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How does wastewater from oil and gas production cause earthquakes?

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On a cloudy December 15 afternoon, I was in Houston talking to a colleague on the phone in Midland when a 3.6-magnitude earthquake shook the oil-rich city. She nearly fell out of her chair, and quickly ended the conversation by saying, “I want to reassure my children.” This was one of 15,000 earthquakes to hit the West Texas Permian Basin in the past five years.

The Permian Basin was a prolific economic engine for Texas and a vital energy resource for the United States. The basin is the center of the US shale revolution, uses half of all US drilling rigs, produces approximately 5 million barrels of oil per day, and houses the largest shale-reserve base on the planet. Its resources are geographically deep and vast, with one of the thickest hydrocarbon structures in the world extending 300 miles from Big Lake, Texas, to Carlsbad, New Mexico.

But the Permian Basin has a problem: a problem of 15 million barrels a day. Approximately three barrels of brackish water are produced for every barrel of oil, and that wastewater needs to go somewhere. Much of this water is dumped into thousands of deep injection wells known as brine discharges. Many of these injection wells were drilled on or near old but historically inactive fault lines. Scientists have warned for years that deep water injections can compress these faults and trigger earthquakes.

With 5,200 earthquakes in West Texas in 2021, double the number observed in 2020, this is no longer a theoretical debate. Earthquakes now affect West Texas cities stretching from the Pecos to the Big Spring, often weekly. The Texas Railroad Commission, the main Texas oil and gas regulator, has responded in a pragmatic, data-driven way by severely limiting wastewater disposal in parts of six counties, affecting how millions of barrels of oil are produced per day.

Earthquake data used by the Railways Commission is collected by TexNet seismological software. In 2015, the Texas Legislature headed by Governor Greg Abbott passed a law that created TexNet to scientifically identify the causes of increased seismic activity through the collection and analysis of continuous seismic data. The rapid rise in West Texas earthquakes has prompted data-driven regulatory action from the commission to mitigate induced earthquakes while still facilitating the development of the state’s most important energy asset.

Over the past two years, the Railways Commission has organized and encouraged the development of multiclient water recycling and storage facilities. These facilities recycle the produced water for use in the completion process, thus reducing reliance on deep well injection into basement formations where fault lines are.

The commission also developed strict commercial recycling permit standards known as Section 6-H11. These rules are necessary because they protect West Texas aquifers, waterways, and ecosystems from productive water pollution.

Produced water typically contains petroleum, chemicals left over from the fracking process, suspended solids and, when improperly stored, can create toxic hydrogen sulfide gas. Commercially permitted recycling facilities operating under the new standards are held accountable through strict reporting, interconnection, engineering, monitoring and other regulations.

Over the final months of 2021, the Railways Commission responded more aggressively with first-of-its-kind seismic response measures severely limiting pumping of water produced into deep wells in seismically active areas, particularly around the Odessa Midland population centers. These measures encouraged the safe recycling of wastewater or at least its redirection away from population centers and seismic accumulations.

To understand these actions, it is important to understand how Permian Basin operators have managed billions of barrels of fresh water and sewage over the past decade, and how it has evolved.

In the early 2010s, operators used fresh water from local aquifers to fracking single-well development projects. Upon completion, the wastewater byproduct was trucked to local disposal wells for injection. In the early days of shale, there were very few earthquakes, so induced earthquakes were not understood. By the late 2010s, multiple well development technologies had materially improved efficiency, but also increased the demand for fresh water for fracking and deep well injectors for wastewater disposal.

While additional water infrastructure was built to deal with the increasing demands of the industry, the water reservoirs supporting the Permian Basin began to send a distress signal: aquifers began to deteriorate and injection formations began to vibrate. The Railways Commission took action. Today’s water supply chain depends less on fresh aquifers and more on the consumption of recycled produced water. The water produced now almost exclusively travels through the pipeline, rather than by truck, to recycling or disposal facilities away from population centers or concentrated earthquake areas.

Make no mistake about it, brine discharge into deep wells is here to stay. With more than 2,000 active disposals in Texas, it is an essential tool in the management of produced wastewater. However, with data-driven regulation and thoughtful oversight, the Railroad Commission has encouraged operators to be better stewards of the Permian Basin either by recycling the water produced when possible or moving it to disposal sites outside population centers or seismic gatherings when possible. .

Jason Gennaro is CEO of Breakwater Energy Partners, which has built the largest commercially permitted productive water recycling facility in Texas. This column was written in the Dallas Morning News.

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