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Earthquakes and Fracing in Texas

Fracing, or hydrofracturing, is a natural gas extraction technique by which a liquid solution (primarily made up of water) is pumped into the ground at high pressures to fracture rock formations. Fracturing the rock releases gas that is trapped inside the rock formation. The geological areas where natural gas is found, and thus where a majority of fracing occurs, is in shale.

By the way, folks in the oil and gas industry call it “fracing”. The mainstream media somehow started adding a “k”, but the correct term is still “fracing” (i.e., there is no “k” in hydraulic fracturing)

Fracing is actually an old technique and has been used for many decades. Once fracing was combined with horizontal drilling, however, oil and gas companies found they could extract far more natural gas, more efficiently, than before.

There has been an energetic (pun intended) debate over whether the technique of either hydrofracturing or injection wells cause earthquakes, or swarms of earthquakes, where there are no geological fault lines. The parties involved in these debates are sharply divided. For instance, the Texas Railroad Commission, the state agency in charge of regulating oil and gas production activities in Texas, has studied the issue and determined that earthquake activity cannot be directly and specifically linked to drilling activities.

For example, the Commission’s 2015 hearings determined that there was no evidence that correlated the activities of a wastewater injection well owned and operated by EnerVest to earthquake clusters that occurred in Reno and Azle, Texas through 2014.

On the other hand, scientists at the United States Geological Survey (USGS) argue that they believe there is a link between drilling and extraction activity and earthquakes. They suggest that part of the problem is lack of uniform standards for the amount of fluid used for fracing. A 2015 study by the USGS, and reported in the Oil and Gas Journal, found that the volumes of fracing water used varies immensely from project to project.

This is another area where uniform regulation makes no sense. The amount of water needed for a particular fracing job depends in part on the rock formation, how easy the formation is to fracture, and what type of drilling is being used (i.e., vertical or directional drilling). Horizontal drilling requires more water during fracing than vertical drilling. Similarly, the fracturing of shale geological formations require larger volumes of water than other types of rock.

The relationship between fracing and injection wells on one hand, and fracing on the other, is not an area where we have enough hard data to determine cause and effect, and it is certainly not an area where a federal “one size fits all” regulation is appropriate.