National Geographic News
Photo of an oil well drilling rig near Peggy, Texas.

Oil rigs like this one long have been a feature of the Texas landscape. But for the first time, a study has traced a link between small earthquakes in western Texas and an increasingly common practice, underground injection of carbon dioxide to boost production.

Photograph by America, Alamy

Joe Eaton

For National Geographic

Published November 4, 2013

A cluster of 18 small earthquakes in western Texas was likely triggered by the injection of carbon dioxide into oil wells, according to a study published Monday in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study is the first to link carbon dioxide injections to actual earthquakes, and may help scientists evaluate the risks of storing greenhouse gas emissions deep underground, a fledgling technology for managing climate change known as geologic carbon sequestration. (See related "Quiz: What You Don't Know About Carbon Capture.") This week, energy secretaries from 22 nations and the European Union are meeting in Washington, D.C., to discuss how to spur global deployment of carbon capture and sequestration technologies.

The earthquakes evaluated in the study were magnitude 3 and slightly larger and occurred between 2006 and 2011 in the Cogdell oil field near Snyder, Texas. It was not the first time the area had experienced seismic activity. From 1975 to 1982, a number of earthquakes had struck the oil field. Scientists linked that seismic activity to the oil industry practice of injecting water into oil wells to increase production. When the water injections stopped, the earthquakes ceased.

Beginning in 2004, however, the oil industry injected carbon dioxide and other gases into wells in the Cogdell field, also in a bid to enhance production. Earthquakes returned soon after, according to the study.

Cliff Frohlich, study co-author and associate director of the Institute for Geophysics at the University of Texas at Austin, said carbon dioxide injection is the only variable that changed significantly before the earth started trembling.

Although injecting carbon dioxide to extract oil differs from carbon sequestration, Frohlich said his study could help scientists better understand possible risks of the technology, which has shown promise for reducing carbon emissions to the atmosphere.

"I'm not an expert on climate engineering, but a number of solutions have been proposed," Frohlich said. "Whether they are good ideas or not, the jury is still out. Anytime you mess with the environment, there are unintended consequences."

The study sheds further light on a category of seismic risks that is receiving increased attention in recent years: manmade risks caused by energy development that involves the injection of fluids underground, often at high pressure. The disposal of wastewater from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, operations has been linked to temblors in several cases. (See related, "Fracking Wastewater Disposal Linked to Remotely Triggered Quakes" and "Scientists Say Oil Industry Likely Caused Largest Oklahoma Earthquake.")

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. (See related blog post: "Tracing Links Between Fracking and Earthquakes.") The increased risk is a result of the large volumes of carbon dioxide that would be injected, the study said. (See related,  "Report Links Energy Activities to Higher Quake Risk.")

Other scientists, however, worry the public might overlook the possible benefits of carbon sequestration by focusing on the risks. Andres Clarens, an assistant professor of environmental and water resources engineering at the University of Virginia, said he is concerned that Frohlich's study could slow efforts to develop the technology. (See related, "Amid Economic Concerns, Carbon Capture Faces a Hazy Future," and "A Quest to Clean Up Canada's Oil Sands Carbon.")

"Climate change is a well understood and imminent threat, and we are in dire need of strategies for reducing emissions while we scale up carbon-free energy sources," Clarens said.  "Quiz: What You Don't Know About Climate Change Science.")

In September, Clarens published a paper in Environmental Science and Technology, a scientific journal of the American Chemical Society, that proposed storing carbon dioxide in hydraulically fractured shale deposits after the removal of methane gas. The study found that the Marcellus shale formation in Pennsylvania alone has the potential to store roughly 50 percent of future U.S. nontransportation carbon dioxide emissions from 2018 to 2030.

Carbon sequestration is currently being tested at 65 sites around the world, including in Norway and Algeria and at a project site near Decatur, Illinois, where carbon dioxide totaling one million metric tons is being injected into a saline reservoir over a three-year period.

Wayne Pennington, a professor of geological and mining engineering and sciences at Michigan Technological University, said Frohlich's paper is important because it provides the first example of an earthquake caused by carbon dioxide injection.

But Pennington said the study should not be read as the final word on the technology, which is widely used in international oil production without event.

What's most intriguing, Pennington said, is that many locations are exposed to higher levels of injection than the Cogdell oil field but do not experience earthquakes. "We don't know why," he said. "Our understanding is clearly incomplete." (See related, "Carbon Recycling: Mining the Air For Fuel," and "Out of Thin Air: The Quest to Capture Carbon Dioxide.")

