Who You Gonna Believe?

It seems that Anthony Watts politely disagrees with my post about the connection between oil and gas production and earthquake activity. Actually that’s not a fair portrayal of his post. It’s a hatchet job against me personally. What a nice guy.

Watts does everything he can to dispute any connection, not only between earthquakes and fracking, but with injection wells (the destination of wastewater from fracking). He points out that a U.S. Geological survey report about the large (magnitude 5.6) Oklahoma earthquake doesn’t mention fracking or injection wells. He shows that a Scientific American article suggested that fracking was probably not the cause of Oklahoma’s biggest quake on record. And by God, if fracking isn’t wreaking seismic hell in Nebraska then Anthony Watts won’t accept that there’s any evidence of its having an impact anywhere. And he certainly doesn’t seem to accept that the U.S. Geological Survey supports a causal relationship between increased earthquake activity and oil/gas production.

Here’s what I actually said about the cause of the recent surge in earthquake activity:

The putative culprit is “injection wells,” the destination of wastewater from hydraulic fracking (and in some cases from dewatering operations). We looked at earthquake data a while ago, because of a study from the U.S. Geological Survey which reported a dramatic increase in earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or greater over a large area of the U.S., stating that the increase is “almost certainly man-made,” and attributing it to oil and gas production.

The study, by W.L. Ellsworth, S.H. Hickman, A.L. Lleons, A. McGarr, A.J. Michael, and J.L. Rubinstein was presented at the 2012 annual meeting of the Siesmological Society of America. Here’s what the abstract says (added emphasis is mine, the words are theirs):

A remarkable increase in the rate of M 3 and greater earthquakes is currently in progress in the US midcontinent. The average number of M >= 3 earthquakes/year increased starting in 2001, culminating in a six-fold increase over 20th century levels in 2011. Is this increase natural or manmade? To address this question, we take a regional approach to explore changes in the rate of earthquake occurrence in the midcontinent (defined here as 85° to 108° West, 25° to 50° North) using the USGS Preliminary Determination of Epicenters and National Seismic Hazard Map catalogs. These catalogs appear to be complete for M >= 3 since 1970. From 1970 through 2000, the rate of M >= 3 events averaged 21 +- 7.6/year in the entire region. This rate increased to 29 +- 3.5 from 2001 through 2008. In 2009, 2010 and 2011, 50, 87 and 134 events occurred, respectively. The modest increase that began in 2001 is due to increased seismicity in the coal bed methane field of the Raton Basin along the Colorado-New Mexico border west of Trinidad, CO. The acceleration in activity that began in 2009 appears to involve a combination of source regions of oil and gas production, including the Guy, Arkansas region, and in central and southern Oklahoma. Horton, et al. (2012) provided strong evidence linking the Guy, AR activity to deep waste water injection wells. In Oklahoma, the rate of M >= 3 events abruptly increased in 2009 from 1.2/year in the previous half-century to over 25/year. This rate increase is exclusive of the November 2011 M 5.6 earthquake and its aftershocks. A naturally-occurring rate change of this magnitude is unprecedented outside of volcanic settings or in the absence of a main shock, of which there were neither in this region. While the seismicity rate changes described here are almost certainly manmade, it remains to be determined how they are related to either changes in extraction methodologies or the rate of oil and gas production.

They clearly state exactly what I claimed (in fact I quoted them), that the increase is “almost certainly man-made.” They clearly state that there result is not about the large (M 5.6) quake and its aftershocks. But hey, what the hell would they know about any of this? They only work for the Earthquake Science Center of the U.S. Geological Survey.

It turns out the U.S. Geological Survey isn’t the only organization making such claims. As 300-page report on the subject commissioned by the National Research Council (and available through the National Academies Press) includes this:

Felt induced seismicity potentially related to Class II water injection wells has been identified at individual sites in Arkansas (see Chapter 4), Ohio, and Texas (Box 3.7). USGS researchers are investigating whether a recent increase in the rate of M > 3.0 earthquakes in the state of Oklahoma (see Figure 3.13), might be attributed to wastewater injection (Ellsworth et al., 2012). One of the best documented cases of induced seismicity from fluid injection is in the Paradox Basin, Colorado, where brine from a natural seep has been re-injected in one disposal well at 14,000 to 15,000 feet (4,300 to 4,600 meters) depth since 1996 to prevent brine flow into the Colorado River (Appendix K). To date over 4,600 induced seismic events (M 0.5 – 4.3) as far away as 16 kilometers (9.9 miles) from the injection well have been documented in the Paradox Basin (Block, 2011).

