New Eastern Outlook
by Martin Berger
A recent string of earthquakes in the US exacerbated the discussion about the direct connection between the so-called shale revolution and mounting seismic activity observed in recent years. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the US Geological Survey (USGS) have confirmed the fears of American environmentalists that the earthquakes in Texas are directly connected to the disposal of waste water left over from drilling oil and gas wells. On this occasion, EPA officials made appropriate comments in a letter to the commission on the railways of Texas, which regulates the oil industry in this major oil-producing region of the US noting that earthquakes were linked to hydraulic fracturing (the salt water injections used in the drilling of wells), also known as fracking.
In recent years, the discussion about the potential dangers of fracking has become particularly relevant: according to the USGS, the number of earthquakes in the country has increased dramatically over the past six years. Thus, in the period between 1973-2008, the central part of the country saw an average of 24 earthquakes per year with a magnitude higher than 3 points, then in 2009-2015 – the agency registered 318 earthquakes per year, while in 2015 this number reached 1,010 earthquakes.
According to experts of the USGS, before oil producing companies started using fracking in Colorado and New Mexico, those states used to be seismically quiet areas, yet there’s been dozens of earthquakes with a magnitude higher than 3.8 being reported since. As it’s been noted in the study, the epicenters of earthquakes have always been registered in areas where underground water injections took place, since shale gas accumulates in relatively fragile sedimentary rock, usually at the depth of a few kilometers.
USGS experts are expecting a significant growth in the number of earthquakes in 2016 in those regions of the country where shale companies have been particularly active, including Oklahoma, California, Texas, Kansas, Colorado, Ohio, Alabama and New Mexico.
The so-called shale revolution began in the United States in the middle of the 2000s, and now the companies that have been engaged in fracking account for up to 40% of the total gas production in the country. In 2013 the production volume of shale gas in the US increased by 11% compared with 2012 – which constitutes a 305 billion cubic meters increase. By 2030 the share of shale gas on the US market may reach 50%. Shale gas production in recent years has changed the US energy market, since gas prices have reached a ten-year minimum.
The shale gas revolution is the basis of recently rapid growing oil production in America. The rapid development of new production methods with the use of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing of oil-bearing rock, especially in Texas and North Dakota, have led to previously inaccessible hydrocarbons suddenly becoming a profitable business. However, these tactics have led to an increase in seismic activity in a number of areas across the US where fracking has been routinely used in oil and gas production.
Shale gas production in many states has long been resisted by environmentalists and local residents. The New York City Supreme Court on June 30 2014 allowed municipal bodies to ban hydraulic fracturing within their borders, which does not satisfy oil producers since they feel themselves deprived of the chance to mine the richest and most promising areas (for example, the well at Denver-Julesburg, which is considered one of the richest in the US) .
Scientists and the USGS earlier warned oil and gas producers about the potentially disastrous consequences of fracking. “If the rifts are large enough, they can cause a major earthquake that would score seven points. We do not exclude such a possibility”- experts say. According to researchers, the better part of the civil infrastructure of American residential areas cannot withstand earthquakes with the magnitude above five.
Shale gas is prohibited on environmental grounds in many European countries. First, a full moratorium on fracking was introduced in France in 2011. Also, there’s a complete prohibition of the shale industry or severe restrictions being imposed on it in Germany, the Netherlands and Bulgaria. By contrast, in Poland, the UK and Ukraine to stimulate the production of shale gas, companies are provided with beneficial tax conditions and this fact is being actively exploited by US shale companies that are entering those markets.
Since we’ve been witnessing a moderate rise in oil prices that is now obvious after a year of Washington’s and Riyadh’s attempts to damage Russia and Iran by waging a price war, we should expect further development of the shale gas industry in the United States, which received a severe blow during that period. This means that shale companies will make every effort to make the reasonable concerns expressed by environmentalists and scientists go unnoticed.
Martin Berger is a freelance journalist and geopolitical analyst, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”