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Engelder: Frack-Induced Earthquakes are like Hockey Skates

The Raging Chicken Press out of Kutztown, PA, has this story by a philosophy professor at Bloomsburg University named Wendy Lee. In it, she deconstructs a public listserve and email exchange she had with Terry Engelder, a Penn State geologist. You may recognize Engelder from his side-splitting role in the gas industry propaganda film “Truthland.” He also has a little business on the side with SUNY Fredonia geologist Gary Lash (who headed the now seemingly defunct SUNY Fredonia Shale Institute, along with his wife) called Appalacian Fracture Systems, Inc.

Lee writes:

In his original post to “colleagues” Professor Engelder argues that while the earthquakes in Youngstown, Ohio and elsewhere are indeed connected to the destabilizing presence of deep injection wells, that they are of too little concern to worry about whether we should revisit the decision that requires them, namely hydraulic fracturing—fracking—a gas extraction process that produces waste-water so toxic that it cannot ever be returned to the water table and hence must be permanently (or, at least until it leaks) deposited in wells drilled deep under the earth’s surface. He draws an analogy comparing the earthquakes to the temporary ice melt caused by ice skate blades sheering across ice:

Most of you understand that ice skates work because the pressure under the thin blade of steel causes a very small amount of ice to melt momentarily. We scientists call this a pressure-induced phase change from a solid (ice) to a liquid (water). It is this film of water between the steel blade and solid ice that allows the skate to glide without effort… The water along the fault zone acted just like a water film between the steel blade of a hockey skate and solid ice. The fault in question was already subject to a push from earth stress. It is just that the push was not quite enough to get the fault to slip (trigger an earthquake).

Engelder had the gall to tell Lee that she “(does) not have permission to put this material on the web.” Oops. She did.

She also does a nice job exposing the sell out of Penn State to corporate interests. Way to kick a once-proud and respected institution when it’s down!

Bringing it all back home, this is the model the State University of New York at Buffalo is copying for its Shale Resources and Society Institute.

Buffalonians have also gotta love Engelder’s hockey skate analogy. After all, the owner of the Buffalo Sabres made his billions by fracking up Pennsylvania. In return, he’s building a new $102 million hockey arena at Penn State.





  • James Northrup

    At least Engelding had the decency to advise people that they could escape the fracking war zone by moving to Maine 

  • Jim_Holstun

    I agree completely with Professor Engelder, and propose that we make it legal for people to point guns at other people and pull the trigger. After all, the trigger is just the “trigger” of the shooting, and not the shooting itself.

  • Charley_Tarr

    Mr. Engelder’s assertions date from January of 2012.    The clearest opposed scientific opinion at the time was authored by Brian Brock and read as follows:

    Engelder does not “clarify … the media hype”, instead he
    increases the confusion

    He starts off badly by being wrong on the physic
    of ice skating.  The pressure of blades on ice is to small to create a
    enough water beneath the skates.  Skates glide because the
    quasi-crystalline structure of the surface is unlike the fully crystalline
    structure deeper down.  A geologist might not be expected understand this
    physics, which is still not completely understood, but is an unfortunate

    His next mistake is more substantial.  He is wrong about
    how injection of fluids causes earthquakes.  The injected water does not
    lubricate the fault plane.   The rocks there are already saturated in
    groundwater.  Rather it is the increase of the fluid (hydrostatic) pressure
    that counteracts the pressure from the overlying rocks that is clamping the
    rocks faces of the fault together.  This mistake is odd because Engelder
    has done exceptional structural geology on the timing and genesis of fracture
    sets in black shales.

    Then he wanders off into a tangent on the risks
    from microseismic quakes caused by fracing of solid rock, which have nothing to
    do with the risks from fluid-induced seismicity of faults that is under

    Fracing has indirectly cause several swarms of
    significant earthquake.  Injection wells are a safer way to dispose of
    flowback, and much of the flowback is disposed such.  That said, the odds
    of any one injection triggering earthquakes is tiny — by my estimates 1:1,000
    to 10,000.

