Fracking wells should not go to 11. Instead, turning down the volume — that is, of water pumped underground to help retrieve oil and gas — may reduce the number of earthquakes related to hydraulic fracturing.
The amount of water pumped into fracking wells is the No. 1 factor related to earthquake occurrence at Fox Creek, a large oil and gas production site in central Canada, researchers report January 19 in Science. An injection of 10,000 cubic meters of fluid or more at a well appears to trigger a quake.
Fox Creek sits atop the Duvernay Formation, a sedimentary layer rich in oil and gas. Before December 2013, the area was earthquake-free. Since then, hundreds of earthquakes have shaken the region; most were below magnitude 4, but a magnitude 4.8 quake in 2016 temporarily shut down operations.
Previous investigations revealed that fracking well injections at the site were triggering earthquakes on an underlying fault system. But mysteries remained: For example, why didn’t the quakes didn’t start until almost three years after fracking activities began in 2010?