Professor finds link between fracking and seismic activity in Ohio

By Emily Williams, For The Miami Student

When geology professor Michael Brudzinski, graduate student Robert Skoumal and associate professor Brian Currie published their study on Jan. 6 concluding that fracking had induced recent Ohio earthquakes, they had no idea of the media storm that would follow.

Since the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America published his research, Brudzinski has sparked a record-breaking Reddit thread, has been featured in New York Times and Washington Post articles, and appeared on the Glenn Beck Show.

“There certainly is some satisfaction that comes from people paying attention to what you’re doing,” Brudzinski said.

The study linked a series of earthquakes in Poland Township to Hilcorp Energy’s hydraulic fracturing operations in northeastern Ohio. After the largest seismic event in the area, a magnitude three earthquake, was felt near an active well, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources called for fracking operations in the area to be stopped for investigation.

Soon after publication, the research made it’s way onto the front page of Reddit. Seeing that the article on the page had some errors, Skoumal decided to contact the site’s science moderators and clarify these discrepancies himself.

Much to Skoumal’s surprise, his Ask Me Anything (AMA) post is now the fourth most popular science AMA ever.

“To my knowledge, no one has considered a Reddit AMA part of the public outreach, but this has probably been more successful in outreach than anything we’ve tried before,” Skoumal said.

In the study, they used a technique called template matching to detect earthquakes of the same type occurring in the region.

Much like entering suspect’s fingerprints into a database to search for matches, Skoumal’s algorithm matched up the seismic events occurring in Poland Township.

For naturally occurring earthquakes, matches can rarely be found. This technique, then, helps to distinguish natural events from induced events.

“For these earthquakes being induced by oil and gas activities, you can have hundreds of similar earthquakes,” Brudzinski said. “It’s because the fracking is really pushing on a fault repeatedly over a period of time, and that triggers a whole swarm of earthquakes in that region.”

Despite their findings, neither Skoumal nor Brudzinski see this evidence as a reason to halt fracking activities. According to Brudzinski, for the fracking to induce any seismic activity, it has to be very close to a pre-existing fault, about half a mile or less.

“These events are very rare,” Skoumal said. “The hazards and risks associated with them are so minimal that it would not be in proportion.”

Instead, the researchers hope their study will encourage states to more closely monitor fracking activities in order to prevent induced seismic events that could do real damage.

“I have a genuine concern that one of these events is going to cause some serious damage,” Brudzinski said. “That’s what we’re trying to avoid.”

He suggests implementing regulations at the state level, much like Ohio has already done, so that scientists like himself can have an influence on how the process is monitored.

Skoumal and Brudzinski had previously been applying the fingerprint scanning technique to subduction zones, Brudzinski’s geological specialty, but, after the rare felt earthquake in Poland Township, decided to apply their technique to those events.

“There was an opportunity for us to make more meaningful impacts here in Ohio,” Skoumal said.

The chance of making those sorts of impacts was one of the aspects of seismology that initially sparked Brudzinski’s interest. A self-proclaimed nerd in high school, he was sure he wanted to have a career in science.

“I was Keven G. in Mean Girls, totally focused on math and science,” Brudzinski said.

In college, he found that he enjoyed physical science and, most of all, geophysics. It was a science that was not on a molecular level, hard to visualize or somewhat distant. It was immense and visible to the eye, a science in which he saw the potential for real societal impact.

A fellow math and science enthusiast, Skoumal has found a great niche in this research at Miami. Always computationally oriented, he came to Miami prepared with coding experience that he used to develop the template scanning technique for their study. Doing this kind of research, he said he is happier at Miami than he would be at any other school.

“Mike [Brudzinski] has been great because I can research what I want to research, and at the end of the day as long it’s something that can be published and is meaningful, Mike will support me one hundred percent,” Skoumal said.

Right now, they are using the same techniques they applied to the Ohio earthquakes in Oklahoma, where many more seismic events are occurring and fracking regulations are limited.

Brudzinski hopes that this research and the recent media attention will increase fracking monitoring and regulation to prevent further induced earthquakes. In the meantime, he affirmed that it would not be more New York Times articles or cable TV appearances that keep him going. According to Brudzinski, interactions with students are still the driving force behind his effervescent

“That relationship, that interaction, that’s really what fuels me on a day to day basis.”