Their report even includes a graphic from the presentation by Ellsworth et al., who apparently didn’t just study a large region of the central U.S., they also focused on Oklahoma:


It’s fairly clear, from Ellsworth et al. and from the report of the National Research Council, that yes, fluid injection related to oil and gas production does contribute to earthquakes.

As for fracking itself, I never stated that it was a direct cause of earthquakes, only that the massive quantities of wastewater it produces were implicated. But it turns out that fracking itself is implicated as well. As reader Miguelito (who seems to be reasonably knowledgeable about the subject) points out,

Earthquakes directly related to fracking have occurred in Wales (two small earthquakes) and in the Horn River Basin of northeast British Columbia (a series of very small earthquakes, hundreds if you count the tremors below 2 on the Richter scale, which can’t be felt at all on the surface), where it appears that fluid was directly injected into faults.

The National Research Council report includes this:

A hydraulic fracture treatment in January 2011 in Eola field, Oklahoma, coincided with a series of earthquakes. Eola field is located in central Oklahoma, southwest of Oklahoma City. Felt seismicity was reported on the evening of January 18 from one resident near Elmore City, Oklahoma. Further analysis showed fifty earthquakes occurred that evening, 43 of which were large enough to be located, ranging in magnitude from M 1.0 to 2.8. The earthquakes are coincident in location and timing with a hydraulic fracture in the Eola field, Picket Unit B well 4-18. The events all occurred within 24 hours of the first activity. The deepest hydraulic fracture in the Picket Unit B well 4-18 occurred 7 hours before the first earthquake was detected. Most of the events appear to be about 3.5 km (2.2 miles) from the hydraulic fracture well.

Anthony Watts pushes the idea that there’s no relationship between fracking and increased earthquake activity, he won’t even consider an indirect relationship due to the wastewater injection which fracking requires. Both the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Research Council disagree. Who you gonna believe?

49 responses to “Who You Gonna Believe?

  1. David B. Benson

    What a fool…

  2. Watch out Tamino. WUWT has outed your real name! Oh wait, we already knew that. It was interesting to compare your post with WUWT.

  3. You know Watts doesn’t actually believe the snake oil he flogs, he’s just doing it for controversy to get a few more Ad-clicks on his website from the gleeful fossil fuel faithful that see him as their saviour. Then he funnels the funds into solar panels on his house and electric cars – why does he not put his money where his mouth is you ask ??? because he know where the truth lies – he knows it’s all true and he knows what’s actually coming … a point where the world wakes up and finally puts a price on carbon

  4. Nice collection of name calling by Watts and friends, there.

    On the other hand, Watts thinks that Stoat is evil for … calling RPJr a name!

    (a tosser)

  5. I actually stomached going to WUWT to read the article and peruse the string of comments. What is most amazing to me is how they project content onto Tamino’s article that is simply not there. I see no “alarmism” or overreaching of conclusions in this or the prior post about apparent connection between fracking and swarms of small earthquakes. Why are they so uptight over there?

  6. “Reasonably” and “knowledgeable” are two dangerous words to string together. ;) In fact, I goofed. I thought the earthquakes were in Wales, but they were really in England. My apologies.

    I’d also like to point out what the NRC said as well as The Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering when it comes to the seismic risk:

    Click to access Shale_Gas.pdf

    The risk is really, really low for both hydraulic fracturing and water disposal. Further, good, sensible regulations will help reduce the risk even further.

    The challenge, of course, is getting the political will to make these changes–which are by no means onerous–possible.

    • And Watts, of course, is arguing that no regulation is necessary, because there is no risk at all.

    • Philippe Chantreau

      I thought Wales was considered separate from England only for Rugby purposes… :-)

      • I’d keep that to yourself if you ever find yourself in Wales, especially North Wales. Things could go non-linear pretty quickly ;-)

        (I’m English, btw!)

