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Myths and Facts on Wastewater Injection, Hydraulic Fracturing, Enhanced Oil Recovery, and Induced Seismicity

Myths and Facts on Wastewater Injection,
Hydraulic Fracturing, Enhanced Oil
Recovery, and Induced Seismicity
by Justin L. Rubinstein and Alireza Babaie Mahani
The central United States has undergone a dramatic increase in
seismicity over the past 6 years (Fig. 1), rising from an average
of 24 M3earthquakes per year in the years 19732008 to an
average of 193 M3earthquakes in 20092014, with 688 oc-
curring in 2014 alone. Multiple damaging earthquakes have
occurred during this increase including the 2011 M5.6 Prague,
Oklahoma, earthquake; the 2011 M5.3 Trinidad, Colorado,
earthquake; and the 2011 M4.7 Guy-Greenbrier, Arkansas,
earthquake. The increased seismicity is limited to a few areas
and the evidence is mounting that the seismicity in many of
these locations is induced by the deep injection of fluids from
nearby oil and gas operations. Earthquakes that are caused by
human activities are known as induced earthquakes. Most injec-
tion operations, though, do not appear to induce earthquakes.
Although the message that these earthquakes are induced by
fluid injection related to oil and gas production has been com-
municated clearly, there remains confusion in the popular press
beyond this basic level of understanding.
In this article, we attempt to dispel the confusion for a
nonspecialist audience. First, we highlight six common misun-
858 M 3 Earthquakes 1973– 2008
1570 M 3 Earthquakes 2009– April 2015
Central and Eastern US
1973April 2015
Number of M 3 Earthquakes
1975 1980 1985 1990 1995 2000 2005 2010 2015
Figure 1. Count of M3earthquakes in the central and eastern United States from 1973 to April 2015. Two abrupt increases in the
earthquake rate occurred in 2009 and 2013. (Inset) Spatial distribution of earthquakes. Red dots represent earthquakes that occurred between
2009 and April 2015, and blue dots represent earthquakes that occurred between 1973 and 2008. Red color becomes brighter when there are
more earthquakes in the area. The earthquake rate and distribution of earthquakes changed in 2009. Prior to 2009, earthquakes were spread
across the United States. Beginning in 2009 the earthquakes are tightly clustered in a few areas (central Oklahoma, southern Kansas, central
Arkansas, southeastern Colorado and northeastern New Mexico, and multiple parts of Texas).
doi: 10.1785/0220150067 Seismological Research Letters Volume 86, Number 4 July/August 2015 1
SRL Early Edition
derstandings and correct them. Subsequently, we describe the
three main types of fluid injection used by the oil industry:
(1) hydraulic fracturing (commonly referred to as fracking),
(2) wastewater disposal, and (3) enhanced oil recovery. We then
explain how each of these processes can induce earthquakes.
Next, we review the evidence that shows that wastewater injec-
served in the United States and demonstrate that this meets our
expectations of how seismicity should behave. Finally, we discuss
the possibility of mitigating this hazard. This article focuses on
the recent seismicity induced by fluid injection; we are not aim-
ing to provide a broad review of induced seismicity. Many ar-
ticles in this vein have already been written (Nicholson and
Wesson, 1990,1992;McGarr et al.,2002;Ellsworth, 2013).
The media commonly report on induced earthquakes incor-
rectly, and consequently policy makers and the public have
an incorrect or incomplete understanding of how and why they
occur. Here, we list common misconceptions about induced
earthquakes and then correct them.
1. Misconception: Hydraulic fracturing is causing all of the
induced earthquakes.
Correction: Hydraulic fracturing is directly causing a small
percentage of the felt-induced earthquakes observed in the
United States. In contrast, felt earthquakes induced dur-
ing hydraulic fracturing operations are more common in
western Canada. Most induced earthquakes in the United
States are a result of the deep disposal of fluids (waste-
water) related to oil and gas production.
2. Misconception: The wastewater injected in disposal wells is
spent hydraulic fracture fluid.
Correction: The amount of spent hydraulic fracturing
fluid injected into wastewater disposal wells is highly var-
iable. The fluids disposed of near earthquake sequences in
Youngstown, Ohio, and Guy, Arkansas, are believed to
consist largely of spent hydraulic fracturing fluid (Horton,
2012;Kim, 2013). In contrast, in Oklahoma spent hy-
draulic fracturing fluid represents 10% or less of the
fluids disposed of in salt-water disposal wells in Oklahoma
(Murray, 2013). The vast majority of the fluid that is dis-
posed of in disposal wells in Oklahoma is produced water.
Produced water is the salty brine from ancient oceans that
was entrapped in the rocks when the sediments were de-
posited. This water is trapped in the same pore space as oil
and gas, and as oil and gas is extracted, the produced water
is extracted with it. Produced water often must be disposed
in injection wells because it is frequently laden with dis-
solved salts, minerals, and occasionally other materials that
make it unsuitable for other uses.
3. Misconception: There would be no need for wastewater
disposal if hydraulic fracturing was not used.
Correction: Salt water is produced at virtually all oil wells,
whether the wells were hydraulically fractured or not. In
fact, hydraulic fracturing is not used in the Hunton
Dewatering Play in central Oklahoma, yet it is one of the
largest producers of salt water in the United States (Walsh
and Zoback, 2015).
4. Misconception: Induced seismicity only occurs close to the
injection well and at a similar depth as injection.
Correction: Seismicity can be induced at distances of
10 km or more away from the injection point and at sig-
nificantly greater depths than injection. In the classic case
of injection-induced seismicity at the Rocky Mountain Ar-
senal, seismicity was induced at distances of at least 10 km
laterally from the well and at depths of at least 4 km greater
than the depth of injection (Healy et al., 1968;Herrmann
et al.,1981;Hsieh and Bredehoeft, 1981). More recent re-
ports have argued that seismicity may be induced at 20 km
or more from the injection point (Keranen et al., 2014).
