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Drilling and the Indonesian Mud Volcano



When I saw the New York Times had an article on a mud volcano in Indonesia, I immediately opened it. I’ve been to Indonesia in 1997 and thought it was great (I have a dream of getting a Fulbright someday to spend a year in Jakarta and explore as much as the archipelago as possible) and I was 6 and living in Oregon when Mt. St. Helens blew up, which for a 6-year old is about as awesome a thing as possible short of dinosaurs coming back to the planet. I’ve loved mountains ever since and have visited quite a bit of the Ring of Fire broadly (someday maybe I’ll get to Chile). Anyway, so I opened the article.

What I wasn’t expecting is to read about a volcano quite possibly set off by energy exploration.

Researchers largely relied on computer models and comparisons with other earthquakes and mud volcano eruptions. But recently scientists in Australia, the United States and Britain uncovered a previously overlooked set of gas readings collected at the drilling site by Lapindo Brantas, a natural gas and oil company, in the days before the mudflow began.

On May 27, 2006, two days before the mudflow began, a devastating 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck Yogyakarta, a city 150 miles west of a drill site in Sidoarjo, where Lapindo engineers were probing for a new natural gas deposit nearly two miles below the surface.

Eight hours after the earthquake, the engineers hit what seemed to be their target carbonate formation. Immediately, something went wrong. Fluid used to maintain pressure in the drill hole suddenly disappeared; hours later, liquid from the formation rushed back into the borehole.

Around 365 barrels of muddy water escaped the hole before the engineers, fearing a blowout, sealed it off. Though the well was capped, the leaking fluid underneath continued to build.

According to Dr. Tingay, the pressure eventually became so great as to induce its own uncontrolled version of fracking, cracking the surrounding rock and finding release nearby. The day after the well was sealed — two days after the earthquake — mud gurgled up about 500 feet from the drilling site.

Had the earthquake caused the disaster, it would have done so through a process called liquefaction, in which shaking causes rock and clay to behave like liquids. Liquefaction, Dr. Tingay and his colleagues argue, is accompanied by large gas expulsions, which would have been detected in the well.

“Every clay liquefaction event that has ever been observed has been associated with gas release,” Dr. Tingay said. But the new gas readings show no evidence of this.

On the other hand, the data does show hydrogen sulfide building a few hours before the earthquake and just as the water began rushing back into the borehole. Traces also turned up at the Lusi vent in the first days of the eruption, indicating that the mud probably came from the same depth as that reached by the drill, rather than the shallower clays that would have been liquefied in the earthquake.

Other scientists are definitely disputing this report. But it’s at least quite possible. Given how fracking has caused earthquakes throughout much of the United States, we know that humans can have a major impact on geological forces. It’d be nice if there was real testing of how drilling and energy exploration might affect the vicinity of that drilling, but the short-term desire for money always trumps long-term community safety, sometimes with some significant consequences.

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  • Jed

    There’s a great chapter about this in the book I’m editing now, by your fan Stan Cox, on natural disasters. The book will be called “How the World Breaks”

  • celticdragonchick

    Hard to say…and I might lean towards a synergy between the two events as another possibility. I wonder how complete and accurate the subsurface modeling is? I wonder if something like a blind fault at depth could be acting as a dam for pressure to build against.

  • njorl

    Whenas in silks my Julia goes
    Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows
    That liquefaction of her clothes.

    Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
    That brave vibration each way free;
    Oh how that glittering taketh me!
    -Robert Herrick

    I’ve always liked the word “liquefaction”, but it never comes up in happy circumstances anymore.

    • sparks

      Yeah, it seems like William S. Burroughs was a million years ago.

    • Lee Rudolph

      Thixotropic haute couture: the coming thing.

  • Just_Dropping_By

    I’m sure that the drilling activity was at least a contributing factor, and possibly even the sole factor, in precipitating the Lusi mud volcano, but I’m curious as to what sort of additional “real testing” can be done for something like this, which appears to be a rather exotic event, other than drilling into the ground and seeing what happens. (Oil and gas companies already have pretty strong incentives to study drill site geology closely since they don’t make money from wells that do nothing but shoot out mud.)

    • celticdragonchick

      It may well be too dangerous to drill other test wells, and it would also be expensive. I’m just wondering why they encountered such a degree of unexpected subsurface pressure and what could be prohibiting fluids at depth from migrating laterally. Really weird. I want to read some of the published work on this, but I let my GSA membership expire.

  • shah8

    This is probably the sort of thing you’re into, Loomis.


    • MikeJake

      The Dutch should tap that and make some new land.

      I would also advise NYC to keep an eye out for any volcanoes they may have overlooked.

  • NewHavenGuy

    NOT in a hectoring tone, honest (Christ, I’ve become such a humorless leftist scold):

    “Energy exploration” is a Frank Luntz focus-grouped propaganda phrase, much like “death tax” and “tax relief”. We shouldn’t be using it.

    Oil drilling(or “drilling for sweet dinosaur juice profits”) is its proper name. Exploring it is not.

    • BiloSagdiyev

      Aye. “Exploration” brings up visions of pith helmets and bold adventure, questing for the unknown.

      Just like “experimenting” with marijuana as a youth brings up visions of lab coats and beakers, not Pink Floyd albums and really, really staring at your hand.

  • ColBatGuano

    Drilling and the Indonesian Mud Volcano

    This will be my band name.

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