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

To produce oil and 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 intentionally causes small earthquakes (magnitudes smaller than 1) to enhance permeability, but it has also been linked to larger earthquakes. The largest earthquake known to be induced by hydraulic fracturing in the United States was a M4 earthquake in Texas. In addition to natural gas, fracking fluids and saltwater 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 saltwater into the subsurface can also cause earthquakes that are large enough to be damaging. . Wastewater disposal is a ​separate ​process in which fluid waste from oil and gas production is injected deep underground far below ground water or drinking water aquifers. The largest earthquake known to be induced by wastewater disposal was a M5.8 earthquake that occurred near Pawnee, Oklahoma in 2016.

Learn more: USGS Induced Earthquakes

Related Content

Filter Total Items: 7

Oklahoma has had a surge of earthquakes since 2009. Are they due to fracking?

Beginning in 2009, Oklahoma experienced a surge in seismicity. This surge was so large that its rate of magnitude 3 and larger earthquakes exceeded California’s from 2014 through 2017. bar graph Bar graph showing the...

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 a magnitude 5.8 earthquake on September 23, 2016 in central Oklahoma. 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 the Raton...

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 can occur 10 or more miles from injection wells. Induced earthquakes can also occur a few miles below injection wells. 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 documented example linking injection operations to triggering of major earthquakes. However, we cannot eliminate this possibility. Other human activities--for example oil production in Uzbekistan--have induced M7+ earthquakes. Learn more: USGS Induced Earthquakes

How does the injection of fluid at depth cause earthquakes?

The fluid that is injected at depth is sometimes hydraulically connected to faults. When this happens, fluid pressures increase within the fault, counteracting the frictional forces on faults. This makes earthquakes more likely to occur on them. An analog to this system is an air hockey table. When an air hockey table is off, the puck does not...

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 in a definitive sense. We have developed methods that use injection information to help us determine whether injection activities might cause induced earthquakes and rule out other injection activities that are unlikely to induce earthquakes, but we cannot say either with certainty. There are a...

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: USGS Induced Earthquakes EPA's Underground Injection Control (UIC...
Filter Total Items: 7
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.

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. 

Filter Total Items: 8
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
Attribution:
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.

Attribution: Energy and Minerals
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.

Attribution: Energy and Minerals
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.

Attribution: Water Resources