5. Misconception: All injection wells (hydraulic fracturing,
wastewater disposal, and enhanced oil recovery) induce
Correction: Most injection wells do not cause felt earth-
quakes. There are approximately 35,000 active wastewater
disposal wells, 80,000 active enhanced oil-recovery wells,
and tens of thousands of wells are hydraulically fractured
every year in the United States. Only a few dozen of these
wells are known to have induced felt earthquakes. A
combination of many factors is necessary for injection to
induce felt earthquakes. These include faults that are large
enough to produce felt earthquakes, stresses that are large
enough to produce earthquakes, the presence of fluid path-
ways from the injection point to faults, and fluid pressure
changes large enough to induce earthquakes. It is likely that
some of these criteria are not met in areas that have very few
or no earthquakes that may be induced by wastewater in-
jection, such as theWilliston Basin in North Dakota (Froh-
lich et al., 2015), the Michigan Basin, and the Gulf Coast of
Texas and Louisiana (Weingarten et al.,2015).
More injection wells may be inducing earthquakes, but cur-
rent studies are limited to the largest earthquakes and those
with the best seismological and industrial data available.
Further study of other earthquake sequences may reveal that
additional felt earthquakes are induced. It is likely that
smaller induced earthquakes are occurring and are too small
to detect.
In some sense, all hydraulic fracturing induces earthquakes,
although typically microearthquakes. When production en-
gineers hydraulically fracture, they are intentionally cracking
the rock, causing microearthquakes that are typically smaller
than M0.
6. Misconception: Wells injecting at zero injection pressure at
the wellhead (i.e., wells where the formation readily ac-
cepts fluid without requiring the fluid to be pushed into
the formation) cannot induce earthquakes.
Correction: Wells injecting under gravity feed (i.e., wells
where you can pour fluid down the well without added
pressure) increase the fluid pressure within the injection
formation and thus can induce earthquakes. For example,
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the vast majority of wells in the Raton Basin are injecting
under gravity feed and have induced an earthquake se-
quence that is ongoing since 2001 and includes an M5.3
earthquake and an M5.0 earthquake (Barnhart et al.,
2014;Rubinstein et al., 2014).
Earthquakes stimulated by human activities are commonly re-
ferred to as being either induced or triggered. As originally pro-
posed by McGarr et al. (2002), induced should be used for
earthquakes where human-introduced stresses are similar in
amplitude to the ambient stress state, and triggered should be
used for earthquakes where human-introduced stresses are only
asmall fraction of the ambient level.In the seismology com-
munity, triggered has an additional meaning: earthquakes
caused by earlier earthquakes are triggered by the previous
earthquake (Freed, 2005). This process applies to natural and
man-made earthquakes alike. To avoid any confusion between
the two kinds of triggered earthquakes, we suggest using in-
duced exclusively to describe all anthropogenic earthquakes,
and we have done so in this article. Accordingly, triggered refers
to the physical interaction between parent and daughter events,
whether natural or anthropogenic in origin.
Invented in 1947 (Hubbert and Willis, 1957), hydraulic frac-
turing (often colloquially referred to as fracking), is a technique
that has been used for decades in the oil and gas industry. Ap-
proximately one million wells were hydraulically fractured in
the United States between 1947 and 2010 (Gallegos and Var-
ela, 2014). Hydraulic fracturing is a technique that aims to im-
prove the production of wells by increasing the number of and
extending the reach of fluid pathways (i.e., fractures) between
the formation and the well. Hydraulic fracturing achieves this
by injecting fluid, typically water, at high pressure into low-per-
meability rocks, such that the fluid pressure fractures the rocks
or stimulates slip across pre-existing faults or fractures (Fig. 2a).
Increasing the fracture density and extent of the fracture net-
work enhances fluid flow and allows for more distant fluids to
be accessed by a well. In addition to fluid, a propping agent
(e.g., sand) is injected to keep the newly formed fractures
open. Following hydraulic fracturing, which takes a few hours
to a few days, there is a period where the hydraulic fracturing
fluid is allowed to flow back to the surface where it is collected
for disposal, treatment, or reuse. Subsequent to flow back, the
wells begin production (i.e., the extraction of oil or gas begins)
(Fig. 2b).
At first, vertical oil wells were hydraulically fractured to
increase production. Then, in the 1990s, extended reach hori-
zontal drilling technology was developed. This allowed drillers
to steer wells more precisely such that they could remain within
narrow horizontal and subhorizontal oil and gas reservoirs over
great distances. This enabled production along the length of
the well within the production formation. This technology,
(a) (b)
Figure 2. Simplified diagrams of oil-fieldoperations. The geology
in these diagrams is simplified from natural situations in which there
are many more rock layers. Arrows show the directions of fluid
being injected or withdrawn. Arrow color indicates the contents
of the fluid: black (oil, gas, and wastewater), yellow (oil and
gas), and blue (wastewater). (a) For a period of hours to days, fluids
are injected at high pressure into a production well. The pressures
are high so that the rock surrounding the well fractures and the
permeability is increased. Increased permeability allows the extrac-
tion of oil or gas from a larger region. This technique of high-pres-
sure injection is known as hydraulic fracturing. Following the
hydraulic fracturing of a well, the well goes into production. (b) Pro-
duction wells extract oil and gas from the ground. Some, but not all,
production wells are hydraulically fractured. (c) Production wells
extract oil and gas, and as a byproduct, salt water. The salt water
is found in the same formation as the oil and gas and is commonly
termed produced water.The oil and gas are separated from the
produced water, and the produced water is injected into a deeper
formation with the disposal well. In practice, the wastewater from
many production wells is injected into a single injection well. (d) An
alternative to wastewater disposal is enhanced oil recovery. In en-
hanced oil recovery, produced water is injected into the formation
holding the oil and gas. The injection of produced water is intended
to sweep oil and gas that is close to the injector toward the pro-
duction wells to enhance oil recovery.
