West Texas quake highlights new seismic rules

Texans from San Antonio to Dallas felt the effects of the earthquake that began in far West Texas on Wednesday. The 5.4 magnitude quake was the third largest quake recorded by the USGS in Texas.

The earthquake occurred in an area closely monitored by the Texas Railroad Commission. This is due to the large amount of wastewater generated by hydraulic fracturing that ends up in the ground, a practice that can cause earthquakes.

Hugh Daigle, an associate professor in the Department of Petroleum and Geosystem Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, spoke to the Texas Standard about efforts to reduce seismic activity in the area. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity:

Texas Standard: After this earthquake, you sent out a series of tweets about how the epicenter of the earthquake fell into the so-called seismic response zone. What it is?

Hugh Daigle: Yes, that’s a good question. So the Railroad Commission has developed several of these seismic response areas in West Texas, and that particular area is the North Culberson Reeves area, which belongs to the counties in which it is located. And this is an area where there have been a lot of earthquakes, which they believe are related to the release of water obtained from oil and gas production in the area. And this is an area where they are looking very closely at the permit for drainage wells to completely reduce any earthquakes of magnitude 3.5 or higher within 18 months of the implementation, which happened in March of this year.

To avoid confusion, the Railroad Commission is the agency that regulates the Texas oil and gas industry. So, this region, if I understand what you’re saying correctly, was created specifically to reduce the number of earthquakes caused by hydraulic fracturing, right?

That’s for sure. Thus, in the period from January 1, 2017 to October 20, 2021, they recorded 42 such events with a magnitude of more than 3.5. And based on the places of those events, they drew a contour map around the east and established this area. And they said, “Okay, this is a problem area, and we need to solve the seismic problem that is happening here.”

Clear. So just to clarify, we are not talking about fracturing itself. We’re talking about what companies do with wastewater. Now, just to be clear, what, if anything, is actually caused by this earthquake happening in this seismic response zone?

So, over the years, my colleagues at the Bureau of Economic Geology here at the University of Texas have mapped a number of, in fact, a large number of faults that are not currently active. And what happens when you pump water, you increase the pressure inside the rocks. And when you change that pressure, you can reactivate some of those bugs. And that’s what causes an earthquake.

So what impact could this ultimately have on the local oil and gas industry? I mean, are we looking at the likelihood, the possibility of new fracking rules or what?

Well, that’s an interesting question. So under the terms of this seismic response program, there really isn’t any specific action anyone should take on this earthquake, because none of these deep injection wells are close enough to the epicenter of the earthquake. So it will be interesting to see if we need any additional rules that follow from this. But what’s interesting, right now, it doesn’t look like there should be any change in behavior according to the rules that we have.

Do I understand correctly that you are saying that fracking water, sewage did not cause this earthquake or was not directly related to it?

You know, in such a situation it is very difficult to establish a causal relationship. And I am sure that in the coming months and years we will see detailed studies to try to find out what really happened. The depth of the quake certainly matches that it was caused by some of these deep injection wells. The nearest one is about 9-10 miles from the epicenter, and it is possible that the pressure could have spread that far. But again, as I said, it is very difficult to single out one specific event in this type of activity.

So what does the future look like when it comes to seismic activity in this part of West Texas?

Well, we know that there was a big earthquake in the 1930s, the Valentine Earthquake, which happened much farther south than we do. Back in 2020, the area had a magnitude of 5. And I think it’s reasonable to assume that a large amount of water being injected – I mean, we’re talking hundreds of thousands of barrels a day, so millions of gallons a day down these wells in this particular area – it’s reasonable to assume that this will have some impact. to what is going on in the depths. And I think it’s very important to know that some of them are just very poorly understood at the moment.

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