Links between oil activity, Alberta quakes studied

A Calgary scientist is looking for links between oil and gas activity and earthquakes in Alberta.
Dave Eaton, a geophysics professor, is looking for links between oil and gas activity and earthquakes in Alberta. ((CBC))

A Calgary scientist is looking for links between oil and gas activity and earthquakes in Alberta.

Alberta isn't known for its tremors, but small ones do happen and can be missed because of a lack of monitoring equipment in the province.

Dave Eaton, a geophysics professor, is leading a project that will see a decommissioned station near Priddis upgraded and eight more set up across the province. The equipment will be able to detect earthquakes that humans can't.

Eaton wants to know whether blasting liquids underground to extract natural gas or storing carbon in the earth to reduce greenhouse gas emissions can cause an earthquake.

"Earthquakes have been produced that are just on [the] threshold of causing damage to homes and infrastructure and are felt over a large region. So we would really like to understand the nature of those earthquakes better and really make a more solid connection between the types of fluids being injected and earthquake activity," he said.

No clear link between carbon capture, quakes

The study could have a big impact on the emerging carbon-capture industry in the province. Alberta has set aside $2 billion to fund such projects.

"There's no proof right now of any causal link between CO2 injection and earthquakes, but that's one of the reasons we would like to investigate it more," Eaton said. "We need to be very careful and aware of all the earthquake risks, especially when we are contemplating these sorts of really long-term storage of materials inside the earth."

Little is known about the possible connection between earthquakes and carbon capture, said John Harper, a geologist with the Geological Survey of Canada. 

"Not a lot of research has been done relative to carbon capture and storage and earth movements so it is the kind of research that is extremely valuable," he said.

Eaton is also interested in what's happening deep underground.

"We are also hoping to understand better the deep geology of this region and some of the forces that cause the North American plate to move."

The University of Alberta in Edmonton also has earthquake research stations, but the University of Calgary's stations will be online, accessible through the Geological Survey of Canada. Researchers have to go to the U of A stations in person to collect the information.