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Earthquake in oil country highlights environmental concerns

Earthquake in oil country highlights environmental concerns


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A pumping crane in the Permian Basin, the largest oil-producing region in the United States. Joe Riedel/Getty Images

A 5.3-magnitude earthquake struck a major oil basin in West Texas on Wednesday afternoon, strong enough to be felt in Austin and other parts of the state. It was not immediately clear if the quake affected the oil companies’ operations, but it could heighten concern that industry activity is causing more tremors.

“The immediate impact of the event can be felt by several operators such as Coterra (CTRA), PDC Energy (PDCE), ConocoPhillips (COP) and others currently producing near the quake,” wrote Truist analyst Neal Dingmann. “Many Permian operators could feel the future impacts if political experts decide to try to make a case for the latest event.”

The three companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment on whether the quake had affected their operations or resulted in any injuries. The Permian Basin of Texas and New Mexico is the most oil-producing region in the United States, with more than 300 drilling rigs operating.

Earthquakes are becoming a growing concern in the state. In 2021, the state recorded 209 earthquakes of at least magnitude 3.0, up from 98 the year before, according to an analysis by The Texas Tribune.

Texas isn’t the only state that has seen more activity. In the central and eastern United States, the annual number of earthquakes of at least magnitude 3.0 has risen to more than 100, from about 25 before 2009, according to the USGS.

University of Texas researchers linked the increase in earthquakes to oil and gas production and related activities. The USGS says the biggest problem is post-oil wastewater disposal, not the upstream hydraulic fracturing that pumps fluids and sand into shale deposits to force fossil fuels out.

“Disposal of waste fluids that are a by-product of oil production is the primary cause of the recent increase in earthquakes in the central United States,” the USGS said. “Sewage disposal wells typically operate for longer periods and inject much more fluid than hydraulic fracturing, making them more likely to cause earthquakes.”

Dingman said the earthquakes could lead to more regulations affecting oil and gas production. Last year, the Texas Railroad Commission suspended some types of water disposal injections in parts of the Permian Basin.

Write to Avi Salzman at [email protected]




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