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More earthquakes, this time from oil & gas waste disposal

Briana Mordick

Posted January 3, 2012

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Injection of oil and gas waste water into a disposal well is suspected as the cause for a swarm of earthquakes around Youngstown, Ohio. A magnitude 4.0 earthquake on New Year’s Eve was the biggest of 11 earthquakes that occurred in the region since mid-March. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) halted injection at the suspected well and also suspended activity at four additional disposal wells that are not yet operational. A map showing these wells can be found here.

Induced seismicity tied to the injection or withdrawal of fluids is well established and documented, as I wrote in my previous blog. And just like the induced earthquakes in the UK and Oklahoma, these earthquakes in Ohio likely could have been prevented by proper planning and site characterization.

Underground injection is regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) through the Underground Injection Control (UIC) program under the authority of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). There are six classes of wells in the UIC program, each designed to regulate the injection of a specific fluid or process. Oil and gas waste is regulated under Class II.

However, owners and operators of Class II injection wells are not required to consider seismic risks when siting their wells.

This is despite the fact that induced seismicity is a well known risk associated with underground fluid injection. The permit application and well files for the Ohio injection well show that seismic history and the presence of faults were not considered.

The case in Ohio is not the first time oil and gas waste disposal wells have been suspected of causing earthquakes. A similar swarm of earthquakes in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where the Barnett Shale is being developed, was linked to produced water disposal wells. The Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission shut down a disposal well and enacted a permanent moratorium on future disposal wells in an approximately 1,200 square-mile area in the Fayetteville Shale after injection caused hundreds of earthquakes. In fact, this is not even the first time an injection well has caused earthquakes in Ohio: a series of earthquakes in Ashtabula, Ohio in 1987, 2001, and 2003 were caused by a disposal well.[1]

These incidents are yet another example of how the oil and gas industry gets special treatment when it comes to our bedrock environmental laws.

The science on the risk of induced seismicity from fluid injection is well established. Empirical evidence has shown that fluid injection volume and earthquake magnitude are strongly correlated. Researchers have determined the probability of inducing an earthquake of a given magnitude based on injection pressure, time, and geologic and geophysical properties of the injection site.[2]

Through proper planning, site characterization, and the application of this scientific knowledge, the risk of inducing earthquakes can be significantly reduced.

The regulations for underground disposal of oil and gas waste water must be updated to accurately reflect these risks and to protect the environment and the public.


[1] Seeber L, Armbruster JG, Kim, W-Y. A Fluid-Injection-Triggered Earthquake Sequence in Ashtabula, Ohio: Implications for Seismogenesis in Stable Continental Regions. Bull. Seis. Soc. Am. 2004; 94: 76-87.

[2] Shapiro,S. A., C. Dinske, and J. Kummerow (2007), Probability of a given magnitude earthquake induced by a fluid injection, Geophys. Res. Lett., 34, L22314, doi:10.1029/2007GL031615.

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Comments (Add yours)

DENCOJan 4 2012 05:46 PM

If the oil and gas industry gets special treatment from the EPA, why does it take 2 years to get a permit for a new injection well? Looks like there are almost 14,000 Class II injection wells in the great lakes region and 144,000 Class II wells in the US "injecting 2 billion gallons of brine every day”.

John DoeJan 5 2012 12:39 PM

An article that sheds some light on the situation:

Injecting Some Facts, History into the Conversation over Seismicity

Dave Hill and Jerry James

For nearly 40 years now, the state of Ohio has relied upon federally regulated underground injection wells as a safe and effective means for disposing of wastewater deep underground. Injection wells have been used in the United States since the early 1930s, and around the world dating all the way back to 300 A.D., according to EPA.

But if your only source of information on this issue is what you’ve read in the papers or seen on the news the past couple days, this is probably the first time you’re hearing this. You might even think that hydraulic fracturing is somehow to blame, notwithstanding statement after statement from federal scientists indicating it did not play, and physically could not have played, a role in the low-intensity seismic event that was felt in the Mahoning Valley over the holidays.

The two of us have a combined 65 years’ worth of experience when it comes to the siting, construction, permitting, use and policy implications of underground injection wells. Both of us were around in the ancient days of the 1980s when Ohio was first granted primacy by EPA to administer on its behalf what’s called the Underground Injection Control (UIC) program – a designation that was never given to our neighbors in Pennsylvania.

And we were also around in 1983, when state Rep. Robert E. Hagan of Lake County introduced House Bill 501, which called for a moratorium on all oil and gas activity in Ohio until the Division of Oil and Gas could certify that a sufficient number of underground injection wells existed to handle all produced brine. Thankfully, there were, and the bill was signed into law by Democratic governor Dick Celeste in 1985. Ever since, injection wells have been the law of the land in Ohio – not just a disposal option for producers, but one that is mandated under law.

