Earth News Journal 33: Earthquakes and Carbon Injections

The first study in recent years of carbon injection risks has confirmed a rather unintended consequence, earthquakes, according to a November article from the National Geographic Daily News collection.

Published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study blames a cluster of 18 small earthquakes in western Texas to the injection of carbon dioxide into nearby oil wells, as an attempt to store greenhouse gas emissions deep underground.

The Cogdell oil field, located near Snyder, Texas, has experienced rapid interludes of seismic activity before, during the late half of the twentieth century. From 1975 to 1982, ripples of small earthquakes began shaking the area, shortly after the local oil industry began to inject water into oil wells in order to increase production. The result, trembles in the Earth’s crust.

Not long after the earthquakes began, scientists linked the seismic activity with the injection of water into wells – “when the water injections stopped, the earthquakes ceased.” But in 2004, the oil industry once again began to inject substances underground, this time with carbon dioxide and other gases, hoping to increase production, as well. The earthquakes appeared once again – carbon dioxide injection the only variable that changed significantly since the reoccurring tremors.

Cliff Frohlich, co-author of the study and associate director of the Institute for Geophysics at the University of Texas at Austin, pointed out that “injecting carbon dioxide to extract oil differs from carbon sequestration,” a relatively new technology designed to store greenhouse gas emissions deep underground in an effort to manage climate changes, but he hopes his study helps scientists understand possible risks of using any method of injection in the ground. “Anytime you mess with the environment, there are unintended consequences.”

Another potentially hazardous practice that this study may provide with additional information is the practice of disposing wastewater materials after hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) operations commence. Fracking is a highly controversial issue in it of itself, and scientists aren’t yet sure of the various long-term consequences the Earth might face during this process, in which fluids are injected underground at extremely high pressures to extract natural gas and petroleum. Already, the “disposal of wastewater from hydraulic fracturing…has been linked to temblors in several cases.”

Nonetheless, “a 2012 report by the National Academy of Sciences warned that carbon sequestration might have the potential to induce larger earthquakes than fracking or injecting energy industry wastewater into the Earth’s subsurface.” Much about the injection process is widely unknown, thus “carbon sequestration is currently being tested at 65 sites around the world” to determine possible effects, benefits, and disadvantages this practice might bring to the dependable energy topic table.

Reflection

Personally, I have a problem with storing any kind of flammable, hazardous, toxic, waste, or lethal substance underground. Unlike a cedar chest residing inconspicuously beneath one’s bed, the underground is a living component of the Earth. It’s not a storage tank, much as we like to believe otherwise. After just having read the chapter in our AP Environmental textbook about the woes of underground water contamination, I am somewhat appalled that energy advocates want to start pumping carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the ground for ‘safe keeping’ or ‘storage.’ As with other chemicals and toxic sludge, humans have found out the hard way that underground storage reserves are bound to leak, break, or contaminate other nearby sources – it’s only a matter of time. We can’t rely on sending our waste to a site unseen, expecting the problem to just disappear once the soil covers its tracks. As a society, we tend to wash our hands clean of the chaos and debris resulting from our own messes, rather than owning up to our ruin and taking responsibility for our unsustainable actions. I’m not an advocate for fracking, either. This topic is so important to me that I’ll be writing a research paper in the fourth quarter for AP Language and Composition on the debate between the benefits and consequences of fracturing shale for energy resources (but I won’t start that debate here). My advice: let’s dutifully and responsibly accept the environmental repercussions we face and work diligently on preserving our Earth for future generations – let’s deal with our own mess, instead of hiding it for some society to discover decades later. 

Eaton, Joe. “Earthquake Study Points to Possible Carbon Injection Risks.” National Geographic. N.p., 4 Nov. 2013. Web. 26 Feb. 2014.

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