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combined with hydraulic fracturing, unlocked gas and oil
resources in tight formations (e.g., shales) and is largely respon-
sible for the recent boom in gas and oil production in the
United States.
In some sense, hydraulic fracturing is intended to cause
earthquakes, albeit very small, in that the intent is to fracture
the rock. These intentionally produced earthquakes, often
termed microseismic events, are typically on the order of
3:0M0(Warpinski et al., 2012). In cases when hy-
draulic fracturing induces earthquakes of larger magnitudes,
the earthquakes are likely the result of the reactivation of
nearby pre-existing faults (Maxwell et al., 2010). Despite being
invented in 1947, the first report of a felt hydraulic fracturing-
induced earthquake was in 1991 (Kanamori and Hauksson,
1992). Since 2011, a number of other earthquake sequences
with felt earthquakes induced by hydraulic fracturing have been
reported (Green et al., 2012;Holland, 2013;Friberg et al.,
2014;Skoumal et al., 2015). The largest hydraulic fracturing-
induced earthquakes to date are two ML4.4 earthquakes in
central west Alberta and northeast British Columbia (BC Oil
and Gas Commission, 2014). In these cases, the total injected
volumes were remarkably high for hydraulic fracturing (e.g.,
630,000 barrels or 100;000 m3for both ML4.4 earthquakes;
H. Kao, personal comm., 2015).
Waste fluids are often a byproduct of many oil and gas extrac-
tion operations. At times these fluids can be cleaned and
reused or applied for other purposes. In other instances they
are unsuitable for other uses and must be disposed. When
waste fluids must be disposed, they are often injected deep
underground into high-permeability formations, usually deeper
than the production reservoirs, for permanent sequestration
and isolation from oil/gas reservoirs and drinking-water aqui-
fers (Fig. 2c). The wells in which these fluids are disposed
are known as wastewater wells or salt-water disposal wells.
Underground disposal of wastewater has a lengthy history be-
cause it is typically considered an economic and safe option
(Ferguson, 2015).
The contents of wastewater can be highly variable. In
some places, it is primarily spent hydraulic-fracturing fluid
(e.g., Ohio and Arkansas), whereas in other locations waste-
water often consists mostly of formation brines that come
to the surface at the same time as the oil and gas that is ex-
tracted. For instance, in Oklahoma, only 10% of the fluid
injected into disposal wells is spent fluid that was initially
used in hydraulic fracturing and cannot be reused (Murray,
2013). These formation brines (also termed produced water
or wastewater) are typically salt water that is trapped in the
same pore space as the oil and gas and comes up with the oil
and gas. This salt water is often laden with dissolved salts,
minerals, and occasionally other materials that make it unsuit-
able for other uses.
Injection rates of disposal wells range widely, with some
wells injecting 100 barrels (16 m3)/month and other wells with
rates exceeding one million barrels 160;000 m3=month.
The Denver earthquakes of the 1960s, caused by injection
of chemical waste at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, were the
first earthquakes to be identified as related to deep, under-
ground injection (Evans, 1966;Healy et al., 1968). The largest
earthquake in the sequence was M4.9 (Herrmann et al., 1981).
Many more injection-induced earthquakes have been identified
since this sequence, the largest being the August 2011 M5.3
Trinidad, Colorado, earthquake (Rubinstein et al., 2014) and
the November 2011 M5.6 Prague, Oklahoma, earthquake
(Keranen et al., 2013).
Enhanced oil recovery is a suite of injection techniques used by
the oil and gas industry to allow or encourage more oil and gas
to be produced from a reservoir than would come out on its
own (Murray, 2013)(Fig.2d). The techniques typically involve
the injection of water, steam, or carbon dioxide into the
production formation. Water flooding (the injection large
amounts of water) improves production by sweeping the oil
and gas toward the production wells. The injection of steam
and carbon dioxide is undertaken to improve production by
reducing the viscosity of oil. Enhanced oil-recovery operations
typically aim to keep the fluid pressure in the reservoir at or
below its original level.
Many cases of enhanced oil recovery-induced earthquakes
have been identified (see Nicholson and Wesson, 1992 and
references therein). In fact, one of the best documented cases
of injection-induced earthquakes was from water flooding near
Rangely, Colorado (Gibbs et al., 1973;Raleigh et al., 1976).
Because this field had an extensive history of induced earth-
quakes from enhanced oil recovery, it was selected for an ex-
periment in earthquake control by the U.S. Geological Survey.
Raleigh et al. (1976) demonstrated that by varying the fluid
pressure at depth, they could control whether or not earth-
quakes were induced. The largest earthquake known to be
induced by enhanced oil recovery is an M4.6 earthquake
in the Cogdell field near Snyder, Texas (Gan and Froh-
lich, 2013).
There are many ways in which human activities induce earth-
quakes (e.g., reservoir impoundment, fluid injection, fluid ex-
traction, and mining). Each of these actions fundamentally
causes earthquakes in the same way: they change the stress con-
ditions on faults, which can facilitate failure. Fluid injection
can induce earthquakes in four different ways: (1) the injection
of fluids raises pore-fluid pressure within a fault, (2) the injec-
tion of fluids fills and compresses fluids within pore spaces
causing deformation (poro-elastic effects), (3) the injection
of fluid that is colder than the rock into which it is being in-
jected into causes thermoelastic deformation, and (4) fluid
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injected adds mass to the injection formation. Observations
and numerical modeling indicate that increased fluid pressure
within faults most strongly influences whether an injection
well will induce earthquakes (Raleigh et al., 1976;Shapiro
and Dinske, 2009;McClure and Horne, 2011).