    At their most intense, quakes from these induced swarm can
    cause minor damage.  Something should be done about this.  The faults
    that rupture are deeply buried and difficult to avoid.  Therefore a
    response to these swarms is necessary.
    * Set up procedure to identify
    fluid-induced earthquake swarms
    * Identify the injection wells that are
    * Plug those wells
    * Compensate for any damages
    Of course
    this is unlikely to happen because the industry has yet to admit that it has
    caused a swarm.

    Also, fracing does seem to be capable of directly causing
    significant quakes under extraordinary circumstances such as in Blackpool
    England last year.

    The full e-mail from Terry Engelder read as follows:
    From: Terry Engelder
    Sent: Sunday, January 8, 2012 12:17
    Subject: Triggered

    Dear Colleagues:
    The magnitude 4.0 earthquake on New Year’s Eve outside Youngstown, Ohio,
    was the flavor of the week for reporters calling to ask about the most recent
    developments in the Marcellus gas shale industry.  I hope I
    can add some clarity to the media hype by providing a physical explanation for
    what is happening in Youngstown.
    Most of you understand that ice skates work because the pressure under the
    thin blade of steel causes a very small amount of ice to melt momentarily. We
    scientists call this a pressure-induced phase change from a solid (ice) to a
    liquid (water).  It is this film of water between the steel
    blade and solid ice that allows the skate to glide without effort. 
    The reason that the skate glides without effort is that this thin film of
    water literally lifts the steel blade off the ice by at carrying part of the
    load of the steel blade.  You would be correct in concluding
    that the load of the blade is transferred from a solid-solid (steel-ice) contact
    to a solid-liquid-solid (steel-water-ice) contact. 
    Friction between the solid steel blade and the solid ice is another part of
    this ice skate analogy.  Friction is the ratio of the push
    necessary to make the steel blade glide on ice relative to the weight of the
    hockey player.  To make their skates glide heavy hockey
    players must generate more push than light hockey players. 
    What if physics can turn heavy hockey players into light hockey
    players?  In fact, the water film under the steel blade does
    just exactly that by ‘carrying’ some of the load of the heavy hockey
    player.  With the addition of water between the blade and the
    ice, less push is necessary.
    Earlier this week, the USA Today paraphrased a colleague of mine at the US
    Geological Survey, Art McGarr, by writing, “Since an incident outside Denver in
    the 1960s, geologists have known that deep injections of wastewater, placed in
    the ground to avoid cleanup costs, can trigger earthquakes”. 
    Dr. McGarr was referring to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal outside of Denver
    where operators had some low level liquid waste that the Arsenal wanted to
    dump.  The solution was to inject this
    underground.  However, injection underground ‘triggered’ some
    earthquakes, largely because the liquid waste (probably mostly water) found its
    way to a fault zone.  The water along the fault zone acted
    just like a water film between the steel blade of a hockey skate and solid
    ice.  The fault in question was already subject to a push from
    earth stress.  It is just that the push was not quite enough
    to get the fault to slip (trigger an earthquake).  When water
    from the Rocky Mountain Arsenal was injected along the fault, the water picked
    up some of the load from rock stress across (normal to) the fault. 
    By our understanding of friction, if water carries some of the load, then
    the push parallel to the fault (which did not changed during injection) becomes
    capable of triggering earthquakes.
    The government (i.e., the USGS) in collaboration with industry (i.e.,
    Chevron) wanted to understand the effect of injection on triggered
    earthquakes.  Consequently, a very famous experiment took
    place in the early 1970s at Chevron’s Rangely oil field in western Colorado in
    which earthquakes were systematically triggered by a plan of periodic water
    injection under high pressure.  This work was reported in a
    1976 Science paper which I attach.  Shortly after the
    Rangely experiment in the 1970s, I was in the Soviet Union as a very small part
    of a team lead by Dr. David Simpson (now president of IRIS) to understand
    reservoir triggered (induced) seismicity.  The Soviets had
    constructed a 1000 foot high earth-filled dam and feared that either the weight
    from the reservoir or water pressure along faults below the reservoir would
    trigger earthquakes.  Again, it was, in part, about friction
    along faults and how water can help to reduce the push necessary to overcome
    frictional resistance and trigger an earthquake.  Triggered
    earthquakes become so ‘famous’ that Hollywood chimed in with a 1985 James Bond
    movie, “The View to a Kill”.  Max Zorin played by Christopher
    Walken was planning to set off an earthquake along the San Andreas fault which
    was to wipe out all of Silicon Valley by injecting high pressure along the
    fault. James Bond in the form of Roger Moore swoops into Silicon Valley just in
    time to save Steve Jobs’ garage from certain destruction.  If
    Hollywood embraces the idea, you know it is NOT possible.
    Now, let’s clear the air for once and for all regarding earthquakes
    triggered by industry.  You know that injection of water under
    high pressure is required for hydraulic fracturing.  It should
    not take a rocket scientist to immediately conclude that every horizontal well
    drilled and stimulated by high pressure water should have triggered earthquakes
    and lots of them. Right?  But no one has phoned in with
    reports of earthquakes.  The press is too sharp and too
    vigilant to have missed this story.  Right?

