Experts seek solutions for earthquakes in the Permian Basin
This story is part of Shaky Ground, a collaborative reporting project between the Carlsbad Current-Argus and KRWG Public Media.
The Permian Basin has seen an increase in seismic activity tied to produced water injections by the oil and gas industry, but it is not the first place to encounter this issue. According to the USGS, a surge of earthquakes in Oklahoma started in 2009, with 90 magnitude 2 or larger earthquakes reported in the nine years before, and over 10,000 reported between 2010 and 2019.
Jake Walter is a State Seismologist at the Oklahoma Geological Survey. Walter said that solutions to seismicity revolved around prioritizing the gathering and sharing of data, and that when the Oklahoma Corporation Commission stepped in to enforce regulations in the state, the severity of the quakes diminished.
“High-rate disposal wells were more likely than not to produce seismicity so they put caps on certain individual permits. They also examine different areas where there was flurries of seismic activity, but also when there are larger earthquakes, they required those disposal operators to pause operations entirely,” he said. “So we studied that effect, whether that was effective or not, and we actually found that in some cases after any kind of earthquake, there's an expectation of aftershocks. So we showed that actually those regulatory measures to pause operations after larger earthquakes were actually effective because it mitigated some amount of seismic activity in the aftershock period.”
But some officials in New Mexico are not concerned with the increase in seismic activity. John Waters is the Executive Director of the Carlsbad Department of Development. He said while he can feel some quakes, he’s not worried about them, as the epicenter of most quakes are in Texas.
“It’s not happening here. So is it a major issue, are people being hurt, is the environment being hurt? Not that we can tell. I haven’t seen any data to that effect. So it’s a curiosity right now. I don’t even think it’s an annoyance, even for the people that live there, most people barely even feel that.”
Waters said that the increase in oil and gas production is an opportunity for New Mexicans, not a threat. But for Mike Hightower, Program Director at the New Mexico Produced Water Research Consortium at New Mexico State University, the earthquakes in Texas pose a threat to the industry in New Mexico due to the fact that New Mexico sends a significant portion of its produced water to be injected into Texas wells.
“If there continues to be seismic activity in Texas and they limit that, it’s going to be limiting some of the water that’s coming from New Mexico going to Texas. So that is going to have an impact on production in New Mexico, it’s going to have an impact on jobs in New Mexico,” he said.
But with emerging treatment technology, Hightower said that he believes that produced water could be used to supplement New Mexican industries, bringing environmental, ecological, and economic benefits.
“Everybody wants to pick on oil and gas because of greenhouse gas emissions. But if you want to go to a hydrogen economy, you have got to have water. We don’t have the water to support a hydrogen economy. With produced water, we can support a hydrogen economy. We can actually, with produced water, we can reduce our greenhouse gas emissions a lot,” he said.
According to a report from the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee, matched taxable gross receipts from mining, quarrying, and oil and gas are estimated to hit over $2.8 billion dollars in fiscal year 2023, over $1.3 billion compared to 2022. This has led to record-breaking income for the state.
New Mexico isn’t the only state seeing profits from the Permian Basin boom. Teresa Winkles is the Mayor of Pecos, Texas, a small community in the Permian Basin. She said that earthquakes are something she’s never experienced in the area until recently, but is ultimately not concerned.
“I thought somebody had literally hit the building. It’s like it shook the whole building, and then it just felt like it was a roll, it was a wave that kind of went under the building,” she said. “If they were earthquakes like we see in California [with] buildings shaking and all that. But these, they don’t come very often. I know people are pushing the railroad commission to keep monitoring all of this.”
The Texas Railroad Commission has implemented many of the same safeguards as Oklahoma to prevent seismic activity caused by produced water injections, and in New Mexico, the Oil Conservation Division has its ownseismicity response protocol.
But to Jake Walter, an increase in volume is a significant cause for concern and should be monitored and regulated carefully.
“More frequent activity is a suggestion that the earthquake hazard is higher in an area and since we can't know what that ultimate magnitude is going to be, that highest expected magnitude, then there should be some concern about public safety.”
Walter said that there must be a balance struck between ethical gas extraction and keeping surrounding communities safe.