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

6 comments
Jerry Brown
Jerry Brown

Einstein explained the photoelectric effect which is only remotely connected with the modern solar cell (semiconductor photovoltaic pn junction). Furthermore, he didn't discover the photoelectric effect. He only explained it. A. E. Becquerel discovered it in 1839.

The semiconductor pn junction photovoltaic effect, which is the basis of the modern solar cell, was discovered by Russell Ohl at Bell Labs in 1946. 


Paul Schott
Paul Schott

Should not the title of this be Ed Rendell Backs His Own Pocket Book.

WE THE PEOPLE need to send Ed Rendell and all local officials that have anything to do with Poisoning are ground and water a message stop worrying  get to love Jail.

SAFE DRINKING WATER RUNNING OUT FASTER THEN YOU THINK WORLD WIDE.

Hydraulic Fracturing a Danger to us All.

Why would anyone think we have water to waste.

Some one forgot to tell all about all the poison chemicals that this ungodly Lisa P. Jackson gave a green light to put in are ground and water.
And help the Industry, so to they will never have to disclose all the poison chemicals they have used. Thank GOD Texas overturned this unjust law.

Only the wicked in mind Leaders in this Nation and around the world would let anyone Pipe Pollution into the ground to get gas in return from the Ground. Most all scientist have know this for many years that this will end safe drinking water for all that are in the area of where they are fracturing, in which Millions of Gallons of Dangerous Poison Chemically Treated Water are forced underground to break up rock and make gas from waste.

Paul Schott
Paul Schott

We need regulations from GODLY People that will stop  10,000+ wells a year drilled using hydraulic fracturing to free and make the Dangerous Poison Chemicals underground into gas. The primarily affect will be unsafe drinking water and many will become sick.

THE HEALTH OF MANY WILL DETERIORATE because of A Few Wicked Greedy Leaders. Those who have made these decisions do not know Jesus Christ. Soon He will say i know you not. They belong in jail soon it will be hell for them. What sick in mind would let or want anyone to put Dangerous Poison Chemicals underground or into the ground anywhere.

The wicked are trying to sell and tell all if it is not near your home or land it is safe. This is the biggest ling of horse manure. Do they think most of  We The People are that dumb or that most Americans lack any intelligence at all. What ever is put on or in the ground makes it way to our underground Aquifers, Rivers, Lakes and the Oceans. Every Scientist on Earth knows this and most all that have made it to eighth grade in school.

So why would any Leader with a good healthy mind ever say or want this?

Paul Schott
Paul Schott


Vote any wicked that has anything to do with this out of office they work for WE THE PEOPLE. Then need to go to jail. Soon it will be not jail but Hell. Revelation 11:18

Wicked Leaders telling their friends as long as you can cover it up and it will not get back to me it is ok with me. Are you sure we will not go to jail for making money by Polluting the ground and water. Of course not we make the laws to fit our needs not the health and welfare of others or as they used to say We The People. Its now the Wicked Leaders and rich Rule. Till our Lord GOD comes! 

Solar Energy the way to go.

Many States Are and are Banning Fracking or Fracturing.  

Banned Hydraulic Fracturing 

Switzerland

Spain

Austria

South Africa

France

Bulgar

iaIreland

Aotearoa

(New Zealand)

Nova Scotia

Québec 

Mora County New Mexico enacted a ban, as well as a resolution to change the state constitution to put community rights above corporations.

The State of Vermont The list is to long, to list all that have Banned Hydraulic Fracturing. 

Archimedes and Albert Einstein These two are at the top of the list of the World’s Greatest Scientists, Viewed by Scientist around the World.

Paul Schott
Paul Schott

Einstein These two are at the top of the list of the World’s Greatest Scientists, Viewed by Scientist around the World. Sad that for the last 25 years or so of every teacher asked no matter what Grade k through 16. At least 80% of them did not know Archimedes. 

 Even sadder 90% of them could not tell you what one of the most Brilliant Scientist to ever live on Earth. Won the Nobel Prize for.

It was for the work Albert Einstein did to show the World it could get Free Energy, Electric from the SUN. (THE PHOTOVOLTAIC EFFECT). 

 We still do not teach this to are YOUNG in SCHOOLS why?

Church's all over the Globe have Gone SOLAR why have not are SCHOOLS ?

There is enough Energy from our SUN to power all are needs and more. Albert Einstein 

United We Stand In GOD We Trust  

The Lord's Little Helper

Paul Felix Schott

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