It is critical to note that the injected fluids need not travel
the entire distance from the injection well to a fault for the
injection to affect the faults behavior. Injection can affect a
faults behavior via the change in fluid pressure, which can
be transmitted greater distances than fluids themselves. Like
stepping on the brakes in a car, the increase in the fluid pressure
that is initiated at the well (or brake pedal) is transmitted to the
fault (brakes) without the fluid traveling the full distance be-
tween the well and fault.
As fluid is injected into a reservoir, the fluid pressure
within that reservoir rises. If this fluid pressure increase is trans-
mitted to a fault, the increase in pore pressure counteracts the
stresses holding the fault closed (the normal stress), resulting
in a lower effective stress. With lower effective normal stress
clamping a fault, the frictional resistance to slip is lower and the
fault is more prone to slip. The effect of fluid injection on fault
failure is illustrated with a Mohr-Coulomb diagram, which
shows a failure envelope for a typical compressive medium
(Fig. 3). As pore pressure increases, the Mohr circles shift to
the left and closer to the failure envelope. If the faults are suit-
ably oriented with respect to the local stress field, they may slip
and cause earthquakes.
In addition to the fluid pressure in candidate faults, there
are many other factors that influence whether or not injection
will induce earthquakes. These include injection parameters
(e.g., cumulative injected volume, injection rate, injection pres-
sure, fluid temperature, and injection depth) and reservoir con-
ditions (e.g., pore pressure, temperature, rock strength, the
presence of pre-existing faults and their orientation relative
to the local stress field, and reservoir permeability; Shapiro
and Dinske, 2009;Zoback, 2012). Many of these parameters
are not easily constrained or are unknown, which makes it diffi-
cult to determine the wells that will induce earthquakes and those
that will not. Most often, faults reactivated by injection activities
were unmapped before the earthquakes illuminated them.
Hydraulic fracturing, long-term wastewater injection, and en-
hanced oil recovery have all induced earthquakes in the United
States and Canada in the past few years (Horton, 2012;Gan
and Frohlich, 2013;Holland, 2013). As discussed above, waste-
water disposal is responsible for the vast majority of the in-
crease, including the largest and most-damaging induced
earthquakes (Horton, 2012;Keranen et al., 2013;Frohlich
et al., 2014;Rubinstein et al., 2014). Here, we explore why
wastewater disposal is responsible for this change.
It is probable that the duration of injection, the magni-
tude of the fluid pressure increase, and the size of the region
affected by injection will strongly influence whether earth-
quakes will be induced and how large they will be. Larger fluid
pressure changes are more likely to induce earthquakes than
smaller pressure changes, larger volumes of injected fluid in-
crease the probability of a large fault being affected by the
fluid pressure change, and a longer duration of injection gives
earthquakes a longer time window during which they can
A quick examination of the above factors suggests that
wastewater injection into previously undisturbed formations
is more likely to induce felt earthquakes than hydraulic frac-
turing. Although the higher injection pressures suggest that hy-
draulic fracturing would be more likely to induce earthquakes
than wastewater disposal, the duration of injection and the to-
tal volume of injection of hydraulic fracturing is much smaller
than wastewater disposal. Wastewater disposal wells typically
operate for years or decades, whereas hydraulic fracturing lasts
Failure Envelope
Figure 3. Mohr circle diagram showing the effect of increased
fluid pressure on a fault. Normal stress on the horizontal axis
(compression when positive and tension when negative) and
shear stress on the vertical axis. The maximum and minimum nor-
mal stresses acting in any given location are plotted as σ1and σ3,
and a Mohr circle (shown in red) is drawn to represent the range
of stresses acting on a plane at one location, showing both the
shear and normal stress at a given location. When fluid pressure
(P) is increased, normal stresses are reduced by P, resulting in
new normal stresses σ
1and σ
3, moving the Mohr circle to the left
by P(purple). This also means that the Mohr circle is closer to the
failure envelope and makes shear or tensile failure more likely.
The blue line represents the failure envelope with the slope being
equal to the frictional resistance at that point on the plane. When
the stress conditions exceed the shear strength of the fault, slip
on that fault may occur. The failure envelope is computed as the
sum of the cohesion C(an intrinsic property of an individual rock)
and frictional resistance (resistance to slip on a fault). When the
minimum principal normal stress σ3is less than T, the tensile
strength of the rock, the rock will fail in tension, that is, cracks
will open. Figure after figure 7 in Maxwell (2013).
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for days. Wastewater disposal wells also inject far more fluid
than hydraulic fracturing, so they affect a much larger region.
The largest hydraulic fracturing treatments inject approxi-
mately 250,000 barrels (Gallegos and Varela, 2014) over the
course of a few days; in the United States there are
well over 1000 disposal wells that inject 100,000 barrels/month
or more (Weingarten et al., 2015). Within a matter of months,
all of these wastewater disposal wells will greatly exceed the
volumes injected by even the largest hydraulic-fracturing oper-
ations, which implies that they are more likely to induce earth-
quakes. By virtue of its longer duration and larger injection
volumes, wastewater injection is more likely to induce earth-
quakes at a greater distance and over a longer time span than
hydraulic fracturing and thus, is a much more important source
of induced earthquakes than hydraulic fracturing.
Wastewater injection into undisturbed formations is also
more likely to induce earthquakes than injection for enhanced
oil recovery. The durations and volumes for both kinds of
wells are similar. The difference between these wells is that
enhanced oil recovery injects large volumes of fluid into de-
pleted reservoirs where oil and gas have already been extracted
and recycles produced water such that the pressure within the
injection reservoir rarely exceeds the preproduction level. In
contrast, wastewater injection is injected into virgin forma-
tions and thus raises the pore pressure from their initial levels.
Avoiding pore-pressure increases within reservoirs reduces the
likelihood of enhanced oil-recovery operations inducing earth-
These considerations are in accord with observations.
