The largest earthquake yet detected in British Columbia’s northeastern shale gas region was conclusively caused by fracking from Progress Energy Inc. in August 2015, says a federal scientist whose study was published this month.
Honn Kao, a research scientist with the Geological Survey of Canada, says it’s now clear that the 4.6 magnitude quake, which was felt at the surface near the resource town of Fort St. John, was the direct result of liquids being pumped into underground rock formations under high pressure to extract natural gas.
“It confirms what we’ve learned so far, that the majority of earthquakes induced in northeastern British Columbia appear to be related to hydraulic fracturing operations rather than other injection operations,” Kao said in a telephone interview from his office in Sidney, B.C., near Victoria.
Progress Energy of Calgary is owned by Petronas, the national oil company of Malaysia which has floated plans to build a liquified natural gas processing plant on B.C.’s coast near Prince Rupert. The source of the gas would be the Montney shale gas area where hundreds of small seismic events have been detected by monitoring stations since fracking began in the area in the mid-1980s. The company hasn’t made a final decision on whether to proceed with the project to ship liquified gas to Asian markets.
Support for proposals to build LNG facilities have been a key component of the federal and provincial governments' economic policies and the issue could land in the middle of B.C.'s May 9 election.
Question of damage
“Now almost everybody, including industry and the research community, agrees that there is no doubt that hydraulic fracturing and waste water injection can cause earthquakes,” Kao said. "Now the question is how big or how damaging these earthquakes can be.”
“This is something that’s very different from the reports for the Central and Eastern United States where they indicate that most of their induced earthquakes are related to waste water injection.”
The BC Oil and Gas Commission also reported in December 2015 that fracking was behind the quake which caused no damage. The commission is a provincial Crown corporation which regulates shale oil production.
Kao said his research, published in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, was possible because Progress Energy and Canadian Natural Resources Limited shared data from their seismographic stations with him. Corporate monitoring points far outnumber those of the government.
“Progress Energy has been very open and they make it very clear that they want to know the cause of induced seismicity as much as we do,” said Kao. “They spent a lot of money setting up seismic arrays trying to figure out where are the earthquakes, how big they are and so on.”
More monitors installed
The key issue now is whether seismic activity can be consistently kept below magnitude 4 which cannot be felt at the surface, he added.
Phil Rygg, director of communications for the BC Oil and Gas Commission, says the study mirrors its research on the Horn River Basin near the Yukon border and the Montney region where the 4.6-magnitude earthquake occurred.
That’s why the commission has required more monitoring stations, prompt reporting of ground motion and a halt in production after a quake of magnitude 4 or higher. Progress Energy did stop work immediately after the Aug. 17, 2015, earthquake, but resumed after a go-ahead from the commission.
Rygg noted there has been no surface damage from induced quakes in British Columbia.
David Sterna, director of communications at Calgary-based Progress Energy, declined to be interviewed because he said the company hasn’t yet reviewed the latest research. But he said in an emailed response that there have not been any stronger earthquakes since 2015 and the company has installed more detection equipment since then.
“Since 2012, Progress Energy has completed more than 3,400 hydraulic fractures without any incident of injury or property damage,” Sterna wrote. “As part of our commitment to safety, Progress Energy has installed 17 localized seismograph arrays in our operating areas to monitor potential occurrences of induced seismicity from our activities.”