    • Yes, it was near Blackpool. And, if memory serves, a report from Cuadrilla acknowledged that the quakes were [insert some probability statement] caused by their fracking ops, backing up an earlier(?) statement by the BGS on the matter.

  7. Susan Anderson

    I did a search on Saint Sebastion, feeling those prickles myself. What a nasty state of affairs. The truth doesn’t matter:

  8. The paper on that Oklahoma quake series just came out:

    Not that Watts should let details or facts get in the way of a good guffaw…

  9. LazyTeenager

    Anthony also draws false equivalences between modern practices and older drilling practices in both kind and scale.

    He also disregards the way variations in local geology affect how earth quake frequency might be affected by water injection.

    The whole deal seems to be Anthony’s standard trick of using his audience numbers to discredit people who say things he doesn’t want to hear or he doesn’t want other people to listen to.

  10. It appears that mobile water treatment plants are being deployed, Of course the issue of injection wells as noted goes back to Rocky Flats. Here in addition to the fracking fluid you also have the produced fluid to dispose of (just like in Coal Bed Methane), and it has to meet standards to be discharged into streams. There is no fundamental reason other than cost to use disposal wells other techniques for water treatment do exist, its just that they currently cost more.

  11. So Watts argues that if fracking hasn’t caused earthquakes in one location, it can’t do it anywhere. It seems that it hasn’t occurred to him that different locations might have different faults and strata, and have different vulnerability to triggering of earthquakes by waste water injection.

    • Indeed. Watt’s replies to this article:

      UPDATE: Tamino… predictably ignores the issue I point out with Bakken and lack of earthquakes there.”

      I looked up geological information on North Dakota, where Bakken is concentrated. North Dakota is one of four US states with no recorded fault lines. The Bakken drill sites are clustered in the Williston Basin, which is intraratonic, meaning it has a stable geology.

      Watts’ article is the ‘skeptic’ routine of drawing doubt, but not delving any further than that.

      • To further make him look foolish, Watts continues to harp narrowly on fracking. As shown several times by Tamino and others, the main culprit is the injection fracking wastewater. The few instances of fracking itself causing an earthquake, as pointed out, are incredibly rare. Did Watts bother to see if the Williston wastewater is primarily injected in the basin? I doubt he went that far…

    • Typo: intracratonic.

      • There are actually lots of deep-seated faults in the Williston Basin, but it’s certainly quiet tectonically (at least now).

        A lot of the risk, too, comes down to the natural stresses in the basin and how they’re aligned with those faults (stresses meaning how the continent is being squeezed around its edges and how the “pressure” of that squeezing is transmitted into the interior). If the local stresses aren’t big, the chances of a big quake are essentially nil even if you have big faults. You can also have the biggest stresses in the world, but, if they’re not aligned in a way that can cause slip on a fault, you’ll never get an earthquake.

        North Dakota, if I recall it correctly, has very little local stress, so, even if you have faults, they’ll never slip in any big way.

        So, overall, it comes down to local conditions. Just because it’s not happening in North Dakota doesn’t mean it can’t happen somewhere else. But the conditions have to be right and there’s some predictability.

        Again, it comes down to doing proper geological and geophysical surveys before you do things like waste disposal and hydraulic fracturing: stress mapping and fault mapping. Most companies already do this kind of work to understand the oil/gas reservoir better. They want to identify faults to avoid fracking into them and losing fluid, but they also want to measure local stresses, because those are really important to how fractures propagate when created and it determines how they drill their wells. I’m not sure how they incorporate this fault/stress information into any safety program, but if they aren’t, they should be.

  12. He does at times allow that a connection might be possible, just that there’s no proof given ND/Montana. However the rather obvious point that Dakota, Montana and Saskatchewan where I live is essentially an earthquake free zone is only noticed here. (I guess you can only call it obvious if you actually do live in the area)

    Anyway – it appears that the larger quakes proposed to be related are cases of triggering pre-stressed areas. My guess would be that that is actually a good thing. Stressed faults as far as I know continue on until they give. If fracking activity is triggering them then it could be short-circuiting a path to a larger quake. Certainly, I’ve heard of schemes for pre-triggering dangerous faults to ‘get it over with’ before it reaches disaster strength. It would be an entertaining headline – ‘fracking mitigates earthquakes!’

