Monday, 16 April 2012 09:11
The U.S. Geological Survey will soon confirm that the oil and gas industry is creating earthquakes, and new data from the Midwest finds that these man-made quakes are happening more often than originally thought.
On Sept. 12, 2008, a new wastewater well, Trigg Well No. 1, opened for business in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Wastewater gets pumped deep underground, about 2.6 miles below the surface. Later that same year, seismologists noticed a series of small but significant earthquakes around the same region. The quakes were rare for the area, and they were centered near the well and at about the same depth underground. The scientists concluded that the injection of wastewater had likely triggered the temblors.
Earthquakes happen when faults in the Earth slip and slide against each other. There's continuous stress on innumerable faults on our continent, but seismologists like Bill Ellsworth, from the U.S. Geological Survey, started seeing something odd about 12 years ago.
"One thing we had begun to notice was that there were an unusual number of earthquakes in the middle of the country," he says, an area not known for quakes. They were small, though — usually just over magnitude 3. Then, in 2009, the shaking got much more frequent.
"After that time, things really began to take off, and that's what really caught our attention," Ellsworth says. "It is really quite surprising." In 2009 there were 50 quakes a year in the middle part of the continent. There were 87 in 2010 and 134 last year.
This is so unusual that Ellsworth and other seismologists suspected it wasn't natural — they suspected the oil and gas industry.
Quakes Clustered Around Wastewater Wells
Gas drilling is on the rise around the country, especially hydraulic fracturing. Hydrofracking uses billions of gallons of water a year to crack deep rock and release natural gas. Some have suspected that fracking was causing quakes, but evidence in several parts of the country points to wastewater wells, where companies dump used frack water. Ellsworth thinks his data confirm that.
"We find no evidence that fracking is related to the occurrence of earthquakes that people are feeling. We think that it's more intimately connected to the wastewater disposal," he says.
Ellsworth says most of these new quakes are clustered around places where there are waste wells.
Waste wells have been around for decades. There are tens of thousands of waste wells in the country, but very few quakes.
What's changed is that the gas industry is using — and disposing of — more water. Waste wells are often deeper than gas drilling wells, down into basement rock where faults are more common.
And while the quakes are small, Ellsworth says they can happen anywhere.
"There are stresses that can produce earthquakes basically everywhere in the crust," he says. "And in most of the regions of the U.S., earthquakes don't happen, because those stresses are not changing. But if we have a way of unlocking them, such as by pumping fluid into an area where there is a pre-existing fault, it's possible that we can trigger earthquakes."
Alternate Causes Of Quakes
These waste wells are filled with water, and seismologist Cliff Frohlich at the University of Texas says that water affects a fault the way air does a puck in an air hockey game.
"The minute you put air on, it floats — the puck still weighs the same, but there's no friction to keep it from going horizontally," Frohlich says. "The same thing can happen on a fault."
The high water pressure basically separates a fault that has locked in place; the fault moves and creates a quake.
The more scientists study these induced quakes, the more they find. Frohlich has studied a "swarm" of 183 small quakes near Dallas that took place in 2008 and 2009. That's right next to one of the largest oil and gas plays in the country.
Frohlich suspects that it's not just waste wells creating quakes. In some areas, the amount of oil and gas taken out of the earth has changed the local geology. He looked at two quakes near the town of Alice, Texas — one in 1997, the other in 2010. Since the 1930s, the area has produced 100 million barrels of oil and nearly 3 trillion cubic feet of gas.
"Sometimes quakes [are] caused when you remove things from underground," he says. "There are quakes related to mining — you are changing the stress field with the material you remove, and that puts stress on a fault and you get an earthquake."
Frohlich notes somewhat reassuringly that so far, man-made quakes have not been any bigger than natural earthquakes in a region.
