Does the production of natural gas from shales cause earthquakes? If so, how are the earthquakes related to these operations?

To produce natural gas from shale formations, it is necessary to increase the interconnectedness of the pore space (permeability) of the shale so that the gas can flow through the rock mass and be extracted through production wells. This is usually done by hydraulic fracturing ("fracking"). Fracking causes extremely small earthquakes, but they are almost always too small to be a safety concern. In addition to natural gas, fracking fluids and salt water trapped in the same formation as the gas are returned to the surface. These wastewaters are frequently disposed of by injection into deep wells. The injection of wastewater and salt water into the subsurface can cause earthquakes that are large enough to be felt and may cause damage.

Learn more: USGS Induced Earthquakes

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What work is the USGS doing to better understand the occurrence of injection-induced earthquakes?

USGS supports both internal and external (university-based) research on the causes of induced earthquakes. This research focuses on injection-induced earthquakes, including from wastewater disposal, enhanced geothermal technologies, and at carbon dioxide sequestration sites. USGS and its university partners have also deployed seismometers at sites...

Oklahoma now has more earthquakes on a regular basis than California. Are they due to fracking?

In a few cases, yes, but in most cases no. Only a few of the over 2000 magnitude 3 and larger earthquakes since 2009 that have occurred in Oklahoma have been connected to hydraulic fracturing. The majority of earthquakes in Oklahoma are caused by the industrial practice​ known as "wastewater disposal". Wastewater disposal is a ​separate ​process...

How large are the earthquakes induced by fluid injection?

The largest earthquake induced by fluid injection that has been documented in the scientific literature was the September 23, 2016 earthquake in central Oklahoma. It had a magnitude of 5.8. Four magnitude 5+ earthquakes have occurred in Oklahoma, three of which occurred in 2016. In 2011 a magnitude 5.3 earthquake was induced by fluid injection in...

Are earthquakes induced by fluid-injection activities always located close to the point of injection?

No. Given enough time, the pressure increase created by injection can migrate substantial horizontal and vertical distances from the injection location. Induced earthquakes commonly occur several kilometers below the injection point. Learn more: USGS Induced Earthquakes

Is there any possibility that a wastewater injection activity could interact with a nearby fault to trigger a major earthquake that causes extensive damage over a broad region?

So far, there is no conclusive example linking injection operations to triggering of major earthquakes; However, we cannot eliminate this possibility. Learn more: USGS Induced Earthquakes

How does the injection of wastewater at depth cause earthquakes?

Earth's crust is pervasively fractured at depth by faults. These faults can sustain high stresses without slipping because natural "tectonic" stress and the weight of the overlying rock pushes the opposing fault blocks together, increasing the frictional resistance to fault slip. The injected wastewater counteracts the frictional forces on faults...

Is it possible to anticipate whether a planned wastewater disposal activity will trigger earthquakes that are large enough to be of concern?

Currently, there are no methods available to do this. Three conditions must be met for injection to induce an earthquake: Presence of a fault Stresses acting on the fault favorable to slip A pathway for the pressure increase from injection to interact with the fault. Evidence from some case histories suggests that the magnitude of the largest...

Do all wastewater disposal wells induce earthquakes?

No. Of more than 150,000 Class II injection wells in the United States, roughly 40,000 are waste fluid disposal wells for oil and gas operations. Only a small fraction of these disposal wells have induced earthquakes that are large enough to be of concern to the public. Learn more on wastewater disposal wells and the EPA's Underground Injection...
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Date published: October 24, 2016

Wastewater Disposal Likely Induced February 2016 Magnitude 5.1 Oklahoma Earthquake

Distant wastewater disposal wells likely induced the third largest earthquake in recent Oklahoma record, the Feb. 13, 2016, magnitude 5.1 event roughly 32 kilometers northwest of Fairview, Oklahoma. These findings from the U.S. Geological Survey are available in the online edition of Geophysical Research Letters.

Date published: May 9, 2016

Evidence of Unconventional Oil and Gas Wastewater Found in Surface Waters near Underground Injection Site

These are the first published studies to demonstrate water-quality impacts to a surface stream due to activities at an unconventional oil and gas wastewater deep well injection disposal site.