    • Rattus Norvegicus

      Eastern MT. Out here in SW MT he have small ones all the time and a M7 in 1959 North of Hebgen Lake in the Yellowstone area.

    • Yup, these are earthquakes that are inevitable, whether days, months, years, centuries, or millenia from now. You can’t cause it unless the earthquake risk is already there.

      But, while you could look at this as geoengineering to reduce the risk of big earthquakes by creating a series of small earthquakes to reduce the energy stored on the fault (kind of like using controlled fires to decrease the risk of catastrophic wildfires), I don’t think anybody’s actually done any studies where they’ve tried to cause earthquakes in an injection well. So it’d need alot more study to show how it could be done safely. Most definitely, Max Zorin would be interested.

  13. Earthquakes are out of my field, does anyone here know whether changing in observational practice has likely lead to a change in the detection rate? Has this been ruled out?

    • I’m a geologist, not a seismologist, but one of my closest friends here is the state seismologist so I’ll double check this with him. I suspect the seismological monitoring is still quite robust. The lab here in Montana of course detects earthquakes from all over the world and that information is used in coordination with other labs to pinpoint the location and depth of earthquakes. When this monitoring detects unusual events the state survey and USGS might well coordinate on setting out some temporary seismometers to determine the cause.

    • Magnitudes 3+ are easily detected and located on a regional scale, provided you have a reasonable siting (on hard rock), and even on the national scale with super sitings (below the surface, in quiet areas). US have one of the best seismic networks of the world, in both quantity and quality, since a long time (Japan IMHO has the best one) :
      – California was (and still is) one of the homes of modern seismology (with Japan and Italy)
      – since the fifties, US department of defense has spent lots of money in seismological observatories to be able to detect magnitude 5 earthquakes far away. For example, in northern Russia – but that’s a *totally* random example. And any network able to detect magnitude 5 occuring several thousand kilometers away is able to detect a magnitude 3 within its perimeter.

      Below magnitude 3, it is another story – you really need a better coverage. at the regional level. And that depends on the interest of the given state to earthquakes – Louisiana has arguably bigger priorities. For Ohio, for instance, regional coverage began in 1973, went through low days, and then went fully operational in 1999. Late nineties, from what I recall, is the usual date for operational modern regional networks in the US (except California. But it’s California).

      Since fracking at large scale began later than this date, and since you have usually “natural” mag 2 occuring quite often even in moderately active areas like Ohio, I would say the result is robust for Ohio. However, you have to judge state by state to be sure.

      • I spoke with our state seismologist and my response and Bratisla’s are a pretty accurate summary. Mike did suggest that coverage for the mid-continent is not strong so earthquakes less than magnitude 3 might be hard to detect. He mentioned the same SSA presentation Tamino notes.

  14. Why not ignore him? This gives him “popularity” he loves…


  15. I’ve recently had a real go at a strongly suspected ‘denialist concern troll’ for using your real name. If you choose to go by the name Tamino it is rude in the upmost to use your real name, more than that it shows a basic lack of honourable behaviour on the part of those who insist on doing it.

    On topic: How much of your life has that jerk Watts wasted with his ineptitude?

  16. The point of all this isn’t fracking- it’s that Tamino is a prominent voice debunking McIntyre. Going after Tamino on fracking is a flanking maneuver. Tamino publishes in the peer-reviewed literature. McIntyre, with one exception, doesn’t.

  17. Watts has a very sensible concern about the location of seismometers. I believe he has photos of seismometers located on missile testing sites. And alarmist geologists are clearly failing to correct for this siting bias, because they are getting funding and publishing papers based on this scam.

    • If he even tries, please signal it at once. Some colleagues and I would be very pleased to audit his posts on the subject. I hope he’s open to positive criticism (lol)

  18. @SmithRogers

    A cursory reading of WUWT suggests Mr Watts truly is of the opinion that mankind can’t effect large-scale changes. Humans are “puny” and “insignificant” while “powerful forces of nature” always remain in control.

    Permit me to copy some quotes from Anthony Watts to demonstrate this point. ‘Argument from incredulity’ or closet Cornwall Alliance sympathiser? You be the judge.

