Note: This is the first of a series of articles discussing the real possibility companies holding mineral rights may begin exploration (if they haven't already) and permits to frack in Whatcom County. Future articles may address fracking’s implications for the region’s potable water; appropriate regulatory schemes to address fracking in our communities; and what actions citizens can take to ban fracking, examining actions in other communities around the nation.
Last Revision: 5/12/14
Since fracking began in Oklahoma, earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 (M3.0) or greater have increased from 1-3 per year to roughly 40 per year, with the November 6, 2011, M5.6 quake centered near Prague damaging 14 homes. It is not the facking that causes quakes but, rather, what the U.S. Geologic Service (USGS) calls “injection-induced seismicity” which occurs when fracking wastewater is injected into the ground for disposal.
The USGS has long known that such human activity as impoundment of water in reservoirs, mining, withdrawal of fluids and gas from the subsurface, and injection of fluids into underground formations, induces earthquakes. Fracking produces so much wastewater, the most economical way to dispose of it is to inject it underground, but it is so heavily polluted with toxins, it must be injected deep enough not to contaminate aquifers that provide drinking water. That injection, the USGS and Oklahoma Geological Survey concluded in a joint statement, contributed to the earthquake “swarm” Oklahoma experienced in 2011, particularly the M5.6 event.
Fracking wastewater may serve as a lubricant to nearby faults, weakening them at the same time the injection process increases the underground pore pressure. Even faults that have been inactive for millions of years may slip if pore pressure increases enough, with a resulting earthquake, the USGS explains. This matters in Whatcom County because we live in an identified earthquake zone, the Bellingham Basin, and we are sitting on untapped reserves of coal bed methane and natural gas.
The Bellingham Basin is the northernmost of four basins of the northern Cascadia forearc. According to geologists, the forearc is “actively deforming,” which means it is increasingly prone to earthquakes in the 6.0–6.5 magnitude range between Vancouver and Bellingham. NOAA assumes M7.2 in the Seattle Fault for purposes of tsunami modeling, but M9.1 in the Cascadia Subduction Zone.
Most Whatcom County residents know coal was mined in Bellingham. What some may not know is that we have coal bed methane and natural gas formations in the county as well. The Bellingham Basin (Play #450) is one of three potential coal bed methane production areas, but no test drilling had occurred, according to DNR, as of 2005. According to a 1997 U.S. Geological Survey, there were 22 wells dug in the U.S. portion of the Bellingham Basin through1991 to depths of 9000 feet, with most averaging 5000 feet. The USGS survey notes that inactive wells are active polluters for Whatcom County, with one uncapped well about five miles northwest of Bellingham releasing 10,000 cubic feet of methane gas per day as of 1997.
According to Wash. Dep’t of Natural Resources (DNR) data as of 2012, most wells in Whatcom County for natural gas were drilled in the 1930s. Though roughly 600 gas and oil wells have been drilled in Washington, there has never been large-scale commercial production state-wide, with the Bellingham Gas Field east of Ferndale producing only small amounts of gas. Most traditional drilling in the state had ceased by 1962, but in the last two decades, with the advent of fracking technology, companies have begun exploration, particularly for coalbed methane. In Whatcom County, exploration began at the beginning of the century in the northern part of the Bellingham Basin because of beds of natural gas and coal bed methane located at depths of up to 2000 feet. One Canadian Company, interested in drilling in Canada and remote areas in Whatcom County, used a novel approach to fund exploration: it applied to the U.S. Department of Energy for a $500,000 grant to drill ostensibly for the purpose of carbon sequestration in coal beds.
DNR regulates drilling and related operations in the state, and manages oil and gas leasing on state trust lands held by various state agencies, including plats running from the Canadian to Skagit County borders through the South Fork Valley. Those plats continue south, running through all the prime agricultural regions of the western part of the state. DNR notes that if coalbed methane or natural gas were discovered, production would have to be “legally permitted.” Any gas recovered would be processed, compressed, and transported by the same type of small-diameter pipelines currently used to pipe gas to communities' mainline systems throughout Washington.
 For a discussion of fracking’s impact on water supply in the West, see Mark Trechock’s "Gone for Good: Fracking and Water Loss in the West." Mark was kind enough to crunch some numbers and, in an email, indicated fracking requires over 1 gallon of water to produce a gallon of crude for a new well in the Bakken fields; and 4 gallons of water for every 10 gallons of crude produced after the first year.