Date published: March 28, 2016

EarthWord – Induced Seismicity

The occurrence or frequency of earthquakes for which the origin is attributable to human activities.

Date published: March 28, 2016

Induced Earthquakes Raise Chances of Damaging Shaking in 2016

For the first time, new USGS maps identify the potential for ground shaking from both human-induced and natural earthquakes in 2016.

Date published: October 26, 2015

A Century of Induced Earthquakes in Oklahoma?

The rate of earthquakes has increased sharply since 2009 in the central and eastern United States, with growing evidence confirming that these earthquakes are primarily caused by human activity, namely the injection of wastewater in deep disposal wells.

Attribution: Natural Hazards
Date published: February 19, 2015

Coping with Earthquakes Induced by Fluid Injection

MENLO PARK, Calif.— A paper published today in Science provides a case for increasing transparency and data collection to enable strategies for mitigating the effects of human-induced earthquakes caused by wastewater injection associated with oil and gas production in the United States.

Attribution: Natural Hazards
Date published: March 6, 2014

2011 Oklahoma Induced Earthquake May Have Triggered Larger Quake

 In a new study involving researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey, scientists observed that a human-induced magnitude 5.0 earthquake near Prague, Oklahoma in November 2011 may have triggered the larger M5.7 earthquake less than a day later. 

Attribution: Earthquake Hazards
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May 31, 2018

PubTalk 5/2018 — Yes Humans really are causing induced earthquakes

Title: Yes, Humans Really Are Causing Earthquakes! How Energy Industry Practices are Causing Earthquakes in America's Heartland

  • In every year since 2014, Oklahoma has had more earthquakes than California.
  • Oil and gas operations are "inducing" these earthquakes.
  • The earthquake rate has dropped by more than 50 percent due to changes in industry
...
Damage to buildings in Cushing, Oklahoma from the magnitude 5.0 earthquake on November 6, 2016
February 24, 2017

Damage in Cushing, Oklahoma from the Magnitude 5.0 Earthquake in 2016

Damage to buildings in Cushing, Oklahoma from the magnitude 5.0 earthquake on November 6, 2016. Unreinforced brick and stone masonry buildings and facades are vulnerable to strong shaking. Photograph credit: Dolan Paris, USGS

Damage to buildings in Cushing, Oklahoma from the magnitude 5.0 earthquake in 2016
February 24, 2017

Damage in Cushing, Oklahoma from the Magnitude 5.0 Earthquake in 2016

Damage to buildings in Cushing, Oklahoma from the magnitude 5.0 earthquake on November 6, 2016. Unreinforced brick and stone masonry buildings and facades are vulnerable to strong shaking. Photograph credit: Dolan Paris, USGS

House damage in central Oklahoma from a magnitude 5.6 earthquake in 2011
February 23, 2017

Damage in central Oklahoma from a magnitude 5.6 earthquake in 2011

House damage in central Oklahoma from the magnitude 5.6 earthquake on Nov. 6, 2011. Research conducted by USGS geophysicist Elizabeth Cochran and her university-based colleagues suggests that this earthquake was induced by injection into deep disposal wells in the Wilzetta North field. Credit: Brian Sherrod, USGS

Image: Natural Gas Production Water Impoundment
March 14, 2016

Natural Gas Production Water Impoundment

A water impoundment at a natural gas drilling site in the Marcellus Shale gas play of southwestern Pennsylvania.

Image: Natural Gas Flare Stack
March 14, 2016

Natural Gas Flare Stack

A flare stack to burn excess natural gas at a natural gas drill site in the Marcellus Shale gas play of western Pennsylvania.

Image: Natural Gas Flare
September 3, 2014

Natural Gas Flare

A natural gas flare. Sometimes, often due to lack of transportation or storage capacity, natural gas that is co-produced with oil will be burned in a flare. This wellpad is in the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale.

Image: Bakken Oil Well
April 30, 2014

Bakken Oil Well

Oil-well pads dotting the landscape of typical badland topography. Thousands of new wells are drilled into the Bakken and Three Forks annually, making this one of the most productive plays in the Nation.