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Wicked Witch of the Waste

The Great Plains has become the unconventional oil & gas industry’s dumping ground, prompting questions about the security and resilience of the bread basket and the underlying Ogalalla Aquifer

Back in December of 2016, FracTracker analyzed the growing link between injection wells that dispose fracking waste and “induced seismicity” [1], or human-caused earthquakes. Our compiled maps from this analysis (including Figure 1 below) show seismic activity in Kansas and Oklahoma along with Class II injection well volumes up through 2015. 

Figure 1. Earthquakes and Class II Injection Well Activity at the Kansas-Oklahoma Border

This link was given acute attention at that time as a result of the magnitude 5.8 earthquake in Pawnee, Oklahoma on September 3rd, 2016, followed closely by a 4.5 earthquake on November 1st.  The industry’s increased production of waste came home to roost 5 days later when a magnitude 5.0 quake struck a mile west of the “Cushing Hub,” the largest commercial crude oil storage center in North America. The Cushing Hub is capable of storing 54 million barrels of crude – the equivalent of 2.8 times the U.S. daily oil refinery capacity and 3.1 times the daily oil refinery capacity of all of North America.

Sunflower State of Affairs

Since we published this analysis and associated maps, Class II injection wells have been in the news several times across the Great Plains. An investigation by KSN News found that the Kansas Corporation Commission (KCC) improperly permitted over 2,000 Class II injection wells. The KCC stated that public comment periods for well proposals lasted just 15 days, instead of the correct number of 30 days. This amounts to 42% and 28% of the state’s active and total inventory of oil and gas waste receiving wells approved with inaccurate public notices.


Quail Oil & Gas LC’s Class II Salt Water Disposal (SWD) well, Morris County,
KS near Diamond Creek (Photo Courtesy of Karla jo Grimmett at South 500 photography)

According to Cindy Hoedel, a freelance journalist in Kansas, the KCC responded to the investigation findings… by ruling that no remedy was needed and closing the docket.”

Attorneys representing the Sierra Club maintain that improper permitting by the KCC continued into the Fall of 2018:

“The significance is they are choking us off in terms of giving us less and less time to try to mount a protest, to submit any kind of comment, and that’s a lot,” Cindy Hoedel, a Matfield Green resident who has complained about earthquakes in her area, said… “These notices get published in these tiny little newspapers, and sometimes it might take us 15 days before we find it”

As Ms. Hoedel wrote in an email when I asked her to comment on issues relating to Kansas’ Class II injection wells:

“The Republican controlled Kansas Legislature is trying to fend off several proposed bills that would reform the KCC (the regulatory body that oversees the permitting of Class II underground injection control wells). Citizen challenges of individual applications for disposal and EOR [enhanced oil recovery] wells continue, with the KCC moving more aggressively than in the past to dismiss protestants before a hearing is held. Some of these dismissals are being challenged in appellate court. The activists’ view is that EPA, the SWDA [Safe Water Drinking Act] and Congress clearly intend for the public to be able to participate in the regulatory process; instead, KCC has written regulations that are effectively barriers to participation… Activists have questions about the large number of EOR wells being applied for in Kansas and what their true purpose is, given the insignificant amounts of oil being produced compared to high volumes of injected fluids. Another concern is that the injection well earthquakes in Oklahoma and Kansas continue, yet KCC refuses to add regs that would address seismic risk in permit applications. There is also a problem with harassment of citizens exercising their right to protest – Scott Yeargain and I were both turned in to the Kansas AG’s office by a KCC staffer on the bogus claim that we were practicing law without a license because we helped explain the convoluted process to other protesters.”

Grapes of Wrath

Meanwhile, across the border, Oklahoma City and its surrounding suburbs have become the San Francisco of the Great Plains, with regular earthquake swarms (including many that exceed magnitude 4.0). According to Think Progress reporter Samantha Page, despite the damages and lawsuits caused by these earthquakes, “for years, the state was slow to respond, while Gov. Mary Fallin (R) and others questioned the link to human activity.” 

Eventually, by the end of 2016, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission responded by implementing a ‘traffic light’ protocol, in which operations are paused or stopped altogether following earthquakes of certain magnitudes. For a time, the EPA demanded a moratorium on disposal across Class II wells injecting into the Arbuckle formation in “high seismically active focus areas.”

