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Friday, 6 September 2013

Issue 13: Can the disposal of waste fracking fluids by underground injection cause earthquakes

Yes. These earthquakes have been more problematic and dangerous than earthquakes associated with hydraulic fracturing itself. However, disposal of waste fracking fluids in the UK is extremely unlikely and recycling of fluids is becoming the norm.

On Wednesday (4th September 2013) NBC News reported that scientists had linked 109 earthquakes in Ohio to hydraulic fracturing. 

What happened?

NBC reports that "...the earthquakes were never very powerful and caused no serious injuries or damages". However, the fact that they occurred in a region not known for seismicity was an indicator that they might be linked to human activity. The largest (shown in the image) was about magnitude 4, but the others were all much smaller. Counting the number of earthquakes is therefore a misleading statistic if we want to judge the impact of a set of earthquakes.

The earthquakes were caused by the injection of waste hydraulic fracturing fluid into a deep disposal well.

In fact Ohio has 177 wells into which it pours waste water from diverse sources. The practice is highly dangerous if it is carried out without a proper understanding of the local geology and if the volumes and fluid pressures are not well regulated. That seems to be what has happened here.

The largest Ohio earthquake (Courtesy of USGS)
The earthquakes were only associated with one of the 177 waste water disposal wells and although that was probably disposing of waste hydraulic fracturing fluids, the earthquakes were not related to the processes of  shale gas exploration, drilling or hydraulic fracturing itself. The scientists noted that since only this one well was linked with seismic activity, the capability of waste water injection to cause earthquakes was rare. 

But not that rare. The previous week residents in Greenbrier, Arkansas settled a suit for minor damages caused by earth-quakes triggered by under-ground injection of waste water.

The disposal of waste fracking fluids by underground injection is currently unregulated in the USA, although the EPA have said that rules will be in place by 2014. It is, actually, rather important. The largest earthquake ever recorded in Oklahoma occurred in 2011, as one of a pair with magnitudes 4.7 and 5.6, which were caused by waste fluid injection. There were two injuries, 14 buildings were destroyed and others damaged together with a road. 

The Oklahoma earthquake (Photograph by Sue Ogrocki, AP)
There is no guarantee that larger earthquakes due to waste water injection will not occur if the procedure is not tightly regulated. This is because the waste water injection is only the trigger to the earthquake; the size of the earthquake itself depends upon the amount of stored energy in the stressed fracture prior to triggering.

In fact the problem may be resolving itself. In Europe the intention is to recycle all fracking fluids. Even in the USA, there has been a steady swing away from the injection of waste fracking fluids for disposal towards recycling. Currently, fracking fluid is treated and then reused in other fracking jobs, but the technology exists to transform the fracking water into water that meets the standards required for being released back into the surface water.

Could earthquakes caused by waste water injection happen in the UK?


  • Unregulated injection of any fluid for disposal is not allowed under UK and EU regulations. The chances of obtaining permission to do so with ordinary water would be almost zero, and it would never be considered for waste fracking fluids, especially as they can be efficiently recycled these days.
  • Geophysicists have known for a very long time that fluid injection can cause earth tremors. It should never be carried out without mapping local major faults and monitoring the back-ground seismicity, and should never exceed certain volumes and fluid pressures. This is all taken account of in the UK regulations and practices associated with shale gas.
  • The UK recommendations are that all processes should be stopped if an event greater than magnitude 0.5 occurs. This level is about five million times less destructive than the largest of the Ohio 'quakes based on energy release.

Does that mean no earthquakes from shale gas and fracking in the UK?


If there is development of the shale gas industry in the UK, I would still expect there to be a small increase in the number of small (less than magnitude 2) earth tremors associated with the fracking process. 

These tremors will not result in damage to property or injuries, and it is very unlikely that you will ever feel one.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

The Unbalance of Nature

Most people, I think, would agree that the effect of people on the Earth is not good for the natural environment.

People are powerful and needy, and so their effects are extreme. But are we affecting the balance of nature? I would say not - I am not a follower of the Gaia Hypothesis, whereby The Earth is a being which regulates itself.

Rather, there is no balance of nature to destabilise. The Earth and all of its interacting mechanisms are an inherent mix of stability and instability all in glorious movement. At any time, we might have the extinction of one life-form and the explosive growth of another, the eruption of a supervolcano or the reversal of magnetic poles. All of these are thought to be governed by Chaos Theory - and this theory gives rise to most of the most beautiful structures on The Earth.

Chaos was, in fact, the first of the greek primeval gods or Protogenoi to emerge at the creation of the universe. She was followed in quick succession by Gaia (Earth), Tartaros (the Underworld) and Eros (Love the life-bringer).

