Editorial: Monitor new injection well for seismic activity
Just as Garfield County has been proactive about monitoring air quality to identify any problems caused by natural gas work (or something else), it makes sense to approve seismic monitoring of a new injection well near homes.
County commissioners on Monday approved Ursa Resources’ request for an injection well on an existing well pad about 1.5 miles south of Battlement Mesa. The well remains subject to state approval.
The well, into which wastewater from drilling would be injected underground, would serve a total of eight well pads in the area.
Among the many concerns of neighbors and fossil fuel foes about fracking, which uses huge amounts of water and produces large quantities of wastewater, is the potential that injection wells cause earthquakes.
While experts for both the oil and gas industry and at Colorado State University agree that geological conditions in the area are not conducive to seismic activity, it’s clear that injection wells tied to fracking have caused quakes elsewhere.
A study published last week in the journal Science that looked at 187,570 injection wells over four decades concluded that high-volume wells — and the one approved Monday would not fit that definition — are strongly linked to unprecedented increases in earthquakes in Oklahoma, Wyoming and elsewhere.
As much as some people would like for fracking to go away — as much as they would like fossil fuels to no longer be needed — that’s not going to happen anytime soon. (Though as a society, we must keep working to get clean energy from above the ground rather than continuing to rely on dirty buried sources.)
Ursa would send most of the wastewater to the injection well by pipeline, which is better than trucking it all to the site.
We don’t fully know the effects and potential effects of shooting thousands of gallons of water under pressure into the ground, so it is only prudent to monitor whether seismic activity increases.
It is the least the county and the industry can do for justifiably concerned neighbors to these operations.
If we monitor for earthquakes and none occur, great. If seismic activity does increase, we know that the operations need to be modified — which was done successfully last year in Weld County.
Because seismicity tied to injection wells is still being studied and isn’t fully understood, and because we are laymen, the Post Independent asked Rick Aster, head of Colorado State University’s Geosciences Department, his view of this.
He agreed with industry experts that “there is indeed no evidence that injection activity is causing significant earthquake concerns in the Piceance Basin, and no indication that the geological conditions are conducive.”
However, he said, “This would indeed be a valuable contribution and prudent investment to general and specific seismic monitoring in this area (including any naturally occurring seismicity).”
“Colorado is not an especially seismically well-monitored state at this point, and every new seismic station helps to improve this situation,” Aster said in an email.
And, while the experts agree that injection well-induced earthquakes are extremely unlikely here, almost no earthquakes were recorded in Oklahoma before 2009. If the oil and gas industry and its supporters are going to keep saying that climate change is unsettled science, then it’s not much of a stretch to say that seismicity tied to injection wells is unsettled as well.
Aster said, “around $15,000, plus a few thousand dollars in enclosure, installation costs and telemetry equipment. The cost of telemetering the data (which would require having a suitable cell signal) would likely be a few tens of dollars per month.”
The data, he said, could be incorporated into the U.S. Geological Survey and Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission data feeds and used for routine local and Colorado earthquake monitoring.
Right now, the county pays $350,000 a year voluntarily for air quality monitoring. A little seismic monitoring is cheap. If this well shows nothing, it mutes the debate about monitoring future injection wells.
Collaborating with Colorado Mesa University, which operates a regional seismic network, and with Aster at a total cost of maybe $25,000 would be prudent on the county’s part. Perhaps more importantly, for a county commission that recently approved open-air fracking water pits without county permits, it would be a gesture of good will toward western Garfield County residents who must be neighbors to the industry — and whose homes would shake if by some wild quirk the experts are wrong.
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