Chad Warmington, president of the Oklahoma Oil and Gas Association, said that this response by the EPA is “a stellar example of the inefficiency of the federal government…It’s akin to a newspaper telling us today the football scores from games played 15 months ago.”

In reporting on the industry’s response, journalist Paul Monies, buried the lead when he pointed out the following in his second to last paragraph:

“Wastewater recycling remains an expensive option compared to the low costs of disposal wells in Oklahoma. While operators can inject wastewater into formations other than the Arbuckle, Hatfield said other formations don’t accept water as easily and are at shallower depths.”

The Map

Our second stab at mapping the scale and scope of Class II injection wells across the Great Plains is slightly different than our first effort in a few ways:

  1. This iteration includes Class II Salt Water Disposal (SWD) Injection Wells in Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Kansas on one map. Clicking on a well reveals its location, well name, operator, and the volume of wastewater disposed. Volumes are presented annually for Nebraska and monthly for 2011 to 2017 for Oklahoma and Kansas. We also present annual sums for Oklahoma from 2006 to 2010.
  2. The map shows Arkansas and Platte River Basin boundaries, which contain the entire inventory of OK, NE, and KS Class II wells.
  3. We’ve included Hydrologic Unit Codes, which when zoomed in to the map, identify sub-watersheds, and the Ogalalla Aquifer boundary, courtesy of the USGS’s Sharon Qi.
  4. Finally, we’ve includedUS Forest Service Robert G. Bailey’s Ecoregions to give a sense for the types of ecosystems threatened by the O&G industry’s demand for suitable waste disposal sites

View Map Full Screen | To view the legend on this map, click the “layers” icon on the top left of the screen


Table 1, below, breaks down the volumes of oil and gas wastewater disposed in Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska. Volumes are measured in million barrels, with one barrel equivalent to 42 gallons. The number of Class II SWD (salt water disposal) injection wells in these states is separated to show the total number of wells permitted verse the number of wells that were active (receiving waste).

Table 1. Class II injection well volumes in 2017

In total, 3,385,700,000 barrels of wastewater were disposed in 5,975 injection wells in these three states in 2017. The volume of wastewater disposed has increased in recent years (Table 2).

Table 2. Cumulative Class II injection well volumes to 2017, annual percent changes, and likely 2018 and 2027 volumes

In Table 2, the theoretical annual volumes for 2018 and 2027 are predictions based on the average of linear, exponential, and polynomial models.

The Kansas-Oklahoma Border

It is critical that we analyze the Great Plains fracking waste ecosystem across state lines. There are several reasons for this, including the proximity of Kansas’ most active Class II wells to the Oklahoma border (Figure 2) and the potential for the KCC to use enhanced oil recovery wells in Kansas to dispose of Oklahoma’s fracking waste.

Figure 2. Class II injection well volumes for 2017 along the Kansas-Oklahoma border.

Collaboration between front line communities, non-profits like FracTracker Alliance, and groups like the Kansas Water Advocacy Team (WAT) will be crucial to understanding the impacts of waste disposal writ large.  It seems like the “food vs energy” nexus has come to a head in the heart of the U.S. Bread Basket. We’ll continue to highlight and map the issues associated with this topic in the coming months and years.

Data Download Links

The following links contain the data used in the above tables and map, for use in excel and with Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

[1] To learn more about Induced Seismicity, read an exclusive FracTracker two-part series from former researcher with Virginia Tech Department of Geosciences, Ariel Conn: Part I and Part II.

Additionally, the USGS has created an Induced Earthquakes landing page as part of their Earthquake Hazards Program.

Offshore oil and gas exploration federally approved

By Karen Edelstein, NY Program Coordinator

Right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) with calf

Background

Drilling in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of the United States has been off-limits for nearly four decades. However, last Friday, the Obama administration’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) opened the Atlantic outer continental shelf for oil and gas exploration starting in 2018, with oil production commencing in 2026. In a December 2013 report by the American Petroleum Institute (API) , API estimated that offshore exploration and federal lease sales could generate $195 billion between 2017 and 2035.

