Saturday, February 24, 2024

Peace River earthquakes – did the media get it right this time?

Last November 29, a series of three earthquakes shook the Peace River area in northern Alberta. The biggest shock measured 5.59 magnitude – a modest quake by many standards, but one of the largest ever recorded in normally quiet Alberta, Canada. There were no injuries reported, in part due to the remote location.

Of course, people wanted to know – why did these events happen? Were they natural or human-made? Were they isolated occurrences, or should we be worried about similar or even larger events in the future?

Some anti-oil agitators immediately jumped to hydraulic fracturing (fracking) as the cause, even though there was no substantial frac operation in the area. For example, from resource policy analyst Ben Parfitt on Twitter:

@BenParfittCCPA (Nov 29 2022) – “Call it Alberta’s cluster frack – a M5.2 earthquake at 16:45 Nov. 29, a beastly M5.8 earthquake 70 minutes later, then a M5.0 aftershock to finish things off. What #fracking fun!”

Geoscientists from the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) and Alberta Geological Survey (AGS) moved quickly to assess the situation, gathering data from seismic observation stations situated throughout Alberta and neighbouring provinces. Because there have been numerous seismic events associated with oil and gas operations in Alberta over the past few decades, the AGS was well prepared to study the data, to reach conclusions about probable causes, and to pass recommendations to the AER for remedial action, should any be required.

The AER issued an announcement on the day following the quakes (Seismic Events Southeast of Peace River), stating that initial findings pointed to natural tectonic activity because there was no hydraulic fracturing being conducted in the area, fluid disposal operations were some distance away and had not varied in rate over the past year, and that the events occurred too deep to be induced by human activity. Data were posted to the AGS Earthquake Dashboard, and the Regulator indicated further study was taking place.

Many media outlets picked up the story, reporting the quakes and the AER’s response. Parfitt chose not to tweet any correction.

Early on March 23, CBC News released a story about a study conducted by researchers at Stanford University and the University of Alberta, attributing the quakes not to natural causes, but to injection of large volumes of wastewater produced by bitumen extraction operations in the nearby Peace River Oil Sands (Oil and gas activity was catalyst for Peace River earthquakes in 2022, study finds). The story is a reasonably solid and accurate summary of the study’s key points, including a diagram illustrating how injection of oilfield wastewater into the Leduc Formation saline aquifer could trigger movement on deep-seated faults, causing a seismic event and movement of the overlying ground surface.

The CBC’s coverage was more balanced and informative than Stanford University’s own news release (Stanford study finds wastewater disposal from oil production triggered major earthquake in Canada), which coloured its commentary with remarks about “tar-like” bitumen, heavy metals and harmful chemicals – none of which has relevance to the story.

So – good on Stanford and U of A researchers for their work, and kudos to CBC for a good article covering it. And rotten tomatoes to Stanford News for their irrelevant cheap shots, and, of course, to Parfitt for never following up to acknowledge his misleading statements that continue (as of March 25, 2023) to stand on his Twitter feed. He even tweeted on March 24 – “Record earthquakes happening smack dab in the middle of intense oil sands industry operations. Don’t worry, Alberta Energy Regulator says. They’re completely natural”. He also referenced a story in The Tyee by anti-oil journalist Andrew Nikiforuk (Oilsands Projects Likely Triggered Mysterious Alberta Quakes: New Research) dramatizing the effects of the quakes, implicating companies not related to the events, and slagging the AER as “funded by industry and [having] no public interest mandate”.

Parfitt’s March 24 tweet and Nikiforuk’s attacks ignored the fact that also on March 23, the AER issued an Environmental Protection Order for Obsidian Energy, the operator of a disposal well southeast of the Town of Peace River. In the order, we learn that AGS had requested and received operational data from Obsidian shortly after the November events about their disposal operations, then set up additional seismic monitoring in the area. Subsequent events, including ones measured on March 16, enabled the AGS to definitively link wastewater injection by Obsidian to the quakes.

Based on these findings, the AER’s Environmental Protection Order directed Obsidian to create an Immediate Action Plan to reduce the induced seismic events, review the plan with AER experts, and implement the plan, all within seven days. Obsidian must also install advanced seismic monitoring equipment and create a mitigation plan within 15 days. The AER moved quickly to address the issues once they had definitive information at hand, and CBC News followed up with another accurate story about those actions (Alberta Energy Regulator issues environmental protection order after earthquake study finds industry link).

That said, while CBC and other major media did a reasonable job reporting the AER’s actions, their coverage lacked some important context. While new to Peace River, induced seismicity caused by wastewater injection is a well-known phenomenon, and has been studied in detail in oil-producing areas of the United States and in northeastern British Columbia. Details vary in each region because of the local geological/tectonic stress regime and the details of the disposal activity.

Finally, it is important to understand that any sort of extractive resource work – oil and gas, mining, forestry, agriculture, and others – has environmental impacts. In fact, two of the developing technologies of the 21st century energy transition, geothermal energy and carbon sequestration, also involve injecting large volumes of fluids into the subsurface, and both are known to have induced seismic events. The CBC stories quoted experts making this critical point.

Our society would be better served if news organizations reported on environmental issues in a reasoned and impartial fashion, respecting good science and careful regulation. Events such as the Peace River earthquakes take expertise, time, and good data to understand – and major news outlets did a good job in this case. Consumers of news are well advised to ignore the marginal media players with axes to grind, that publish uninformed speculation and unfounded dramatizations, and ridicule regulators without supporting facts.

Brad Hayes
Brad Hayes
Brad Hayes has a PhD in geology from the University of Alberta and is president of Petrel Robertson Consulting Ltd., a geoscience consulting firm addressing technical and strategic issues around oil and gas development, water resource management, helium exploration, geothermal energy, and carbon sequestration. He is an adjunct professor in the University of Alberta Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.
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