Wastewater injection is associated with all of the largest injec-
tion-induced earthquakes (Horton, 2012;Frohlich et al.,
2014;Keranen et al.,2014;Rubinstein et al.,2014), and there
are many more reported cases of wastewater injection-induced
earthquakes in the past five years in the United States alone
(Frohlich et al.,2011,2014;Frohlich, 2012;Justinic et al.,
2013;Kim, 2013;Block et al., 2014;Keranen et al., 2014),
and yet there are only approximately 35,000 wastewater disposal
wells that are active in the United States. This is in contrast to
hydraulic fracturing, which is far more common (1:8million
treatments over 1million wells, 19472010 in the United
States; Gallegos and Varela, 2014) than wastewater disposal
wells, and yet there are only three reported cases of hydraulic
fracturing-induced earthquakes in the United States (Holland,
2013;Friberg et al., 2014;Skoumal et al.,2015) and only a few
more worldwide (BC Oil and Gas Commission, 2012,2014;
Green et al., 2012;Farahbod et al.,2015). Likewise, enhanced
oil recovery is quite common (80;000 active wells United
States; Weingarten et al.,2015), yet there are few recent earth-
quakes associated with it (Gan and Frohlich, 2013).
Results from modeling analyses also support the notion
that wastewater injection is more likely to induce large earth-
quakes. The injection pressure, pressure within the field, dura-
tion of injection, and volume of rock affected by injection all
influence the likelihood of inducing earthquakes (Langenbruch
and Shapiro, 2010;Bachmann et al., 2011;McClure and
Horne, 2011).
The recent increase in injection-induced seismicity is caused by
a corresponding increase in wastewater disposal in the central
United States. The earthquake rate increase in Oklahoma, where
the vast majority of the increase has occurred (585 of 688 M3
earthquakes in the central United States in 2014), corresponds
to a doubling of the wastewater disposal rate in the state from
1999 to 2013 (Walsh and Zoback, 2015). Focusing on the areas
of increased seismicity within Oklahoma, we find that injection
increased by factors of 510 (Walsh and Zoback, 2015). Other
areas of increased rates of induced earthquakes also experienced
sudden increases in wastewater disposal (Frohlich, 2012;Hor-
ton, 2012;Frohlich et al.,2014;Keranen et al.,2014;Rubinstein
et al.,2014).
Although enhanced oil recovery and hydraulic fracturing
have been implicated in some recent seismicity, studies indicate
that the majority of the increase in seismicity is induced by the
deep disposal of fluids produced by oil and gas production
(wastewater disposal). Hydraulic fracturing does not play a
key role in the increase in that (1) hydraulic fracturing does
not typically induce felt earthquakes; (2) in Oklahoma, the lo-
cation of the largest increase in seismicity, spent hydraulic
fracturing fluid does not represent a large percentage of the
fluids comprising disposed wastewater; and (3) oil produced
from many fields with large volumes of produced water did
not involve any hydraulic fracturing. Similarly, enhanced oil
recovery does not play a major role in the increase in seismicity,
likely because operators attempt to keep fluid pressures in the
reservoir balanced with the fluid pressure prior to production.
Accordingly, wastewater disposal is responsible for
inducing the majority of the earthquakes. Increased fluid pres-
sure is the probable driving mechanism to induce earthquakes,
and of the three aforementioned processes, wastewater disposal
wells can raise fluid pressures more, over longer periods of time
and over larger areas, than either of the other injection
Although seismicity associated with salt-water disposal has
caused damaging earthquakes, we have not yet seen a cata-
strophic event or fatalities. Preliminary results in a number
of areas of induced seismicity indicate that the earthquake haz-
ard in these areas is comparable to the hazard in areas more
traditionally known for earthquakes, such as California (Pe-
tersen et al., 2015). The increase in hazard is undoubtedly
of concern and efforts to assess the hazard from induced earth-
quakes are ongoing. Fortunately, some authors have suggested
that there is hope for mitigating the likelihood of damaging
earthquakes through detailed seismic monitoring, careful selec-
tion of injection locations, variation of injection rates and
pressures in response to ongoing seismicity, and a clear man-
agement plan (Zoback, 2012;McGarr et al., 2015;Walters
et al., 2015). Mitigation of hazard from future-induced events,
however, requires a detailed understanding of the physical
6 Seismological Research Letters Volume 86, Number 4 July/August 2015
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processes involved in inducing large magnitude events and a
detailed understanding of the geology and hydrology at the
site of the earthquakes. To reach this goal, three kinds of data
will be necessary: (1) seismic data: high-quality, real-time earth-
quake locations, which require dense seismic instrumentation;
(2) geologic data: hydrological parameters, orientation and
magnitude of the stress field, and the location and orientation
of known faults; and (3) industrial data: injection rates and
downhole pressures sampled and reported frequently. Manag-
ing the likelihood of induced earthquakes is an ambitious, but
possible task that will require collaboration between scientists,
industry, and regulators.
The authors thank C. Frohlich, J. Kaven, W. Ellsworth, A.
McGarr, H. Collela, R. Gertson, M. Agard, J. Brandon, F.
Terra, and Editor Z. Peng for their thoughtful comments
on the manuscript. We thank A. Barbour, F. Terra, C. Potter,
and M. Weingarten for their help in developing Figure 1.We
also thank M. Szczepanik, who created Figure 2.
Bachmann, C. E., S. Wiemer, J. Woessner, and S. Hainzl (2011). Stat-
istical analysis of the induced Basel 2006 earthquake sequence:
Introducing a probability-based monitoring approach for Enhanced
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Barnhart, W., H. Benz, G. P. Hayes, J. L. Rubinstein, and E. Bergman
(2014). Seismological and geodetic constraints on the 2011
Mw5.3 Trinidad, Colorado earthquake and induced deforma-
tion in the Raton Basin, J. Geophys. Res. 119, doi: 10.1002/
BC Oil and Gas Commission (2012). Investigation of Observed Seismicity
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Justin L. Rubinstein
U.S. Geological Survey
Menlo Park, California 94025 U.S.A.