Problems for marine mammals, sea turtles, fish

Aside from the inherent risks of catastrophic drilling accidents similar to BP’s Deepwater Horizon in April 2010, open ocean oil and gas exploration can pose severe problems for marine life. Environmentalists have voiced alarm over the techniques used to explore for hydrocarbons deep below the ocean floor. Using “sonic cannons” or “‘seismic airguns,” pulses of sound are directed at the sea bottom to detect hydrocarbon deposits.

Underwater communication by marine mammals, such as whales and dolphins, relies on sound transmission over long distances — sometimes thousands of miles. These animals use sound to navigate, find mates and food, and communicate with each other. Noise pollution by common ships and supertankers is known to disrupt and displace marine mammals, but naval sonar has been documented as a cause of inner ear bleeding, hearing loss, tissue rupture, and beach strandings. According to the Ocean Mammal Institute:

These sonars – both low -frequency (LFAS) and mid -frequency can have a source level of 240 dB, which is one trillion times louder than the sounds whales have been shown to avoid. One scientist analyzing underwater acoustic data reported that a single low frequency sonar signal deployed off the coast of California could be heard over the entire North Pacific Ocean.

Natural Resources Defense Council also expressed concern over naval sonar: “By the Navy’s own estimates, even 300 miles from the source, these sonic waves can retain an intensity of 140 decibels – a hundred times more intense than the level known to alter the behavior of large whales.”

As destructive as naval sonar may be, oil and gas exploration sonic cannons–also known as seismic airguns– (at 216 – 230 dB) create disruptions to marine life many orders of magnitude greater. Fish and sea turtles are also affected, with catch rates of fish decreasing up to 70% when airguns were used in a commercial fishing area, according to a study by the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research.

The intensity and duration of the sonic cannon pulses during oil and gas exploration are an important factor in this equation. According to the Huffington Post, “The sonic cannons are often fired continually for weeks or months, and multiple mapping projects are expected to be operating simultaneously as companies gather competitive, secret data.” Collateral damage for the exploration is far from insignificant, the article continues:

The bureau’s environmental impact study estimates that more than 138,000 sea creatures could be harmed, including nine of the 500 north Atlantic right whales remaining in the world. Of foremost concern are endangered species like these whales, which give birth off the shores of northern Florida and southern Georgia before migrating north each year. Since the cetaceans are so scarce, any impact from this intense noise pollution on feeding or communications could have long-term effects, Scott Kraus, a right whale expert at the John H. Prescott Marine Laboratory in Boston, said.

‘No one has been allowed to test anything like this on right whales,” Kraus said of the seismic cannons. “(The Obama administration) has authorized a giant experiment on right whales that this country would never allow researchers to do.’

North Atlantic right whales are one of the most endangered species of cetaceans in the world.

Map of ranges of marine mammals potentially affected and towns opposing sonic cannon exploration for oil and gas

Although currently, the waters off New Jersey and New England are off-limits for exploration, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia encouraged the federal government to open their off-shore waters for oil and gas surveys. Nevertheless,  many ocean-front communities have come out strongly against the use of sonic cannons and their impacts on marine life. To date, 15 communities from New Jersey to Florida have passed resolutions opposing this form of oil and gas exploration.

FracTracker has mapped the locations of these communities, with pop-up links to the resolutions that were passed, as well as the ranges of 17 marine mammals found along the Atlantic seaboard of the US.  These data come from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) 2014 Red List of Threatened Species. You can toggle ranges on and off by going to the “Layers” drop-down menu at the top of the map. The default presentation for this map currently shows only the range of North Atlantic right whales. For a full-screen version of this map, with access to the other marine mammal ranges, click here.

Class II Oil and Gas Wastewater Injection and Seismic Hazards in CA

By Kyle Ferrar, CA Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance Shake Ground Cover

In collaboration with the environmental advocacy groups Earthworks, Center for Biological Diversity, and Clean Water Action, The FracTracker Alliance has completed a proximity analysis of the locations of California’s Class II oil and gas wastewater injection wells to “recently” active fault zones in California. The results of the analysis can be found in the On Shaky Ground report, available for download at www.ShakyGround.org.1

Production of oil and natural gas results in a large and growing waste stream. Using current projections for oil development, the report projects a potential 9 trillion gallons of wastewater over the lifetime of the Monterey shale. In California the majority of wastewater is injected deep underground for disposal in wells deemed Class II wastewater injection.  The connection between seismic activity and underground injections of fluid has been well established, but with the current surge of shale resource development the occurrence of earthquakes in typically seismically inactive regions has increased, including a recent event in Ohio covered by the LA Times.   While both hydraulic fracturing and wastewater injection wells have been linked to the induction of seismic activity, the impacts of underground injection wells used for disposal are better documented and linked to larger magnitude earthquakes.

