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Big West Texas earthquake highlights new earthquake rules

Big West Texas earthquake highlights new earthquake rules


Texans from San Antonio to Dallas felt the effects of the earthquake, which began in far western 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 that the Texas Railroad Commission keeps close tabs on. This is due to the large volume of fracking wastewater being injected into the ground there – a practice that can cause earthquakes.

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

This text has been slightly edited for clarity:

Texas Standard: After this earthquake, I sent out a series of tweets about how the epicenter was located within the so-called seismic response zone. What is this?

Hugh Daigle: Yeah, that’s a good question. So the Railroad Commission has developed a set of these seismic response areas in West Texas, and this particular area is the Northern Culberson-Reeves Seismic Response Area, which is one of the counties in which it’s located. And this is an area where there are a lot of earthquakes that they believe are related to the disposal of water from oil and gas operations in the area. And this is an area where they are looking very carefully at allowing disposal wells in an effort to completely reduce any earthquakes of magnitude 3.5 or higher within 18 months of implementation, which was in March of this year.

Just to avoid any confusion, the Railroad Authority is the agency that regulates the oil and gas industry in Texas. This area, if I understand what you’re saying correctly, this was created specifically to reduce the number of earthquakes that were caused by fracking, right?

This is absolutely true. So between January 1, 2017, and October 20, 2021, they recorded 42 of these events greater than magnitude 3.5. Based on the locations of those events, they drew a circumferential map around the east and established this region. And they said, “Well, this is a problematic area and we need to address the earthquakes that happen here.”

I understood you. So just to be clear, we’re not talking about fracking itself. We’re talking about what companies do with their wastewater. Now, just to clarify, what, if anything, was actually caused by this earthquake that occurred in this seismic response area?

So over the years, my colleagues in the Office of Economic Geology here at the University of Texas have mapped out a series of, in fact, quite a number of faults that are not currently active. And what happens when you inject water, you increase the pressure that’s inside the rock. And when you change that pressure, you can actually reactivate some of those bugs. This is what causes an earthquake.

What kind of impact might this ultimately end up having on the domestic oil and gas industry? I mean, are we looking at the possibility or possibility of new regulations on fracking activities or what?

Well, this is an interesting question. So according to the terms of this seismic response program, there is, in fact, no specific action that anyone should take as a result of this earthquake, because none of these deep injection wells are close enough to the epicenter. So it will be interesting to see if we need more regulations coming out of this. But interestingly, at the moment, it doesn’t seem like there should be any change in behavior according to the regulations we have.

Do I understand you to say that fracking water, sewage, does not appear to have caused this earthquake or appears to be directly related to it?

Well, you know, it’s really hard to prove a causal relationship in this kind of situation. And I’m sure that in the months and years to come, we’ll see some detailed studies to try and figure out what really happened. The depth of the earthquake certainly corresponds to being triggered by some of these deep injection wells. The closest point is located about 9 to 10 miles from the epicenter, and it is not inconceivable that the pressure was spread out to that extent. But again, like I said, it’s really hard to single out a specific event in this kind of activity.

Then 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, the Valentine earthquake back in the 1930s, which was much further south from where we are. There were 5 degrees in this area in 2020. And I think it’s reasonable to assume that the large amounts of water that’s being injected — I mean, we’re talking hundreds of thousands of barrels a day, so millions of gallons a day going down these wells in this area In particular – it is reasonable to assume that this will have some effect on what is going on in the Earth’s interior. And I think it’s really important to know that some of that is not very well understood at this point.

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