Alireza Babaie Mahani
Pacific Geoscience Center
Geological Survey of Canada
Sidney, British Colombia
Canada V8L 5T5
Published Online 10 June 2015
8 Seismological Research Letters Volume 86, Number 4 July/August 2015
SRL Early Edition
... The consequences of an earthquake are often irreversible and financially devastating. Apart from tectonic earthquakes, there are also earthquakes which are triggered unintentionally by injecting fluids in the earth's crust (see oil recovery, wastewater disposal, deep geothermal energy, etc.) (Elsworth et al., 2016;Foulger et al., 2018;McGarr et al., 2002;Rubinstein & Mahani, 2015;Schultz et al., 2020, among others). Independently of the origin, an earthquake is a dynamic instability that occurs when the elastic unloading of the rocks surrounding the fault zone cannot be counterbalanced by fault friction. ...
... Examples of anthropogenic seismicity involve earthquakes provoked by large artificial water reservoirs such as dams (Gupta, 2002), mining (T. Li et al., 2007), underground nuclear explosions (Hamilton et al., 1972) or by fluid injections in the earth's crust (Ellsworth, 2013;Garagash & Germanovich, 2012;Rubinstein & Mahani, 2015;Schultz et al., 2020). The latter type of anthropogenic seismicity is of particular interest, due to the numerous ongoing industrial applications (Hosseini et al., 2018;Rubinstein & Mahani, 2015). ...
... Li et al., 2007), underground nuclear explosions (Hamilton et al., 1972) or by fluid injections in the earth's crust (Ellsworth, 2013;Garagash & Germanovich, 2012;Rubinstein & Mahani, 2015;Schultz et al., 2020). The latter type of anthropogenic seismicity is of particular interest, due to the numerous ongoing industrial applications (Hosseini et al., 2018;Rubinstein & Mahani, 2015). These anthropogenic seismic events could shift the Gutenberg and Richter (1954) power law, which describes the relationship between the total number of earthquakes and their magnitudes, towards smaller events. ...
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Anthropogenic seismicity has been increased since the last decades due to the intense human activity for energy production. However, despite the fact that merely injection of fluids can induce/trigger earthquakes, in this thesis, we show that the strategic interplay between fluid extractions and injections can control such seismic events and eventually prevent them. More specifically, a novel mathematical framework of robust earthquake control is built which in turn is exploited in numerical simulations of strike-slip faults and gas reservoirs, as well as in new laboratory experiments of decimetric scale. First, the key parameters which constitute a conventional earthquake mitigation strategy are identified. Surrogate experiments on absorbent porous paper show that without the precise knowledge of the fault properties, fluid injections risk to nucleate faster a large seismic event. In order to tackle such uncertainties, rigorous mathematical tools are developed using modern control theory. These tools require minimal information of fault’s properties and frictional characteristics to assure robustness. Numerical simulations on strike-slip faults verify that earthquake prevention is possible, even in the presence of diffusion processes and the absence of sufficient measurements both in time and space. Going a step further, the developed control techniques can also be applied in large gas reservoirs, where the desired gas production can be achieved assuring acceptable seismicity levels. Finally, during this thesis, a novel triplet apparatus of decimetric scale has been designed, constructed and calibrated accordingly. Pressure control can be achieved, in this machine, in real-time, through a fast response electro-pneumatic pressure regulator. As a proof of concept, the developed controller is plugged in this apparatus and by using sand-based 3D-printed specimens (to promote experimental repeatability), we manage, for the first time, to prevent laboratory earthquakes and drive the system aseismically to an equilibrium point of lower energy.
... Obviously, it is noticed that the shear strength of joint sample declines with an increment in joint saturation. this end, substantial efforts have been made to characterize the shear properties of rock joints, since a deeper understanding of which tend to benefit rock engineering design (Barton et al. 1985;Shrivastava and Rao 2015;Liu et al. 2017;Kim and Jeon 2019) and enhance the extraction of natural resources, such as oil or gas (Gutierrez et al. 2000;Rubinstein and Mahani 2015;Rutter and Hackston 2017), and thermal energy (Grant et al. 1983;Zhao et al. 2019;Chen et al. 2020). Moreover, the weakening effect of fluids on the shear behaviors of rock joints has been widely recognized (Barton and Choubey 1977;Pellet et al. 2013;Li et al. 2020). ...
Full-text available
Natural rock joints are rarely dry or saturated. It is therefore essential to quantitatively assess the influence of varying saturations on shear properties of rock joint. In this study, to guarantee the test repeatability, artificial rock joints with various roughness coefficients (JRCs) of 0, 7.3, 10.1, and 12.9 are firstly reproduced by utilizing rock-like materials. Then, direct shear experiments are performed on the duplicated joint samples at various moisture conditions ranging from dry to saturation, while under a constant normal stress of 0.2 MPa. Obviously, it is noticed that the shear strength of joint sample declines with an increment in joint saturation. Specifically, when compared to the corresponding dry samples, peak shear strength (PSS) of saturated samples with JRCs of 12.9, 10.1, and 7.3 decrease by 35.7, 28.5, and 16.1%, respectively. Moreover, the observed weakening influence of joint saturation on its PSS is roughness sensitive, which may be resulted from the changing in water–rock contact areas of joints with different roughness. Besides, the residual shear strength is also observed to decline as joint saturation increases. Furthermore, based on experimental results, a correction factor is proposed and introduced into the classical JRC-JCS shear strength criterion, and the corrected criterion is capable of estimating peak shear strength of joint sample subjected to various saturations. This work can provide some insights into the shear strength evolution of rock joints under varying saturations, and the findings emphasize the importance of considering the moisture content in rock engineering where wetting phase is encountered.
