Permian earthquakes should prompt Texas officials to act on shale drilling

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On the evening of December 28, Sally Poteet was driving home after dropping her granddaughter off at her daughter’s house when her husband called to ask if she had just accidentally crashed their Bronco Sport into the carport.

In another city, this might be a strange question. But that night, in the small town of Stanton, about 100 miles south of Lubbock, quite a few people were asking for something similar.

“When I got home,” Poteet recalled, “everyone was in their front yard because they thought people had crashed into their house.”

Poteet, the town mayor, knew better. She herself hadn’t noticed anything when she was driving, but when her daughter had called earlier to ask if she had felt a tremor, Poteet immediately knew what it was: an earthquake.

the earthquake of magnitude 4.6 that hit Stanton that night might have been “the worst we’ve had,” as Poteet recently told the Editorial Board, but such sudden tectonic shifts are hardly abnormal these days in cities in full swing. West Texas hydraulic fracturing boom.

In fact, three days later, on New Year’s Eve, the city recorded a magnitude 4.2 earthquake, capping a year in which scientists have documented more than 4,000 earthquakes across Texas. in 2021, according to TexNet, the earthquake monitoring network operated by the Texas Bureau of Economic Geology. People reported feeling more than 150 of these quakes, with 17 recorded at a “significant” magnitude of 4.0 or greater, enough to crack the walls and foundations of buildings. The vast majority occurred in the Permian Basin region, that goldmine of oil and natural gas that kept towns like Stanton afloat for decades.

To research draws a strong connection to the increase in the rate of earthquakes in Texas over the past decade – the number of earthquakes is up 74% from 2020 and is eight times higher than in 2017, according to TexNet – oil and gas operations, primarily the deep injection of oilfield wastewater into disposal wells thousands of feet underground. When well operators pump gas and oil into producing wells, they separate the resulting groundwater. This water is then pumped into an even deeper set of wells in a porous layer of rock. Decades of these injections have created such intense pressure along ancient fault lines that they are triggering earthquakes with alarming frequency.

Essentially, Texas’ endless quest for cheap energy demanded by Americans has led to drilling practices that have turned our state’s once benign subterranean geology into a powder keg. It’s not that these earthquakes should pack the kind of whiplash more commonly associated with giant earthquakes in, say, northern California, but they fundamentally altered the geology of the land beneath communities all over Texas where oil and gas extraction, and associated sewage disposal, continued. This has resulted in increased risk to property and lives, as recognized by even the most ardent oil and gas evangelists, such as Poteet.

“We still need to drill for the oil, we need the oil,” Poteet says. “It’s kind of scary, though. You think, ‘Well, if they keep drilling and doing what’s causing it, is it just going to get worse?’

It’s hard to say how badly things could turn out. For years, the Texas Railroad Commission, the agency that regulates oil and gas production in the state, refused to acknowledge the scientific evidence linking fracking to earthquakes, going so far as to hire a seismologist to denigrate the work of scientists studying the issue, the Dallas Morning News reported in 2016. Even as the commission now acknowledges the scientific evidence linking fracking and earthquakes, it has largely let the drilling of injection wells – and the related disposal of sewage – continue unabated. The Wall Street Journal reported that Texas oil producers pumped an estimated 342 million barrels of water from saltwater disposal wells in 2020.

That’s starting to change, as the constant tremors around the Permian Basin finally jolted the commission from its regulatory stupor. Last month, the commission ordered a suspension of deep salt water injection in a particularly seismic area of ​​the Midland Basin, including Stanton, indefinitely revoking permits for 33 disposal wells. The Chronicle’s Paul Takahashi reported that the action deprived 14 companies, including Houston-based ConocoPhillips and Midland-based Rattler Midstream, of the ability to dump nearly one million barrels of salt water.

Environmentalists and operators have applauded the pause on saltwater injections, but the measure is only a temporary fix, with few clear, cheap alternatives that would appeal to industry. Trucking water to disposal wells elsewhere is expensive. Other methods such as treating and discharging wastewater into surface waters or using it to make road salt – which can then leach chemicals into groundwater – could spell disaster for the environment.

The most promising and safest method – recycling wastewater and reusing it to fracture shale and produce crude oil and natural gas – is still a long way from becoming the industry standard. Only about 9% of the salt water produced in shale fields was recycled last year and analysts say there is not enough pipeline capacity for recycled water to compensate for the use of evacuation well. Last year, the Legislative Assembly established a task force to identify ways to reduce industry’s reliance on freshwater aquifers, given the state’s vulnerability to drought.

But we can’t sit idly by waiting for ideas to hit us in the face before an earthquake strikes. Scientists argue that as long as sewage continues to put pressure on fault lines, earthquakes are likely to continue for the foreseeable future. When fracking states such as Oklahoma and Ohio were touted to link fracking to earthquakes, regulators in both states acted responsibly to indefinitely close sewage disposal wells Where issue new authorization rules for drilling injection wells. After Well Closures, Oklahoma Actually saw a decrease in earthquake frequency for three consecutive years until 2018, although the area is still experiencing seismic activity.

While it is imperative that the industry find a cleaner and safer method of disposing of waste water, the Railroad Commission should also tighten its rules for drilling injection wells to ensure that water is not continuously thrown into the already oversaturated Permian bedrock. Bowl. We should consider ourselves lucky that towns like Stanton haven’t really been hit by a severe earthquake, but we can’t continue to rely on this good fortune.

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