Nearly 30 years removed from the passage of HB 501, Ohio today is home to nearly 180 “Class II” injection wells, which covers all liquid-based wastes associated with oil and natural gas development. Sounds like a lot – until you consider that more than 144,000 Class II wells are currently in operation in America, accepting more than two billion gallons of brine for permanent disposal each day. In 2011, Ohio accepted an estimated 1.03 million gallons a day – or about five-hundredths of one percent of the nation’s total.

Given the current media coverage of the seismic events in Youngstown, an understanding of the history and process of utilizing injection wells as a disposal method is imperative. While no clear linkage has been established connecting these injection wells with the seismic events themselves, it is important to recognize this conversation is limited to a single injection well in the Mahoning Valley, and not the centuries-old method of waste disposal itself – or the hundreds of other wells permitted and in operation all across the state.

Injection of produced fluids deep underground has proven to be safe and highly-effective means of protecting the environment, while generating much-needed revenue for the state of Ohio. Unfortunately, some of the folks speaking with the loudest voices right now in opposition to these wells appear to be among the folks with the least awareness of the decades-long history associated with the UIC program.

Of course, both of us respect the decision by Governor Kasich and ODNR to temporary halt injections at the Youngstown UIC well until more facts come to light. Our industry is committed to ensuring this matter is resolved in the proper manner, with facts – and not hyperbole – informing any decisions that will be made in the future.

What’s unfortunate is that some folks are attempting to use these events as a justification for stopping oil and natural gas development in Ohio – kind of like trying to argue that the auto industry should be shut down just because a scrap tire dump caught fire somewhere. Hopefully, though, the facts will prevail and a reasonable course of action will be pursued. Ohioans deserve nothing less, and we ask for nothing more.

just meJan 6 2012 10:03 AM

john doe said: "What’s unfortunate is that some folks are attempting to use these events as a justification for stopping oil and natural gas development in Ohio – kind of like trying to argue that the auto industry should be shut down just because a scrap tire dump caught fire somewhere."

my comment: actually scrap tire dumps are a poor analogy, but let's run with it.....

- yes, scrap tire dumps are a nuisance (source of mosquitos in water collected in abandoned tires) and a fire hazard

- for the past 20 years or so tires have a surcharge that is collected to pay for the proper disposal of waste tires to prevent the accumulation of "tire dumps"

- for the most part, tire dumps are now illegal

so...let us hope that the industry comes up with a better analogy or goes the way of tire dumps and changes how they dispose of waste from their processes.

DENCOJan 6 2012 01:20 PM

It is my understanding that the NRDC supports injection as long as stricter class I regulations are used on the wells.

James FilesJan 10 2012 09:37 PM

John Doe pretends to believe that the injection of fluids might not be the cause of the Youngstown quakes, however the fact that such quakes can be caused by injection is both well known and understood. So much so that in some areas the number and intensity of quakes has been controlled and predicted. describes one such case in which the geology is well known.

That is not to say that anyone can predict the size and frequency of seismic activity in an area in which the geology is less well known, or that chain reaction events might not occur in certain regions. Anyone foolish enough to place an injection well near the San Andreas fault .....Never mind. That one speaks for itself.

How common are seismic events relative to injection wells? The following article lists quite a few.

John Doe suggests that the press is not the place to have this debate. I agree. I suspect as an oil company employee he is good with honoring both science and the free market.
I'm good with that. Rather than play games arguing about how safe an injection well is, drillers should be required to insure against damage just as I have to buy liability insurance for my car. These rates will change based on my driving practices and where I drive. Lloyd's of London insured Betty Grable's legs, they can also insure injection wells. If there is little or no risk, then the premiums will be small. If the risk is great, they will be larger. Citizens should not have to attempt to quantify risk without all the information that is available to the experts. John Doe may trust Halliburton, or Chesapeake, but an insurance company is going to want to have some evidence to set the rates by.
Asking the public to accept the risk without all the evidence (much of which is proprietary) is just another form of corporate welfare. You want your well, insure it.

greengoldJan 16 2012 03:54 PM

Briana's "empirical evidence" reads more like unsubstantiated Luddite assertions. Plate techonics cause earthquakes. There's no evidence at all to suggest fracking and/or injecting water into rock formations has ever caused the earth's plates to shift. The idea is preposterous on its face. If you're going to sanctimoniously "defend natural resources", at least get some training in geology and other pertinent sciences first before blowing off on matters you know nothing of, thank you.

celcius232Jan 20 2012 12:42 AM

Briana, why do you think that the regulations need to be updated or it this just another NRDC spin to conjure up another sexy anti-industry talking point? Maybe your program director can come up with a better strategy as this one may not work in Ohio.

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