Research & Commentary: Study Finds Fracking Has Limited Impact on Earthquakes

Published July 17, 2017

A new study released in June 2017 by researchers at the University of Alberta and published in the journal Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems argues hydraulic fracturing, commonly called “fracking,” has had limited impact on the number of earthquakes throughout the United States and Canada.

The study tracked magnitude-3.0 (M3) and greater earthquakes on the moment magnitude scale, which measures the strength of earthquakes, in North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, and West Virginia, as well as the Canadian provinces of Alberta, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan, from 1965 through 2014. (M3 is roughly the magnitude needed for an earthquake to be felt on Earth’s surface. USGS equates the vibrations from an M3 earthquake to be “similar to [vibrations produced by] the passing of a truck.” It is also important to remember that the moment magnitude scale is logarithmic, with each whole number on the scale being 10 times as large as the preceding number. Therefore, for example, an M6 quake is 100 times as powerful as an M4 and 1,000 times as powerful as an M3 quake.)

These six states and three provinces have seen the most prominent increase in drilling activity since the fracking revolution began roughly a decade ago. Of these, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Saskatchewan, and West Virginia have seen no increase in seismicity whatsoever since 2008.

Since 2005, the Bakken Formation in North Dakota has experienced an 8.7-fold increase in oil production and a 6-fold increase in natural gas production, and the Marcellus Shale play in Pennsylvania and West Virginia has seen a 16-fold increase in natural gas production. However, neither region has experienced an increase in seismicity over that period. Only in Oklahoma is there a “strong correlation to saltwater disposal related to increased hydrocarbon production.”

“Contrary to Oklahoma, analysis of oil and gas production versus seismicity rates in six other States in the USA and three provinces in Canada finds no State/Province-wide correlation between increased seismicity and hydrocarbon production,” the report states. “We find that increased seismicity in Oklahoma, likely due to salt-water disposal [in wastewater injection wells], has an 85% correlation with oil production. Yet, the other areas do not display State/Province-wide correlations between increased seismicity and production, despite 8-16 fold increases in production in some States.”

“It’s not as simple as saying ‘we do a hydraulic fracturing treatment, and therefore we are going to cause felt seismicity.’ It’s actually the opposite. Most of it is perfectly safe,” said lead researcher Mirko Van der Baan in an accompanying press release.

While earthquakes produced by these wastewater injection wells are more common, they are still incredibly rare and not very powerful. In a major study, the Environmental Protection Agency concluded most injection wells do not cause earthquakes and “very few” earthquakes produced by those that do can be felt by humans. Another study, published in Science in 2014, found only four of the roughly 4,500 injection wells in Oklahoma had most likely induced seismic activity. Also, is important to remember that most wastewater injection wells are not exclusive to hydraulic fracturing and that most are used by conventional drilling sites.

Oklahoma has already introduced a number of mitigation measures that has reduced the number of M3 quakes in the state by 31 percent in just one year. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the number of people in the United States living in an area of “significant” risk of induced seismicity declined by 50 percent during that same period.

Sensible precautions such as those taken in Oklahoma can lessen the risk of increased induced seismicity. In many cases, these precautions are already being taken by drillers without any government mandates. Flatly, concerns about induced seismicity are overblown and do not provide justification for banning fracking or over-regulating it out of existence.

The following documents provide more information about hydraulic fracturing and seismic activity.

Fracking Facts: The Science, Economics, and Legal Realities
Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, has been employed in the United States since the 1940s. Although innovation has improved the precision of the process, the essentials are the same. Utilizing horizontal drilling, a mixture of mostly water, sand, and trace amounts of chemicals, are used to create fissures in underground shale deposits to allow oil and natural gas trapped in hard rock to move toward the surface to be collected. Activists have blamed fracking and the processes associated with it for emissions of pollutants, earthquakes, and even groundwater contamination, though independent evidence consistently shows these allegations to be false. Leigh Thompson of the Texas Public Policy Foundation argues the evidence supporting fracking bans looks slim when attention is drawn to the facts.

Fracking and Earthquakes
Fracking is responsible for some of the greatest growth in oil and gas production the United States has ever experienced. Yet, as U.S. energy extraction increases, so have concerns about the safety of fracking, with The New York Times linking the practice to “Scores of earthquakes.” Research shows, however, the risk of earthquakes caused by fracking is minimal and can be fixed with modest siting regulations, bonding requirements, and wastewater recycling. Jillian Melchoir of the Independent Women’s Forum writes that it is essential to understand what the science is actually revealing about energy extraction and induced seismicity and to create balanced public policy that allows safe energy extraction to continue.

Managing the Risks of Hydraulic Fracturing
Kenneth P. Green of the Fraser Institute argues policymakers should ignore the siren song made by those calling for moratoria or bans on fracking.

Hydraulic Fracturing a Game-Changer for U.S. Energy and Economies
In this Policy Study from The Heartland Institute, Heartland Research Fellow Isaac Orr explains the advantages and disadvantages of smart drilling and its alternatives. Orr reviews the background and potential of hydraulic fracturing in the United States and puts that potential in the context of the supply of and demand for oil and gas. He addresses the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing, both positive and negative, as well as the public safety issues raised by activists, such as potential harm to drinking water supplies. Orr also discusses how oil and gas production is regulated at the state and national levels and suggests appropriate policies for the industry.

Bette Grande: Fracking and Earthquake Misconceptions
In this edition of the Heartland Daily Podcast, Research Fellow Isaac Orr and Research Fellow Bette Grande discuss earthquakes and their relationship with hydraulic fracturing. Grande also gives the listeners an inside look at the state of oil production in North Dakota in the wake of falling oil prices. 

Hydraulic Fracturing: Critical for Energy Production, Jobs, and Economic Growth
Increased energy production on private lands in the United States has been one of the most promising economic success stories in recent years. A large part of the success is due to an energy-extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing. Misconceptions about hydraulic fracturing, also called fracking, abound. The Heritage Foundation’s Nicolas Loris explains hydraulic fracturing is safe when regulated effectively and says fracking greatly increases the nation’s energy production, thus promoting job creation.

Triggered Earthquakes and Deep Well Activities
Craig Nicholson and Robert L. Wesson argue historical data regarding oil and natural gas production are important for current discussions of the disposal of wastewater from hydraulic fracturing and conventional oil and gas operations. As scientists gain a better understanding of what is causing the new wave of seismic activity, they will have a better idea of how to prevent it.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit Environment & Climate News, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

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