Therefore, while hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells has also been documented to induce seismic activity, the focus of this report is underground injection of waste fluids.

Active CA Faults

A spatial overview of the wastewater injection activity in California and recently active faults can be viewed in Figure 1, below.


Figure 1. California’s Faults and Wastewater Injection Wells. With this and all maps on this page, click on the arrows in the upper right hand corner of the map to view it fullscreen and to see the legend and more details.

The focus of the On Shaky Ground report outlines the relationship between does a thorough job reviewing the literature that shows how the underground injection of fluids induces seismic activity.  The proximity analysis of wastewater injection wells, conducted by The FracTracker Alliance, provides insight into the spatial distribution of the injection wells.  In addition, the report M7.8 earthquake along the San Andreas fault could cause 1,800 fatalities and nearly $213 billion in economic damages.2  To complement the report and provide further information on the potential impacts of earthquakes in California, FracTracker created the maps in Figure 2 and Figure 3.

Shaking Assessments

Figure 2 presents shaking amplification and shaking hazards assessments. The dataset is generated from seismic evaluations.  When there is an earthquake, the ground will amplify the seismic activity in certain ways.  The amount of amplification is typically dependent on distance to the earthquake event and the material that comprises the Earth’s crust.  Softer materials, such as areas of San Francisco built on landfills, will typically shake more than areas comprised of bedrock at the surface.  The type of shaking, whether it is low frequency or high frequency will also present varying hazards for different types of structures.  Low frequency shaking is more hazardous to larger buildings and infrastructure, whereas high frequency events can be more damaging to smaller structure such as single family houses.  Various assessments have been conducted throughout the state, the majority by the California Geological Survey and the United States Geological Survey.


Figure 2. California Earthquake Shaking Amplification and Class II Injection Wells

Landslide Hazards

Below, Figure 3. Southern California Landslide and Hazard Zones expands upon the map included in the On Shaky Ground report; during an earthquake liquefaction of soil and landslides represent some of the greatest hazards.  Liquefaction refers to the solid earth becoming “liquid-like”, whereas water-saturated, unconsolidated sediments are transformed into a substance that acts like a liquid, often in an earthquake. By undermining the foundations of infrastructure and buildings, liquefaction can cause serious damage. The highest hazard areas shown by the liquefaction hazard maps are concentrated in regions of man-made landfill, especially fill that was placed many decades ago in areas that were once submerged bay floor. Such areas along the Bay margins are found in San Francisco, Oakland and Alameda Island, as well as other places around San Francisco Bay. Other potentially hazardous areas include those along some of the larger streams, which produce the loose young soils that are particularly susceptible to liquefaction.  Liquefaction risks have been estimated by USGS and CGS specifically for the East Bay, multiple fault-slip scenarios for Santa Clara and for all the Bay Area in separate assessments.  There are not regional liquefaction risk estimate maps available outside of the bay area, although the CGS has identified regions of liquefaction and landslide hazards zones for the metropolitan areas surrounding the Bay Area and Los Angeles.  These maps outline the areas where liquefaction and landslides have occurred in the past and can be expected given a standard set of conservative assumptions, therefore there exist certain zoning codes and building requirements for infrastructure.


Figure 3. California Liquefaction/Landslide Hazards and Class II Injection Wells

Press Contacts

For more information about this report, please reach out to one of the following media contacts:

Alan Septoff
Earthworks
(202) 887-1872 x105
aseptoff@earthworksaction.org
Patrick Sullivan
Center for Biological Diversity
(415) 632-5316
psullivan@biologicaldiversity.org
Andrew Grinberg
Clean Water Action
(415) 369-9172
agrinberg@cleanwater.org

References

  1. Arbelaez, J., Wolf, S., Grinberg, A. 2014. On Shaky Ground. Earthworks, Center for Biological Diversity, Clean Water Action. Available at ShakyGround.org
  2. Jones, L.M. et al. 2008. The Shakeout Scenario. USGS Open File Report 2008-1150. U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey.