Software May Help Oil Companies Determine a Location’s Earthquake Potential

New software for monitoring the probability of earthquakes in a targeted location could help energy companies determine where they can operate safely.

The free tool, developed by Stanford University’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, helps operators estimate how much pressure nearby faults can handle before rupturing, by combining three important pieces of information:

  • Location and geometry of the fault
  • Natural stresses in the ground
  • Pressure changes likely to be brought on by injections

“Faults are everywhere in the Earth’s crust, so you can’t avoid them. Fortunately, the majority of them are not active and pose no hazard to the public. The trick is to identify which faults are likely to be problematic, and that’s what our tool does,” said Mark Zoback, professor of geophysics at Stanford, who developed the approach with graduate student Rail Walsh.

Fossil fuel exploration companies have been linked to the increased number of earthquakes in some areas—Oklahoma in particular—that have been determined to be the result of fracking. According to the Dallas Morning News:

Only around 10% of wastewater wells in the central and eastern United States have been linked with earthquakes. But that small share, scientists believe, helped kick-start the most dramatic earthquake surge in modern history.

From 2000 — before the start of America’s recent energy boom — to 2015, Oklahoma saw its earthquake rate jump from two per year to 4,000 per year. In 2016, its overall number fell to 2,500, but its quakes grew stronger.

Five other states, including Texas, Arkansas and Kansas, have seen unprecedented increases in ground shaking tied to the wells, although North Texas had no earthquakes strong enough to be felt last year.

The insurance industry has also been monitoring the rise in temblors. A Swiss Re report concluded, “It’s highly likely that this dramatic rise in earthquake occurrence is largely a consequence of human actions.”

According to the report:

Along with the increase in seismicity, Oklahoma has seen a growth in its oil and natural gas operations since 2008, specifically hydraulic fracturing (often referred to as “hydrofracking” or “fracking”) and the disposal of wastewater via deep well injection. Both hydrofracking and deep well injection involve pumping high-pressure fluids into the ground. A consensus of scientific opinion now links these practices to observed increases in seismic activity. Earthquakes where the cause can be linked to human actions are termed ‘induced earthquakes,’ and present an emerging risk of which the insurance industry is taking note.

Earthquake Spike in Oklahoma Linked to Fracking

ok-earthquake-shake-map
A magnitude 5.0 earthquake that rocked Cushing, Oklahoma, on Nov. 6 damaged part of the city’s downtown district, but left no major damage to bridges or highways.

Early reports indicate the damage is not insignificant. A 16-block area in the hard-hit downtown has been sectioned off because of the danger posed by unstable structures and broken glass. No serious injuries or fatalities have been reported, however. Power in Cushing was out for less than an hour following the quake, and several gas leaks were taken care of.

The city, which has a population of 7,900, is noted as the world’s largest oil storage terminal and has experienced 19 earthquakes in just the past week, raising safety concerns. As of last week, the town’s tank farms held 58.5 million barrels of crude oil, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The number of earthquakes in the area has also risen exponentially. During the first half of this year, 618 temblors of M2.8 or greater have shaken Oklahoma.

eq-activity

Swiss Re noted in its September 2016 report The Link Between Hydrofracking, Wastewater Injection and Earthquakes: Key Issues for Re/insurers:

Since 2008 the number of magnitude 3.0 earthquakes per year has grown from roughly 2 per year to an average of nearly 3 per day. This now makes Oklahoma the most seismically active of the lower forty-eight states. It’s highly likely that this dramatic rise in earthquake occurrence is largely a consequence of human actions. Along with the increase in seismicity, Oklahoma has seen a growth in its oil and natural gas operations since 2008, specifically hydraulic fracturing (often referred to as “hydrofracking” or “fracking”) and the disposal of wastewater via deep well injection.

A number of states that have increased wastewater injection activity have seen increases in the number of induced earthquakes, the study said, but the reason for such a large increase in Oklahoma is still unclear. Because of the large amount of crude oil storage in the Cushing area, strong shaking is worrisome and has led some to proclaim that induced earthquakes are a national security threat.

According to AIR-Worldwide, it is not clear whether the occurrences of the small and intermediate size earthquakes being seen, and the stress changes from wastewater disposal could trigger larger and more damaging earthquakes. As a precaution, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission ordered four new Arbuckle disposal wells to be shut and 10 to reduce their volume by 25%. In Osage County, 32 wells will have reduced volume.

Experts believe limiting injection volumes is helpful because of the link between high-volume injection and earthquakes, but Swiss Re’s report concluded that while, most companies participate in the suggested reductions following a detected earthquake, economic pressure to continue wastewater injection often prevails. “Changing regulations, and how the oil and gas industry respond, remain the biggest contributor to uncertainty of how the risk will change in the future,” Swiss Re said.

Haulers of Crude Finding Coverage Scarce

HOUSTON—The recent spike in oil and natural gas production has led trucking companies to grow so quickly that they sometimes scramble to find qualified drivers. This has meant tightening coverage with a limited number of carriers and a market in “disarray,” Anthony Dorn, a broker with Sloan Mason Insurance Services, said today at the IRMI Energy Risk and Insurance Conference.

“Carriers have taken a bath on construction risks,” he said. “Only nine carriers will write crude hauling.”

There is a huge need for risk management in trucking right now, he added. “A lot of these are fly-by-night companies. They are running with drivers that have no experience, they are getting violations from the DOT left and right for not having licenses and adequate brakes on their trucks and they are running on dirt roads that aren’t made for 100,000 pound units,” Dorn said. “It’s a very risky place for underwriters. If we don’t do something as agents and as risk managers there will be fewer carriers.”

The recent downturn in the oil and gas market has also been a game-changer for some companies. Dorn predicts a “cleaning of the crop” of truckers. Inexperienced companies with new drivers will “fall by the wayside. What we are going to be left with are companies that are well-run with proper safety procedures in their fleet.”

Once that happens, he believes more carriers will enter the market. “But as of now, in general the whole market is in disarray,” he said.

He noted that agencies such as the Department of Transportation have vehicle reports available online, which insurers now frequently access when considering whether to take on a trucking company as a risk. He suggested that companies looking for coverage also check these reports and work closely with their risk managers and safety directors to correct any problems, such as drivers without adequate experience.

“There is a huge opportunity out there right now for risk managers to approach these companies and tell them, ‘If you don’t have a risk manager to help with your losses, you are not going to be able to find insurance.’ Right off the bat, I’d say 50% [of trucking companies] are declined as soon as they walk in the door,” Dorn said. As a result, he has seen companies declined by every insurer and forced to form a new LLC or even shut down.

Loren Henry, also a broker with Sloan Mason, said that another thing they are seeing as oil prices drop is companies formed to haul salt water for hydraulic fracturing looking to other opportunities. “They start hauling agricultural products and paper products, whatever there is that is not oil and gas related,” he said. “That is typically not going to be covered under their auto policy.” He advised fleet owners to be aware of this and communicate any changes to their broker to find out specifically what is covered.

“We have had some losses recently, where a company made a shift from what they were hauling because they had lost some saltwater accounts. They were hauling cattle and they had a loss and it wasn’t covered because it is not in the policy language,” Henry explained.

“I don’t know where all these water-haulers are going to go,” Dorn added. “You’re going to see massive fleets go on sale and you’ll get huge discounts on trucks. You are going to see some transitions.”

Dorn added that one of his clients is now hauling salt water with half of his trucks and cattle with the rest. He advised his client to form another LLC for the cattle-hauling if he expects to get insurance coverage, as insurers would cover one or the other, but not both.

Asked whether companies are hiring risk managers and if they are also listening to their advice, he said, “Yes, especially after they get their premium. When they go from $5,000 a unit to $12,000 a unit their ears perk up pretty quick. They are willing to do almost anything to get that pricing down. It’s sad because companies are actually being put out of business because their premiums are too high.”

He expects the next year to see a lot of changes. “A lot of companies will go by the wayside,” he said. “A lot of smaller companies will be gone—they will sell their trucks or be bought out by bigger fleets.”

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