Logo: University of Southern California

USC-Headquartered Consortium to Research Energy Production Seismic Hazards

New organization will probe the questions raised in the recent NRC report on "Induced Seismicity Potential in Energy Technologies"
Eric Mankin
July 27, 2012 —

The USC Energy Institute (USCEI) today announced the establishment of a new cooperative research effort, the Induced Seismicity Consortium (ISC). The consortium, sponsored by oil and gas producers and service companies with the involvement of regulatory agencies, national laboratories and environmental grooups, will be taking the lead in studying and answering questions about seismic risks involved in new energy production techniques.

Viterbi School of Engineering Dean Yannis C. Yortsos opened the June 28 workshop meeting at USC.
A National Research Council (NRC) report on “Induced Seismicity Potential in Energy Technologies” released June 15, 2012, highlighted the key issues in this sensitive topic. A workshop on the subject, planned months before the NRC report release, convened on June 28th at the USC Davidson Conference Center. The all-day program of workshops and panel discusssions brought together more than 60 specialists in various issues related to shale gas and liquid rich shale hydraulic fracturing, along with representatives of federal and state government regulatory agencies, national laboratories and environmental groups.

The goal of the workshop: "develop and deliver an effective science-based roadmap for the best operational practices, policy decisions, regulatory processes, and public education and communication with respect to the hydraulic fracturing activities in the shale plays in the U. S. and elsewhere."

Such an effort is an integral part of the mission of the USC Energy Institute, (USCEI) which hosted the gathering. The USCEI is a multidisciplinary university-wide endeavor aimed at enabling researchers to inform government, industry and the general public about a wide range of energy issues.

USC Viterbi School of Engineering Dean Yannis C. Yortsos kicked off the workshop. "Our program,” said Yortsos, “is intended to address many of the key findings and recommendations of a recent National Research Council’s Committee on Induced Seismicity. They conclude, and I quote: ‘To better understand, limit, and respond to induced seismic events, work is needed to build robust prediction models, to assess potential hazards, and to help relevant agencies coordinate to address them.’”

Fred Aminzadeh serves as ISC managing director and principal investigator.

The aim of the meeting was to set in motion such work by USCEI scientists, including Fred Aminzadeh, a professor in the Viterbi School’s Mork Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science and Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering, who is the ISC managing director and principal investigator and served as the moderator of the meeting.

“Dr. Aminzadeh and his team members,” Yortsos said, “are launching a consortium of sponsors for the initiation of these scientific studies, and I certainly hope of all you who are attending this workshop by the virtue of your input and sponsorship contribute to this major effort that can have impact on the development of shale gas and liquid shale resources in the U.S. and elsewhere.”

9 Lores
USC Energy Institute Executive Director Don Paul.
Such resources, according to Aminzadeh, are enormous, representing more than a quarter billion barrels of recoverable oil and 500 trillion cubic feet of gas. Daily oil consumption in the U.S. currently totals less than 20 million barrels per day and 64 BCF/D.

The NRC report by the Committee on Induced Seismicity focused on the earthquake issues raised by the technology, which is used to extract this oil and gas, and particularly induced seismicity — creating controlled earth movements by various fluid injection processes. Two members of the committee, Don Clarke and Sid Green, participated in the workshop, and Clarke made a presentation highlighting the committee's findings.

As the report says,“some energy technologies … have been found or suspected to cause seismic events, drawing heightened public attention. Although only a very small fraction of injection well operations and hydraulic fracturing activities among the hundreds of energy development sites in the United States have induced seismicity at levels noticeable by the public, understanding the potential for inducing felt seismic events and for limiting their occurrence and impacts is desirable for state and federal agencies, industry, and the public at large.”

The NRC report is a broad, careful and detailed examination of the record of oil production and possibly associated quakes broken down by varying techniques. Virtually all of the quakes are minor, most imperceptible except by instruments. But much is still not known, and the report concludes with a section on “proposed research needs” calling for research in five specific areas, including collecting field and lab data, developing instrumentation, hazard and risk assessment for individual projects, developing models, and research on carbon capture and storage.”

Lance Cole of the Petroleum Technology Transfer Council (PTTC) led a blue ribbon panel discussing the induced seismicity issues . From left to right: Stephen M. Testa, Executive Officer of California MGB & president of AAPG MMD; Dr. John Parrish, Director and State Geologist of California and Co-Chair of the “Hazards” Committee of the Association of American State Geologists: Tim Kustic, State of California Oil and Gas Supervisor; Austin Holland,Seismologist, Sate of Oklahoma; Dr. G. Randy Keller, Director Oklahoma Geological Survey and State Geologist; and Mike Smith, Executive Director, Interstate Oil & Gas Compact Commission.


To solve these problems is a complex undertaking. A document prepared by Aminzadeh and other USC faculty, including Professors Behnam Jarfarpour (Petroleum Engineering), Charles Sammis and Meghan Miller (Earth Sciences); Lucio Soilbelman and Roger Ghanem (Civil and Environmental Engineering) proposed  a detailed work plan including a timetable of deliverables for the Induced Seismicity Consortium to oversee.

The Consortium is a voluntary association supported by industry members, who in return receive benefits and interact with the consortium via their designated representatives on the ISC decision review advisors, the Technical Advisory and the Strategic Advisory Boards.

Aminzadeh notes that USC is uniquely well situated for this research. It has a long-established petroleum engineering program, as well as its USC Southern California Earthquake Center and USCEI. It is physically located in an active earthquake area and has a vigorous program in plate tectonics and seismicity, strong expertise in structural earthquake engineering in and sophisticated mathematical modeling expertise. "In addition," he said, "we expect to exploit many leveraging opportunities from other ongoing related programs such as the Reservoir Monitoring Consortium and the Center for Geothermal Studies."

Earthquakes, most of them extremely weak, but some perceptible without instruments, are associated with oil and gas extraction, even in places with no seismic history. The NRC challenge is to determine how to avert any that might cause damage, without drastically reducing energy production.

After presentation by members of the USC ICS faculty, the meeting moved to breakout sessions on Technical Challenges (chaired by Don Paul, Executive Director of the USC Energy Institute); Regulatory Challenges, (chaired by James Slutz, former Assistant Secretary of Energy), and Operators Challenges, (chaired by Kathy Hogenson, President of Zone Energy). There, members of the various stakeholders present — regulators, industry, academics and others — discussed the issues and made proposals, elements of which were incorporated into the ICS plan or scheduled for discussion.

While the official start date of the project is September 1, 2012, preliminary investigations are ongoing. The work plans of the ISC include:

  • Characterizing Fracture Network Using Microseismic Data
  • Developing ANN Model to Correlate MEQ Events and Microseismic Attributes
  • Developing a Hierarchical Probabilistic Model for Operational Parameters
  • Developing a System to Control the Hazard Associated with Induced Seismicity
  • Developing a science-based framework for input to regulatory processes and government agencies
  • Developing a public communication and educational plan and process.

"During the next several months we expect to finalize our work plan and get the sponsoring entities on board," said Aminzadeh. "The early reactions from participating companies and agencies have been very positive and we expect a successful program with significant positive outcome enabling our ability to produce from unconventional recourse safely and responsibly. "