Cliff Frohlich

Photo Credit: Sam Ortega | Daily Texan Staff

A UT professor and a visiting scientist found a correlation between gas injections into the ground and earthquakes in the city of Snyder, a small town in West Texas. Carbon dioxide injections are used to extract more oil from the ground and have been considered a possible solution to climate change because they prevent carbon dioxide from escaping into the atmosphere. 

Previously, no other study had found correlations between carbon dioxide injection and earthquakes of magnitudes greater than three, according to geosciences associate professor Cliff Frohlich, who worked on the project. 

Carbon dioxide injection in the West Texas wells have been used since the 1970s to increase oil and gas production. Frohlich said he and Wei Gan, a visiting scientist from China, were motivated to do the study because there had been earthquakes in the 1980s, followed by a 20-year absence before they started again in 2006. 

Frohlich said the results of his research may have implications for effectively dealing with climate change through exploring the consequences of the carbon capture process, which involves storing greenhouse gasses below the ground.

“Since a lot of carbon dioxide we’re putting into the atmosphere is localized, you could collect carbon dioxide, and it’s been proposed to inject carbon dioxide into the earth,” Frohlich said.

Frohlich said students should understand the consequences of carbon injection because of the state’s close ties to the oil and gas industry.

“Oil and gas is one of the primary revenues for Texas, one of the primary sources that funds the University,” Frohlich said. “Everyone has interests in doing this in a responsible way.”

Biochemistry junior Rafael Vidal said if further proof demonstrates carbon injections cause earthquakes, he would not be in favor of the practice.

“I don’t think I would support injections if they triggered earthquakes because there must be alternative ways to extract oil,“ Vidal said.

Although Frohlich and Gan found a correlation in one location, they also found that similar wells nearby did not experience earthquakes, though they had similar levels of carbon dioxide injections.

Gan said one possible explanation was a lack of fault lines near the similar wells. 

“For my personal thinking, there were no earthquakes because there were no pre-existing faults in the other oil fields,” Gan said.

Their study analyzed data collected from 2009 to 2010 when the EarthScope USArray program, a program funded by the National Science Foundation, stationed many temporary seismometers in Texas.

“We had an opportunity to get more accurate locations and locate much smaller quakes than normal,” Frohlich said.

The University required students studying abroad in Japan to return and also restricted Japanese international students from visiting Japan in the aftermath of a March earthquake and tsunami.

Although some areas in the northeastern part of the country, including the city of Sendai, were directly affected, most of the country remains unharmed and out of immediate danger, said faculty in the Jackson School of Geosciences.

While power outages and production problems were countrywide, the earthquake did not affect as much as three-fourths of Japan directly, said Cliff Frohlich, associate director of the Jackson School of Geosciences. The Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant is still a concern, but it shouldn’t mean that no one can travel to the country, he said.

“I don’t know what the Japanese government’s position is, but in terms of earthquake risk, most of Japan wasn’t directly affected,” he said. “I don’t see any reason why people couldn’t visit parts of Japan in the South and Southwest.”

Five students were in Japan at the time of the earthquake, and 10 more planned to depart for Japan within the following month, said Heather Barclay Hamir, director of the Study Abroad Office. The International Oversight Committee — a group in the UT Study Abroad Office that determines guidelines for the health and safety of traveling UT students — classified Japan as a Category 2 restricted region on the University’s restricted regions list, she said.

According to the study abroad website, regions classified as Category 2 are high-risk and travel to them is restricted. Other countries ranked as Category 2 include Egypt, Libya and parts of Mexico, including many border states. The 50-mile radius around the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant is ranked as a Category 1 region, meaning that travel is extremely limited. The University based their rankings on the aftereffects of the earthquake and tsunami and continuing problems at the nuclear power plant, Barclay Hamir said.

The earthquake in Japan was larger than anyone had estimated it could be and was one of the dozen largest earthquakes in the last 100 years, Frohlich said. Japan has some of the best seismologists in the world and is extremely well-prepared for earthquakes, but did not anticipate a nine on the Richter scale, he said.

“In a way, what happened in Japan was just a horrible coincidence,” he said. “You can’t really prepare for that, and Japan did quite well. That doesn’t mean it’s not a disaster, but I’m impressed with how Japan handled things.”

While much of the country is past the danger of the earthquakes themselves, the Fukushima Plant is still a major concern because of the chemical byproducts it releases into the water, said Nicholas Hayman, research associate in the School of Geosciences. That, coupled with the panic in Tokyo, is reason to hold off on travel to Japan for now, he said.

“To me, the thing that’s sensible about having some caution about Japanese people coming and going is the sense of emergency,” he said. “It’s not just UT — many universities are putting restrictions on traveling to Japan as well. It makes sense for the general public to have caution about going there.”