Ohio Christmas Quakes Likely Caused By Fracking Operation

By Veronique Greenwood | January 5, 2012 2:01 pm

A tower for removing gas at the Marcellus Shale Formation in Pennsylvania.

When it was revealed in November that several small earthquakes in northwestern England had been caused by fracking, the controversial process of extracting shale gas from bedrock by cracking the rock with pressurized water, the gas company responsible stated that it was an extremely unlikely occurrence. True as that may be, residents of Youngstown, Ohio, can now testify that something similar has happened again. This time, it wasn’t the removal of shale gas that triggered the earthquakes, but apparently the subsequent cracking of sandstone in order to store the wastewater produced by fracking.

These revelations come from scientists at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO), who were called in by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources after nine small quakes struck near a wastewater injection site in as many months. They set up seismographs that observed the earthquakes of 2.7 magnitude on Christmas Eve and 4.0 magnitude on New Year’s Eve (which caused no injuries and little damage). Mark Fischetti over at Scientific American explains:

By triangulating the arrival time of shock waves at the four stations, Armbruster and his colleagues [from LDEO] needed only a day or two to determine with 95 percent certainty that the epicenters of the two holiday quakes were within 100 meters of each other, and within 0.8 kilometer of the injection well. The team also determined that the quakes were caused by slippage along a fault at about the same depth as the injection site, almost three kilometers down.

How would wastewater cause an earthquake? By leaking into a fault and acting as a lubricant, causing a sudden slippage of the rock faces, a process that seems to be behind earthquakes in Arkansas and Texas linked to wastewater injection wells. The company that runs the well, Northstar Disposal Services—owned by D&L Energy, which operates natural gas drilling operations in Pennsylvania and Ohio—has shut it down in response to requests from Ohio officials, but the team from LDEO says that quakes could continue for up to a year without any further waste being injected.

Image courtesy of Ruhrfisch / Wikimedia Commons

  • John Moore

    So its not the process of fracking that caused the earthquake but simply the location.

  • Larry Bricmont

    Injection disposal wells are different than Fracking. Get your facts staight. Disposal fluids are injected into a zone than shale fracking.

  • Cathy

    @ John Moore – Correct. I believe they are discussing a new requirement for Ohio wells that they do a geological survey before storing wastewater. However, a lot of the waste is presently being shipped to Ohio from other states with that exact requirement, because a geological survey takes time and money that the drilling companies don’t want to spend (especially if it turns out that there is no safe place to drill at all.)

  • Veronique Greenwood

    @John, yup, you’re right. Actually, we added a word to the headline to make that a little clearer.

    @Cathy, indeed!

  • Iowa

    If anything Ohio should give them some money for helping to discover a previously unknown fault line.

  • JD

    Looks like Ohio has had earthquakes throughout history, so I would not blame the earthquake on some new technology man has started lately. Use a little common sense. Very likely they will occur again.

  • Redshift


    If there is slippage-prone geology in the area, there would be BOTH past, normal quakes as well as slippages being induced by the water injections. Just because there have been normal quakes in the past in the area does not mean the industrial processes are not causing/encouraging more.

  • are you all shills?

    Are all the other commenters here employed by fracking companies? Or their PR firms?


  • William Watkins

    I’m surprised D&L Energy hasn’t tried to put a positive spin on this: “We trigger tiny earthquakes to prevent the build-up to a big quake!”

  • Aidan

    That, (@Redshift & JD) and fracking isn’t the most environmentally friendly thing in the world to begin with. This is just adding salt to it’s reputation’s wound..

  • Paul

    Or, they could purify the wastewater and just reuse it. Dissolved solids and other contaminants would then have to be disposed of, but their volume is presumably much smaller.

    The fracking chemicals themselves can be environmentally benign — doesn’t one formulation only use substances that are allowed as food ingredients?

  • dave chamberlin

    Causing small earthquakes now(if we even caused them) isn’t such a bad thing. It releases the pressure which would otherwise build up to a big destructive earthquake. Also I question the title of this post. Fracking LIKELY caused the earthquakes? It POSSIBLY caused them, we don’t know.

  • Sandra

    Comment #7 likely make by fracking icehole.

  • Geack

    @ 11. Dave – Been listening closely to the info released and interviews with the researchers here in Ohio, and that “likely” should be interpreted as “almost certainly, but since we’re scientists we can’t claim absolute certainty”. Still not sure what to make of your intentional-quakes-make-us-safer theory.

    @ 5. JD – Lightning occassionally burns down a barn. That doesn’t mean it’s OK to throw your cigarette butts into the hayloft. As the article points out if you read the whole thing, this is a known problem that has occurred in several states, and some states require a geological survey before waste wells are dug specifically to prevent it. Ohio doesn’t, yet.

  • dave chamberlin

    @13) if you say the fraking caused the earthqukes, then fine, you know more than I do about it. I am not saying I’m reccomending it but it has been proposed before that if the fault lines could be lubricated than the result would be minor inconsequential earthquakes releasing the pressure and preventing one big one later. But our knowledge is just too damn limited to meddle with something like that know.

  • jp

    Couple of things…First ,this development isn’t new…check your US Army’s Rocky Mountain Arsenal project in Colorado in the 1960s where waste was injected into a well 2 miles deep and MAY have triggered earthqaukes in the area…Second,there are certainly green fracking fluids being touted, a recent publicity stunt being the Halliburton CEO drinking his company’s fluid…Third,what is a “tower for removing gas” in the photo or do you mean a drilling rig…Fourth, Americans consume close to 700 BILLION cubic metres of natural gas annually so until you change the pattern of your lifestyles you need gas and the jobs that go with it…

  • Geack

    @ 16. JP,
    That’s a tower for removing gas. The actual drilling rigs look like this: http://www.mysanantonio.com/slideshows/business/slideshow/Hydraulic-fracturing-15238.php#photo-1004477.
    The fact that we need the gas doesn’t mean we have to be stupid about how we get it.

  • JP

    @17 Geack …Actually the initial photo IS a drilling rig just like photo 9 in your slideshow…what you have in your slideshow is mainly photos from a fracking operation…when the rig is gone there is nothing but a small wellhead left over…http://t1.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcS_quWjdnVaSr2wqUIkiW6BYW-m_Sxj2-C5gVVP_eMJPXIric4F
    agreed on your last point…I don’t understand how you can put a man on the moon yet not come up with a viable environmentally friendly solution to this problem…


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