... Many mid-magnitude and larger induced earthquakes (M > 3.5) in the CUS are linked to wastefluid disposal associated with oil and gas production Rubinstein and Mahani, 2015). report that the earthquake rate for magnitude 3 and above across Texas has increased from about 2 events per year to 12 events per year since 2008. ...
Conference Paper
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New evidence suggests recent seismicity (2013-present) in the Rocky Mountain House Seismogenic Zone is attributable to wastewater disposal, particularly after the disposal zone was changed from the Leduc Formation to the Wabamun Formation by the operator in 2013.
During coseismic slip, the energy released by the elastic unloading of the adjacent earth blocks can be separated in three main parts: The energy that is radiated to the earth’s surface (_ 5% of the whole energy budget), the fracture energy for the creation of new fault surfaces and finally, the energy dissipated inside a region of the fault, with finite thickness, which is called the fault gauge. This region accumulates the majority of the seismic slip. Estimating correctly the width of the fault gauge is of paramount importance in calculating the energy dissipated during the earthquake, the fault’s frictional response, and the conditions for nucleation of the fault in the form of seismic or aseismic slip.In this thesis different regularization approaches were explored for the estimation of the localization width of the fault’s principal slip zone during coseismic slip. These include the application of viscosity and multiphysical couplings in the classical Cauchy continuum, and the introduction of a first order micromorphic Cosserat continuum. First, we focus on the role of viscous regularization in the context of dynamical analyses, as a method for regularizing strain localization. We study the dynamic case for a strain softening strain-rate hardening classical Cauchy continuum, and by applying the Lyapunov stability analysis we show that introduction of viscosity is unable to prevent strain localization on a mathematical plane and mesh dependence.We perform fully non linear analyses using the Cosserat continuum under large seismic slip displacements of the fault gouge in comparison to its width. Cosserat continuum provides us with a proper account of the energy dissipated during an earthquake and the role of the microstructure in the evolution of the fault’s friction. We focus on the influence of the seismic slip velocity to the weakening mechanism of thermal pressurization. We notice that the influence of the boundary conditions in the diffusion of the pore fluid inside the fault gouge, leads to frictional strength regain after initial weakening. Furthermore, a traveling strain localization mode is present during shearing of the layer introducing oscillations in the frictional response. Such oscillations increase the spectral content of the earthquake. Introduction of viscosity in the above mode, leads to a rate and state behavior without the introduction of a specific internal state variable. Our conclusions about the role of thermal pressurization during shearing of the fault gouge, agree qualitatively with newly available experimental results.Finally, based on the numerical findings we investigate the assumptions of the current model of a slip on a mathematical plane, in particular the role of the boundary conditions and strain localization mode in the evolution of the fault’s friction during coseismic slip. The case of a bounded domain and a traveling strain localization mode are examined in the context of slip on a mathematical plane under thermal pressurization. Our results expand the original model in a more general context.
Catastrophic events affect many people simultaneously. We exploit earthquake claim characteristics to test for racial discrimination in the adjudication of insurance claims. Using data from the Oklahoma Department of Insurance, the US Geological Survey, and the US census, we study eight earthquakes between 2010 and 2016 that were linked to oil and gas drilling activities. We test whether claim resolutions differ among zip‐code areas with different racial compositions, all else equal. We find evidence that claims from areas with higher percentages of Black population were less likely to result in payment, and when those claims did get paid, payments were lower in those areas. We further investigate the mechanisms through which such discrimination may exist. We do not find evidence that the percentages of Black, Native, or Asian population in an area are associated with the filing of marginal claims. We do find that areas with higher percentages of Hispanic population file fewer marginal claims.
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Plain Language Summary Frictional instabilities are omnipresent in nature. A characteristic example is that of earthquakes. Earthquakes are dynamic instabilities that occur when the elastic unloading of the rocks surrounding a fault zone cannot be counterbalanced by fault friction. Recent experience shows that friction can be altered by injecting fluids in the earth's crust. However, until now, most attempts of fluid injections result, sooner or later, in provoking earthquakes. In this work, we present a general mathematical theory that shows that it is possible to adjust the fluid pressure to prevent these instabilities. Moreover, we show how we can induce slow‐slip and allow smooth energy relaxation in such systems. We show also how to drive these systems to desirable stable equilibria of lower energy in a controlled manner. This is achieved even in the absence of complete information about the frictional properties and other uncertainties and unmodeled dynamics. In order to illustrate the theory, we provide numerical examples for spring‐dashpot‐slider (Burridge‐Knopoff) systems, which are characterized by rich dynamics, chaos and self‐organized criticality, and for a seismic fault model. The current limitations of the proposed approach are also extensively discussed. The proposed theoretical framework could inspire strategies for controlling anthropogenic and natural seismicity.
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The central USA has experienced an increase in the frequency and magnitude of human-induced earthquakes. The earthquakes are caused by the deep-well injection of water produced from oil and gas development. However, the novelty of these earthquakes and the politicized nature of oil and gas have resulted in competing explanations for their causes, leading to public uncertainty. To determine public beliefs about the causes of the earthquakes and the factors that influence these beliefs, we administered and analyzed a household survey. We found that the more individuals experienced the adverse effects of the earthquakes, the more they agreed that they were caused by the injection of wastewater from oil and gas production. Further, individuals with more positive perceptions of oil and gas industry activity more strongly believed that the earthquakes are caused by nature. These findings show that beliefs around technological, energy-related hazards are shaped by hazard exposure and views about the human activity causing the hazard. Understanding what the public believes to be the cause of the earthquakes is important, as it can impact policy and personal interventions taken to mitigate risk.
