Is New Mexico ready for increasing earthquakes? That's what our reporting is tackling
CARLSBAD ― The railroad track that runs behind the former Carlsbad Current-Argus office on South Main Street frequently carried trains that shook the old building for minutes. But the shaking that happened on March 26, 2020 was different. It was short and sharp. It set metal cabinets humming and the window panes rattling.
The 5.0 magnitude earthquake recorded that day by the U.S. Geological Survey centered west of Mentone, Texas didn't cause any damage but was at that time the largest recorded quake in the region for at least two decades.
Since then, increasingly larger-scale seismic events have struck the same region. The most recent was a 5.2 magnitude quake centered near Midland, Texas on Dec. 16, 2022. Damage from a Nov. 16, 2022 quake was reported in Texas but was relatively minor. In Carlsbad, merchants in the downtown area flooded the street that day with one question: "Did you feel that, too?" Residents of Las Cruces and Albuquerque reported feeling the quake, too.
In the last three years, the USGS has recorded 10 seismic events of 4.5 magnitude or higher - and earthquakes aren't only getting stronger, they're getting more frequent, which could mean those living and working in southern New Mexico and west Texas might begin to feel the increasing consequences of seismic activity.
What's less obvious is why this is happening. Through our reporting, experts in seismicity and geology have linked the change to a booming oil and gas industry, which disposes of its waste water via injection wells. Those wells see millions of gallons of toxic water pumped back into a geology vulnerable to sinkholes and erosion.
And there are hundreds of these disposal wells in the Permian Basin.
The Current-Argus always begins its coverage of earthquake activity in the region consulting USGS data - and the data tells an alarming story of the link between the two that is now being more deeply explored in research communities and among the fossil fuel industry itself.
In Shaky Ground, the Current-Argus and its reporting partner, KRWG Public Media, explores what increased seismic activity means for residents of the Permian Basin, and how solutions are now being sought to not only mitigate current effects but head off disaster.
Oil and gas operators have begun to explore technology that limits the use of injection wells and focuses instead on recycling waste water, keeping it out of fragile geology.
We've been lucky: Some of the most devastating natural disasters in the world are the result of earthquakes, costing lives, billions in damages and economic loss. The world is wracked by small earthquakes on a daily basis - like the hundreds of 2.0 magnitude quakes recorded in the Permian Basin yearly. Worldwide, there are about 100 per year that measure 7.0 or greater and cause serious damage.
I had no idea what the appropriate response to a seismic event was before undertaking this reporting, and I've no doubt that the thousands who live in the Permian Basin have not paused to consider what the correct response to an earthquake is either.
Do you move to a doorway? Do you hide under a table?
What if your home or business is damaged? Do you have the appropriate insurance coverage?
Is there a plan in place for your community emergency services to respond to an earthquake that causes injuries or damage?
These are the questions we asked in this reporting.
And there is one I hope this reporting answers for our readers: What can be done to ensure our community is safeguarded and prepared in case of a large magnitude earthquake?
Note to readers: We’ve made this story free as an important public service. If you are able, help power local journalism.
Jessica Onsurez can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @JussGREAT.
This article is part of Shaky Ground, a collaborative reporting project between the Carlsbad Current-Argus and KRWG Public Media.