Is UK Oil Drilling Causing Earthquakes?

Geologists have called for an end to oil exploration in the British county of Surrey until research can be carried out after a number of small but worrying earthquakes.

In a letter to The Times this month, scientists are saying that a cluster of 12 earthquakes in the county over the last four months — after more than 50 years with no meaningful seismic activity — could indicate geological instability that was not identifiable when the exploration permits were granted.

The geologists say, “The abrupt onset of the earthquake cluster recorded by the British Geological Survey (BGS) at Newdigate since April 1 requires an explanation, and gives rise to our concerns about safety. Oil drilling, extraction and re-injection can cause earthquakes.”

They continue, “There are two oil sites in the immediate area: Horse Hill and Brockham. A causal link with either well site cannot be ruled out, so we need the full picture for the risk assessment.”

The earthquakes themselves have not been particularly large, up to magnitude 3.0 which is large enough to be felt but is unlikely to cause damage to infrastructure. However, that is not why the senior geologists are concerned. They say that the far more pressing issue is that these earthquakes could lead to one of the oil wells leaking. If this happens, oil or gas could infiltrate local groundwater.

The scientists are not saying the oil drilling operation is directly causing these earthquakes. It’s more likely that the earthquakes are natural, albeit slightly unusual, because they appear to be coming from closer to the surface than is typical.

Even if the earthquakes are natural, the safety risks have not been properly investigated, simply because this wasn’t a problem when the permits were granted.

The signatories are calling on Energy Secretary Greg Clark to enact a moratorium on oil exploration and pumping in the area until the cause of the earthquakes, and the risk of oil well damage, can be fully explored.

The energy companies, among them Angus Energy, have said it is impossible that their activities were leading to the quakes.

“Let’s be clear,” Angus Energy MD Paul Vonk is quoted  as saying. “It’s scientifically and physically impossible for the Brockham oil field to have caused this activity.”

That’s a pretty big claim. Research  has shown that it might be possible for unconventional oil extraction to lead to increased earthquake activity, but most of the research on that is from the United States. It certainly is true that there is no evidence that the Brockham site poses such a risk; there is only the increased earthquake activity where before there was little activity of note.

Surrey Council has agreed with the energy company, with a planning official saying there is no “casual link” between the drilling activity and the earthquakes themselves. The planning authority said that, while it hears the concerns of locals and those in the British Geological Survey, there is currently no compelling evidence on which to deny the energy company to continue its operations. These comments were made as the council granted retrospective permission for a well in Brockham, in the Mole Valley district of Surrey.

The signatories in the letter, among them Stuart Gilfillan, a geochemistry lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, contend that there is no concrete evidence the earthquakes are being caused by the unconventional fossil fuel exploration. Regardless, there is a need to act conservatively and cease operations until definitive answers are in place and the security of the oil wells is confirmed, they say.

This is a difficult area of debate with many overlapping agendas, but while the media may have made this into a sensationalist story it is, at its heart, scientists attempting to do the responsible thing by flagging a potential environmental problem that is preventable.

Whether officials and the government will hear those calls remains to be seen.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

49 comments

Coo R
Coo Rabout a month ago

In my country we've had up to a week where power was supplied by 100% renewable energy.
Here's to more.

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Marie W
Marie W1 months ago

Thank you.

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David F
David F8 months ago

Mark, the United States has reduced its coal use to natural gas from about 50% to 30% in just eight years.
The new franking industry has created immense quantities of liquefied natural gas that burn considerably cleaner than coal.
Natural gas has .02 percent of the Sulfur dioxide contained in coal. 50 to 60 percent less carbon dioxide (CO2).
Over and over we see the Fake News victims like Mark, this author and many here on Care2 politics continue their assault against fracking, cutting their own throat (and everyone else's lungs) completely clueless that it's directly responsible for spectacularly cleaning our air.

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Mark Donner
Mark Donner8 months ago

Shut up David F with your fake "liberal" spew. There's no such thing as "environmental extremists" You like filth in your environment, go stick your head in a toilet. Clean energy is way more cost effective now in terms of efficiency and clean environment. You're the extremist, you're attacking the future of children along with the Trump psycho filth, your group of parasites on society should be be behind bars.

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bob P
robert Petermann8 months ago

We all need to do our part thanks for sharing

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David F
David F8 months ago

Mark, your hallucinating, everyone around me including myself loves clean energy. Be a realist, we cannot have clean energy without prosperity.
Historically the poorest countries (socialist) have the worst environmental records, those facts are indisputable, examples are everywhere.
Some 31,000 elderly in the UK died in 2013, (over and above the normal) due to unaffordable energy burdened with new environmentalist induced Carbon tax's.
http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/uk-weather-31000-people-died-2852677

Thanks to fracking and no thanks to the environmental extremists,the cost of clean LPG has dramatically lowered and everyone benefits.

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Chad Anderson
Chad Anderson8 months ago

Thank you.

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Mark Donner
Mark Donner8 months ago

David F. and Simon Whiteoak are trolls and and scumbags that want to destroy the future of our children and our planet for the oil company execs bonuses. A clue is when David F. spews insults that everyone who would like clean energy for the survival of life itself is a "leftist". These cancers on humanity attach themselves to sites like Care2 like parasites Ignore this filth. These people are Trump cultists and rotten cancers on life

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S M
S M8 months ago

... and they want to,start fracking as well! Corporate oil and gas does not care what detrimental effects they cause.

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Marija M
Marija M8 months ago

just...thanks

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