TOPEKA — Amid a dramatic increase in seismic activity, researchers at the University of Kansas, have taken steps toward developing technology that would predict earthquakes induced by oil and gas extraction.
KU announced Wednesday members of the school’s geology department and researchers with the associated Kansas Geological Survey were able to use sensors in south-central Kansas to point to an increase in pressure under the ground. According to the release, being able to detect that pressure caused by wastewater associated with oil production could help geologists develop methods for determining what parts of the earth might be prone to quakes.
“This breakthrough may one day lead to a method for predicting where induced earthquakes might occur and may help the energy industry and regulators decide where they can safely place wells,” the release says.
According to the release, the study came amid a spike in earthquakes in Kansas and Oklahoma that many researchers have linked to the oil industry. Between 1977 and 2012, the state only recorded 15 earthquakes with a magnitude of 3.0 or greater, the strength typically felt by humans. Since then, more than 100 earthquakes that strength have been recorded in just two Kansas counties, Sumner and Harper, according to the release.
Researchers have linked the spike to an increase in the amount of oil-related wastewater wells. Wastewater from the oil production is injected into the ground, resulting in increased pressure and seismic activity, researchers say. Because of differences in the rock, only some injection wells cause tremors, making it difficult to know where a well can be placed safely, according to the release. Knowing what parts of the rock are susceptible would help.
“It’s very promising, but we haven’t solved anything yet. There are still a lot of hurdles to cross,” geology doctoral student Alex Nolte said in the release.
The Kansas Geological Survey has raised concerns about the relationship between wastewater and seismic activity.
Ed Cross, president of the Kansas Independent Oil and Gas Association, previously suggested evidence of a link was mixed but encouraged continued research. Cross did not immediately return a request for comment.
Karin Pagel-Meiners, acting co-chair of the Wakarusa group of the Sierra Club, an environmental organization, said members of her organization were concerned about the spike in earthquakes.
“Sierra Club members in the south-central part of the state have really had such trouble with all of the earthquakes causing so much damage,” Pagel-Meiners said.
She said her organization had been trying to spread the word about proposed injection wells in Douglas County. She was concerned about the link between wells and earthquakes, as well as the use of fossil fuels and possible water contamination caused by drilling. She encouraged the use of alternative sources of energy rather than fossil fuels.
“One, it’s not worth the climate,” Pagel-Meiners said of oil production. “Two, it’s not worth the earthquakes.”