Source: www.npr.org -
Quakes Caused By Waste From Gas Wells, Study Finds
by Christopher Joyce
Monday, 02 April 2012 10:51
Achievable standard is in line with investments already being made and will inform the building of new plants moving forward
WASHINGTON - Following a 2007 Supreme Court ruling, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today proposed the first Clean Air Act standard for carbon pollution from new power plants. EPA's proposed standard reflects the ongoing trend in the power sector to build cleaner plants that take advantage of American-made technologies, including new, clean-burning, efficient natural gas generation, which is already the technology of choice for new and planned power plants. At the same time, the rule creates a path forward for new technologies to be deployed at future facilities that will allow companies to burn coal, while emitting less carbon pollution. The rulemaking proposed today only concerns new generating units that will be built in the future, and does not apply to existing units already operating or units that will start construction over the next 12 months.
"Today we're taking a common-sense step to reduce pollution in our air, protect the planet for our children, and move us into a new era of American energy," said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. "Right now there are no limits to the amount of carbon pollution that future power plants will be able to put into our skies - and the health and economic threats of a changing climate continue to grow. We're putting in place a standard that relies on the use of clean, American made technology to tackle a challenge that we can't leave to our kids and grandkids."
Currently, there is no uniform national limit on the amount of carbon pollution new power plants can emit. As a direct result of the Supreme Court's 2007 ruling, EPA in 2009 determined that greenhouse gas pollution threatens Americans' health and welfare by leading to long lasting changes in our climate that can have a range of negative effects on human health and the environment.
The proposed standard, which only applies to power plants built in the future, is flexible and would help minimize carbon pollution through the deployment of the same types of modern technologies and steps that power companies are already taking to build the next generation of power plants. EPA's proposal is in line with these investments and will ensure that this progress toward a cleaner, safer and more modern power sector continues. The proposed standards can be met by a range of power facilities burning different fossil fuels, including natural gas technologies that are already widespread, as well as coal with technologies to reduce carbon emissions. Even without today's action, the power plants that are currently projected to be built going forward would already comply with the standard. As a result, EPA does not project additional cost for industry to comply with this standard.
Prior to developing this standard, EPA engaged in an extensive and open public process to gather the latest information to aid in developing a carbon pollution standard for new power plants. The agency is seeking additional comment and information, including public hearings, and will take that input fully into account as it completes the rulemaking process. EPA's comment period will be open for 60 days following publication in the Federal Register.
More information: http://epa.gov/carbonpollutionstandard/R045
Wednesday, 11 April 2012 08:55
Atlanta has always prided itself on its forward-looking perspective. As one business leader put it in the late 1980s, “Atlanta is a city of the future, not the past.” Today, however, Atlanta’s past is ensnaring it in a nasty conflict over water -- a kind of fight that’s likely to be more common in the future.
Atlanta developed as a railroad hub. Since railroads tended to be built on ridges, the city wound up at a place where several ridges intersected, “on the drainage divide between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico,” according to the U.S. Geological Survey. As a result, it is the largest city in the U.S. that is not near a major body of water.
Forty miles northeast, however, lies Lake Lanier, created in the 1950s when the Army Corps of Engineers built the Buford Dam. As chronicled in “The Big Thirst,” by Charles Fishman, Atlanta refused to finance the dam -- partly because, at the time, it wasn’t clear the city would ever need water from Lake Lanier. As Atlanta grew, its need for water from the lake became increasingly obvious.
In 1989, the Corps of Engineers recommended that 20 percent of the water used for hydropower be diverted to Atlanta’s water supply. And therein began a war known as the tri-state water dispute.
Southern Water War
Alabama and Florida filed suit against Georgia and the Corps in 1990, arguing that diverting water to Atlanta was environmentally harmful and economically problematic, and that in any case it required congressional approval. As Alyssa Lathrop chronicles in an article in the Florida State University Law Review, the three states tried throughout the 1990s to reach an agreement, but their efforts finally collapsed in 2003.
In 2009, a U.S. district judge ruled in favor of Alabama and Florida. He gave Atlanta a three-year grace period during which it could continue to draw water from Lake Lanier -- but ordered that by July of this year, it could no longer do so unless Georgia reached an agreement with the other two states. Atlanta currently obtains about three-quarters of its water from Lanier and has no plausible alternative source, so the judge’s order set the clock for a crisis.