    As we speak, I have research contract funded by a collaboration between
    government and industry to study earthquakes triggered by massive slickwater
    fracturing.  <> Among the wells that
    I am studying, a typical hydraulic fracture stimulation in several stages
    triggered 5,853 earthquakes and
    these were just the earthquakes that could be detected. 
    That is a lot of earthquakes for the press to have missed. 
    To date, the PADEP reports that over 4,000 wells have been drilled in the
    Marcellus.  If we assume that my typical well is one of, say,
    3,000 horizontal wells, then it seems that industry has caused at least
    17,000,000 earthquakes in the State of PA over the past three years. 
    None of these 17 million earthquakes have been newsworthy. 
    Why?  They can’t be felt by the local farmers because
    they are too small. 
    I should point out that the difference between hydraulic fracturing and
    waste disposal is in the volume of water injected.  The
    disposal wells are vertical so a comparison with vertical fracked wells is
    necessary.  I don’t have the exact numbers but it is likely
    that vertical frack stimulations are under a million gallons.  
    I don’t know how much water has been injected in the Youngstown, OH,
    wells but I presume the volume is much larger.  Here, volume
    at a point source matters and horizontal wells are not point sources which means
    that several million gallons is spread over a large area and so triggering
    ‘felt’ earthquakes is extraordinarily unlikely.
    Of course, industry and the antidrillers will probably take the postures
    that they have assumed regarding frack fluid invading ground water. 
    Industry points to some very large numbers of wells that have been
    fracked without compromising ground water.  The antidrillers
    point to a case in WVA and the Pavillion experiment to say that industry is
    wrong.   Let me point out that hydraulic fracturing has
    undoubtedly triggered billions on earthquakes in the USA alone over the past 60
    years, so I might conclude that the public is safe from this potential
    risk.  However, there is a risk and always will
    be.  As my good colleague from the Sullivan County debate
    likes to point out, “Nothing in life is certain”.  He’s absolutely
    right.  The obvious conclusion is that with the triggering of
    billions of earthquakes during hydraulic fracturing stimulation, the probability
    that a felt earthquake will occur is extraordinarily low but not
    impossible.  The punchline in the USA Today story is that,
    “The Ohio quake, which caused no damage, joins similar recent
    quakes in Texas and Arkansas linked to injections of wastewater from drilling

    Among the major issues associated with shale gas production, triggered
    earthquakes is probably not one of them.

    All the best, Terry