    “As I’ve always said, the sun is the ‘Big Kahuna’ of climate change on Earth. Everything else is secondary, even though man’s opinion of his own self importance in the scheme of things often dictates otherwise.” (The Sun has a dimmer switch?, wattsupwiththat.com, February 6, 2007.)

    “The vanity held by many of us puny humans tends to bolster a belief that we control our own destiny within the universe, or are even masters of our own climate control. Recent events such as the PDO shift remind us that the slow but powerful forces of nature remain in control.” (A reminder to us flyspecks on an elephant’s butt, wattsupwiththat.com, May 7, 2008.)

    “Often we lose sight of our place in the universe, some never knew at all just how miniscule we humans are compared to everything else.”
    (Galactic Perspective, wattsupwiththat.com, May 4 2007.)

    “There’s a tendency to view ourselves, our endeavors, and our accomplishments as the pinnacle. Yet, compared to whats in our solar system, whats in our galaxy, and whats in our universe, we are but a mere speck in the vastness of time, space, mass, and energy.” (Some Planetary Perspective, wattsupwiththat.com, June 7, 2008.)

    “You know, for as much as we humans think we really have control over our planet, nature tends to remind us from time to time that we are just flyspecks in the vastness of space and energy.” (The Big Blast, wattsupwiththat.com, September 29, 2007.)

  19. Horatio Algeranon

    “World of Difference”
    — by Horatio Algeranon

    What a world of difference
    Just 4 letters can make
    USGS, world of science
    WUWT, world of fake

  20. I think in order to be a climate denier you should be assigned a young earth creationist to convert to reality. You know, so they can see what they sound alike.

    “If fracking can cause earthquakes, then why aren’t there more quakes HERE?!?!”

    “If evolution is real then why isn’t this creature evolving NOW?!?!?!”

    Identical arguments, with identical goals, to keep the fans confident while safely enshrouded in their ignorance.

  21. Gregor Harvey

    Well, it’s a pretty nice likeness of you in the cartoon, anyway…. Although to characterize you as a mere “folksinger” (naturally used as a perjorative in this case) does your Dowland interpretations an injustice.

    [Response: I think yours are even better.]

    • Good to hear from you, old friend. I hope all is well with the family and yourself!


  22. They got your nose all wrong.

    It is a somewhat clever use of what little they’ve got. But really ALL they got is a lazy ad hominem attack.

    Meanwhile I’m listening to Watt’s latest single, “I got ninety-nine publications but peer review is only one”.


    • Love it! Sounds like a good challenge for Horatio.

      • Horatio Algeron

        Probably not what was envisioned, but…

        Ninety-nine models to smear on the blog
        Ninety-nine models to smear
        Post one up, call it “Wattsup?”
        One hundred models to smear on the blog…

        Of course, quite unlike the traditional drinking song, the number increases…. and keeps going (and going (and going…))

        Lucky us.

  23. About “debating” WUWT: he who touches pitch defiles himself.

  24. In Hell's Kitchen (NYC)

    I can see another effort to tilt at windmills from the denialists: get the public involved in documenting the bad siting of USGS seismographs.

    For sure, the one at Berkeley is an anti-capitalist seismograph that hates our oil-based free-market system…

  25. Speaking of WTFUWT, please please please lay a smackdown on Watts for not understanding that “gasoline retail sales by refiners” is a subset of “gasoline retail sales” and that US gasoline usage has not dropped by more than 50% since 2004. And point out how, perhaps, a real “skeptic” might have realized that there’s no way we could have failed to notice a 50% drop in consumption, and that therefore, just maybe, the chart doesn’t say what it seems to say?


    I think http://www.eia.gov/dnav/pet/hist/LeafHandler.ashx?n=PET&s=MGFUPUS1&f=M is a better graph of actual consumption. Watts might also have been tipped off that his chart was.. inappropriate… because US gasoline consumption is about 368 million gallons per day (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gasoline_and_diesel_usage_and_pricing) and his chart shows a peak of 60 million gallons per day…

  26. > the one at Berkeley

  27. What do you expect from Watts? The man has undoubtedly rationalized his stands to himself, but in effect he is an evil man using evil methods in an evil cause. He’s not stupid, he’s not ignorant, he doesn’t have a unique and different point of view. He’s fighting a holding action on behalf of an irresponsible killer industry, and he’s doing it for money and fame. Period.