Before we could see how that would play out, however, the 11th Circuit District Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s decision -- thus lifting the deadline for Atlanta. Alabama and Florida are appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court, but it’s not certain that the court will accept their appeal. So, crisis averted, at least for now -- and in this case.
This type of dispute is likely to become more common, though, as local water shortages multiply around the country. Once again, Atlanta is living up to its reputation as a city of the future.
As Deane Dray and other colleagues of mine at Citigroup Inc. have written, “There is an alarming global supply-demand imbalance, worsened by pollution and draining of underground aquifers reducing the available fresh water supply.” The massive Ogallala aquifer under the Great Plains, for example, is projected to run dry in two to three decades given recent withdrawal rates. Similarly, in the past two decades, groundwater resources in Great Lakes communities like Chicago and Milwaukee have fallen by 1,000 feet.
Old Water Pipes
Our aging water pipes are another challenge. The U.S. has roughly 700,000 miles of these pipes, and most are more than 60 years old. Substantial investment is needed to fix or replace them. Keep in mind that pipes account for about 70 percent of the cost of a water system.
So what can we do to preserve our access to fresh drinking water? One major need, as I have written about previously, is to address the pricing problem. The typical American uses 100 gallons of water per day, but in most places, prices aren’t adequately adjusted to usage. Prices that reflected usage would not only raise more money for addressing emerging water issues but also help raise everyone’s awareness of them.
Today’s low interest rates offer an ideal situation in which to finance investment in new or replacement pipes. We also need to invest in new technology -- from desalination to strategies for water reuse. In future columns, I will explore ways to better price water -- and also discuss the global dimensions of water problems.
There’s no reason to wait passively for the next water battle. Even before hearing from the Supreme Court, let’s look at the Lake Lanier story as a spur to aggressive action on our water problems.
(Peter Orszag is vice chairman of global banking at Citigroup Inc. and a former director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Obama administration. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this article: Peter Orszag at
To contact the editor responsible for this article: Mary Duenwald at
More About Peter R Orszag
Peter R. Orszag, vice chairman of global banking at Citigroup and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, was President Obama's director of the Office of Management and Budget.
Monday, 26 March 2012 08:29
In honor of the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, EPA has an important message: Water is worth it.
The Clean Water Act as we know it was established 1972, making 2012 its 40th anniversary year of striving to reduce pollution in the nation's water sources.
"We have made great progress in reducing pollution during the past 40 years," states EPA's special Clean Water Act anniversary Web page. "But many challenges remain and we must work together to protect clean water for our families and future generations. Everyone has an impact on the water and we are all responsible for making a difference. Water is worth it."
According to EPA, the Clean Water Act endeavors "to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters." The Clean Water Act:
- Specifies that all discharges into the nation’s waters are unlawful unless authorized by a permit;
- Sets baseline, across-the-board technology-based controls for municipalities and industry;
- Requires all dischargers to meet additional, stricter pollutant controls where needed to meet water quality targets;
- Protects wetlands by requiring “dredge and fill” permits;
- Authorizes federal financial assistance to states and municipalities to help achieve these national water goals; and more.
EPA's Web site includes a timeline of significant events relating to the nation's water protections. Milestones leading up to the Clean Water Act include the June 1969 fire on the Cuyahoga River; Time's August 1969 report that Lake Erie was "in danger of dying"; the establishment of the EPA in December 1970; and Congress passing the Federal Water Pollution Act, otherwise known as the Clean Water Act, on Oct. 18, 1972.
In the 40 years since the Act was created, water protections highlights include the safe drinking water standards of the 1970s; the Chesapeake Bay pollution cleanup in 1983; wetlands protections in the 1980s; the 1987 amendments to the Clean Water Act, which established a program for controlling toxic pollutants and stormwater discharges; the Exxon Valdez Spill in 1989, which lead to the adoption of the Pollution Prevention Act; EPA's efforts to reduce environmental impacts of Appalachian mountaintop mining in 2009; the Deepwater Horizon Spill in April 2010; and much more.
View the full timeline or visit EPA's Clean Water Act anniversary site.
EHS Today Mar 22, 2012 10:42 AM, By Laura Walter