A coalition of U.S. states warned on Monday that a spike in earthquakes potentially tied to oil and gas activity in places not typically prone to them needs urgent attention from regulators and others to protect public safety.
The report to be released later on Monday by States First includes input from governors, regulators and oil and gas policy leaders in 13 states, including Oklahoma and Kansas, where earthquake activity and intensity have risen in recent years.
The report focused on ties between quakes and wastewater injection from oil and gas production work.
"We see something very new and different happening here in the mid-continent," said Rex Buchanan, interim director of the Kansas Geological Survey and co-chair of the group that issued the report. "We're not used to this level of seismicity."
Oklahoma is recording 2.5 earthquakes daily of a magnitude 3 or greater, a seismicity rate 600 times greater than observed before 2008, according to a report in April by the Oklahoma Geological Survey.
The report's aim is to equip states with tools to evaluate connections between seismic events and injection wells, minimize risk, and be ready when seismic events occur.
Many people have associated the process of hydraulic fracking with earthquakes, but the U.S. Geological Survey said in April that the actual hydraulic fracturing process is only occasionally the direct cause of felt earthquakes. (http://on.doi.gov/1KGiLzy)
Large volumes of wastewater can result from a variety of industrial processes, including energy production, and several scientific studies have shown that some of the increase in seismic activity in parts of the United States has been "induced" by wastewater injections.
Officials from Illinois, Arkansas, Texas, Indiana, Colorado, Alaska, California, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming also contributed to the report.
The report suggested several steps that could be taken by states to reduce risk to residents including improving monitoring of seismic activity and well work, direct injection of wastewater into certain faults, and establishing procedures to suspend wastewater injection when seismic activity rises to worrisome levels.
The report said one problem is a lack of good information mapping faults, particularly those at or near critical stress points. Researchers also said they do not know how large an earthquake induced by wastewater injection could potentially be.
"The research needs out here are great. We can't see what's going on down there," said Buchanan. "Being able to understand this is a challenge."