So how do people mend their ways and help improve the natural environment?

I could pick any fundamental goal, but the most important is perhaps the reduction of our use of energy. Use less energy and we pollute less, we live longer, we create less climate change, we damage the environment less etc.

Now how do we reduce our use?
  • Let's use environmentally friendly lightbulbs. Ah, but they depend on a coating containing five rare elements: cerium, europium, lanthanum, terbium and yttrium.The mining of these has caused huge toxic wastes in China.
  • Let's use hybrid and electric cars. Ah, but they depend upon efficient batteries and motors that contain another rare-earth, dysprosium. This element allows electric motors and battery systems in hybrid vehicles to be much lighter and therefore more energy efficient.Once again, mining in China is the environmental cost.
  • Let's generate our power using wind. Ah, but wind turbines need to use neodymium and samarium to be sufficiently light and efficient. The mining and processing of these elements, again in China, causes huge dumps of radioactive waste because the elements are found in conjunction with radioactive thorium, and lakes of toxic chemical sludge from the processing.
  • Let's generate our power from solar cells. Once again, the elements upon which solar cells depend are toxically obtained. Earlier this year an outlet of China's state media even released a map of the so-called 'cancer villages' where spikes of cancer are related to poluution.
  • Let's clean our car exhausts with catalytic convertors. Ah, but they contain cerium, and cerium is another rare earth element that can only be obtained by wrecking the environment.
It is possible to continue.

Each step we take to improve the environment ends up degrading it in some way.


It is because we are trying to reduce energy use while retaining the lifestyle. It is the lifestyle that is at fault.

We need to reduce our requirement for energy not find ways around it.
We need to reuse any technological help that we can, and that means engineering stuff to last.
We need to recycle elements that are difficult to obtain without environmental damage.
We need to restore the damage that we have done.

If we are to balance the unbalance of nature, we have to reduce, reuse and recycle, and I would add restore.

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Coal vs. Gas II: A perspective

Just how many premature deaths are there in the UK each year from pollution caused by coal-fired power stations? 

Greenpeace says the death toll was 2115 in 2010, which is slightly smaller than deaths due to road traffic accidents (2337).

In 2011, Balcombe had a population of 1424

Hence, coal deaths per year in the UK are the equivalent of wiping out Balcombe and its rural neighbours, and then doing it again in each subsequent year.

Premature winter deaths are even bigger (25,875 per year). That is the equivalent of wiping-out Haywards Heath (pop. 25,550 in 2006) next year! At that rate we can depopulate East Sussex (pop. 795,800 in 2012) in 30 years.

But what does it matter - these people were going to die anyway providing we do nothing. But if we did replace coal generation by gas and made some of the gas freely available for the exposed parts of our society, may be we could save at least some of these lives.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Coal vs. Gas Revisited

In June The Guardian reported on the release of an important Greenpeace report on coal-fired power generation. The summary made shocking reading:

"Air pollution from Europe's 300 largest coal power stations causes 22,300 premature deaths a year and costs companies and governments billions of pounds in disease treatment and lost working days" 

In fact a total of 240,000 years of life were said to be lost in Europe in 2010 with 480,000 work days a year. 

The UK was Europe's fifth most coal-polluted country in 2010, with 22,600 "life years" lost. Drax, Britain's largest coal-powered station, was said to be responsible for 4,450 life years lost, while Longannet in Scotland was said to be responsible for 4,210 life years lost.

The Greenpeace report is not scaremongering. In fact it is in line with studiesdone in the USA and previously reported in this blog

Greenpeace would like to replace coal with renewables, which is frankly impracticable. If, for example, we switched our coal generation to wind, it would require 851,000 5 MW windmills working flat-out all year. And that does not consider their effect on our environment, the radioactive and chemical pollution they cause in China, the lack of constant wind (except in some parts of the Houses of Parliament) and the lack of space for such a number of mills.

By contrast shale gas is a known, practicable, increasingly well regulated and greening industry. There are many reasons why we should produce shale gas, not the least of which is the saving of life and living potential that switching coal generation to gas generation would bring.

I would suggest we

·         produce shale gas,

·         compensate the PIMBYs,

·         tax the companies,

·         use revenues to boost the energy saving and renewable energy developments, as well as

·         making gas-fired power and heating available free to all families with children under 10 as well as those over the age of 70. 
Then we’ll improve social justice, save lives from coal pollution, reduce premature winter deaths (about 24,000 per year) significantly, and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. 

Do nothing and coal-fired generation and pollution will go up as a result of imported coal (unwanted coal from the USA ironically), energy efficiency and renewable development will limp along, green-house gas emissions will continue to rise, and we will carry on trying to avoid thinking about the annual winter death toll.