The Changning MS6.0 earthquake, occurred on June 17, 2019, is located in the southwestern margin of the Sichuan Basin. Using seismic data recorded on permanent and temporary stations around Changning area, the high-resolution three-dimensional crustal VP, VS, VP/VS models and earthquake locations in Changning-Xingwen area are obtained by using the VP/VS model consistency-constrained double-difference seismic tomography method. The results show that crustal structures in the source area of the 2019 Changning MS6.0 earthquake have significant variations, especially in the depth of 0–7 km. Seismic activity in Shuanghe and Yutan anticline area before the Changning MS6.0 earthquake outlined several NE trending stripes, implying pre-existing small-scale faults which are perpendicular to major NW-striking faults in Changning-Shuanghe anticline system. We found that the Changning MS6.0 earthquake broke through these pre-existing small-scale faults and extended from the Shuanghe to Yutan anticline. Both the rupture process and aftershock activity were influenced by the pre-existing small-scale faults. Most earthquakes within the Changning area are located in a slant zone that gradually deepen from Shuanghe anticline on the east to Yutan anticline on the west with the maximum depth from 5 to 10 km, which are associated with obvious high VS and low VP/VS features. The relocated seismic clusters in Luochang-Jianwu syncline area have different strikes and dips, which are mainly located at the edge of low velocity anomaly bodies, and correspond to the low VP/VS area.
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The fundamental objective of earthquake engineering is to protect lives and livelihoods through the reduction of seismic risk. Directly or indirectly, this generally requires quantification of the risk, for which quantification of the seismic hazard is required as a basic input. Over the last several decades, the practice of seismic hazard analysis has evolved enormously, firstly with the introduction of a rational framework for handling the apparent randomness in earthquake processes, which also enabled risk assessments to consider both the severity and likelihood of earthquake effects. The next major evolutionary step was the identification of epistemic uncertainties related to incomplete knowledge, and the formulation of frameworks for both their quantification and their incorporation into hazard assessments. Despite these advances in the practice of seismic hazard analysis, it is not uncommon for the acceptance of seismic hazard estimates to be hindered by invalid comparisons, resistance to new information that challenges prevailing views, and attachment to previous estimates of the hazard. The challenge of achieving impartial acceptance of seismic hazard and risk estimates becomes even more acute in the case of earthquakes attributed to human activities. A more rational evaluation of seismic hazard and risk due to induced earthquakes may be facilitated by adopting, with appropriate adaptations, the advances in risk quantification and risk mitigation developed for natural seismicity. While such practices may provide an impartial starting point for decision making regarding risk mitigation measures, the most promising avenue to achieve broad societal acceptance of the risks associated with induced earthquakes is through effective regulation, which needs to be transparent, independent, and informed by risk considerations based on both sound seismological science and reliable earthquake engineering.
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Over the past 5 years, parts of Oklahoma have experienced marked increases in the number of small- to moderate-sized earthquakes. In three study areas that encompass the vast majority of the recent seismicity, we show that the increases in seismicity follow 5- to 10-fold increases in the rates of saltwater disposal. Adjacent areas where there has been relatively little saltwater disposal have had comparatively few recent earthquakes. In the areas of seismic activity, the saltwater disposal principally comes from "produced" water, saline pore water that is coproduced with oil and then injected into deeper sedimentary formations. These formations appear to be in hydraulic communication with potentially active faults in crystalline basement, where nearly all the earthquakes are occurring. Although most of the recent earthquakes have posed little danger to the public, the possibility of triggering damaging earthquakes on potentially active basement faults cannot be discounted.
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Seismic data recorded for a 7-year period at the Uinta Basin Observatory were searched for earthquakes originating near an oil field at Rangely, Colorado, 65 km ESE of the observatory. Changes in the number of earthquakes recorded per year appear to correlate with changes in the quantity of fluid injected per year. Between November 1962 and January 1970, 976 earthquakes were detected near the oil field by the UBO station; 320 earthquakes were larger than magnitude 1. Richter local magnitudes are estimated from both S-wave and P-wave measurements; a method based on the duration of the seismic signal is used to estimate the magnitude of the larger shocks. Magnitude of the two largest shocks was 3.4 and 3.3. The total seismic energy released was 1017 ergs. During this same period, the energy used for water injection, measured at the wellhead, was 1021 ergs.
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An unprecedented increase in earthquakes in the U.S. mid-continent began in 2009. Many of these earthquakes have been documented as induced by wastewater injection. We examine the relationship between wastewater injection and U.S. mid-continent seismicity using a newly assembled injection well database for the central and eastern United States. We find that the entire increase in earthquake rate is associated with fluid injection wells. High-rate injection wells (>300,000 barrels per month) are much more likely to be associated with earthquakes than lower-rate wells. At the scale of our study, a well's cumulative injected volume, monthly wellhead pressure, depth, and proximity to crystalline basement do not strongly correlate with earthquake association. Managing injection rates may be a useful tool to minimize the likelihood of induced earthquakes. Copyright © 2015, American Association for the Advancement of Science.
An ML=3.5 earthquake near Santa Maria, California, was recorded by the Southern California Seismic Network and a TERRAscope station at Santa Barbara (SBC) on 31 January 1991. Inquiries into operations in several oil fields in the area revealed that hydro-fracturing at a pressure of about 80 bars was being done at a depth of 100 to 300m in the Orcutt oil field in the Santa Maria basin from about 9 to 11 a.m. on 31 January and the earthquake occurred in the afternoon. From the analysis of the SBC record and the field evidence, it is concluded that the source must be shallower than 1km and the ratio of the radiated energy to the seismic moment is about 6.2×10-7, one to two orders of magnitude smaller than that of ordinary earthquakes. The occurrence of this earthquake demonstrates that release of regional tectonic stress in shallow sediments can yield significant seismic radiation at periods of a few seconds. -from Authors