancouver Observer.

In fracking research, Canada lags behind

So far, Canada lags behind other countries taking the lead on research into impacts of the relatively new shale gas industry and its potential to induce earthquakes. Studies have been released in the United States and the United Kingdom. France has banned the controversial shale gas extraction technique, until further scientific study can be completed. 

Shaw believes these latest findings by Frohlich could further calls for stricter regulation of the shale gas industry.

Northern British Columbians have concerns about potential water contamination from the process of extracting shale gas, concerns fueled by documentaries such as Gasland and Burning Water. In Gasland, water from kitchen taps near Pennsylvania’s heavily drilled Marcellus Shale basin burst into flames. In Burning Water, Albertan farmers battle for their homes against natural gas giant Encana.

Now the increasing number of earthquakes in areas steeped in shale gas production add another problem for industry and regulators to address, reflecting the absence of a really robust regulatory framework, Shaw said.

Fracking fluids make for slippy fault lines

Shale gas refers to natural gas trapped between fine-grained rocks underground. To extract it, the industry uses hydraulic fracturing processes, blasting high volumes of water and toxic chemicals into the ground to free up the gas. 

Facking, while not new, became more common in the past decade. This technique combined with the new process of horizontal drilling has allowed the natural gas industry to access gas in previously unreachable underground basins.

Scientists like Frohlich believe that earthquakes are rarely caused by the hydraulic fracturing process itself, but more often by the efforts to dispose of the water and chemicals needed to free up the gas.

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