In Texas Oil, an unfamiliar threat: earthquakes
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Pecos, Texas – The grounds of West Texas shook one November day, quivering in the two-story town hall in downtown Pecos, swaying ceiling fans in an old railroad station, and rattling walls in a popular restaurant.
The earthquake was recorded as a magnitude 5.4 earthquake, which is among the largest ever recorded in the state. Then, a month later, another equally astounding plane struck near Odessa and Midland, two rural oil towns with relatively tall office buildings, some visible for miles around.
The quakes, which arrived in close succession, were the latest in what has been several years of increased seismic activity in Texas, a state known for many types of natural disasters but not usually, until now, for major ground movements. In 2022, the state recorded more than 220 earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or higher, up from 26 recorded in 2017, when the University of Texas Office of Economic Geology began monitoring closely.
So unheard of powerful earthquakes in the flat, oil-rich region about six hours’ drive west of Austin were that some residents initially mistook the November quake for a gust of strong winds. Lloyd Chappell, the retired propane delivery man who was in his chair at the time, thought one of his grown-up sons was joking as he rocked his chair. But there was no one. His water flowed into his cup for 30 long seconds.
“We’ve heard noises before — out there in the oil field, dropping big tanks or things like that,” Chappelle, 66, said. “But I’ve never felt that way before.”
The vast majority of the earthquakes were concentrated in the highly productive oil fields of the Permian Basin, particularly those in Reeves County, north and west of Pecos. The county’s official population of 14,000 does not account for the transient, mostly male workers residing in hardcore “men’s camps” and RV parks, brought there with the promise of good pay for long hours, rough terrain, and dangerous work.
Now, earthquakes are part of the same arithmetic.
“In West Texas, you love the smell of the oil and gas slick because it smells of money,” said Rod Bunton, a former Pecos city attorney who inadvertently gained international fame by posing as an anxious cat during a court hearing on Zoom. . “If you had to shake the ground every two or three months to make sure you had a good paycheck coming in every month, you wouldn’t think twice about it.”
The economy of Pecos and a few of the surrounding towns–some little more than sand-laden highway junctions and convenience stores at busy gas stations–revolve around the oil fields.
John Perez had moved several months earlier to a men’s camp in Orla, in Reeves County, to take a job at a two-store because the pay was twice what he was getting in Houston. “It’s nice to have a lot of space,” he said of the area. “But two hours after the nearest cardiologist.”
When the November earthquake struck, Mr. Briers, 55, was working in the store, whose central seating area serves as an informal canteen for the workers. He said the force was enough to shake the building and push a large mobile crane parked nearby into a trailer. Mr. Briers likened it to the artillery he felt while serving in the Army in Afghanistan.
On a recent weekday, a crowd of mostly men in dusty work boots and T-shirts emblazoned with company logos streamed into the store from white pickup trucks, most of them uninterested in discussing earthquakes. Did they feel any of the earthquakes shown by seismographs hitting the oil fields?
“Nobody really cares as long as the money is there,” said Nick Granado, 31, who paused briefly before lunch. He said he was at home in Pecos with his wife and two-year-old child at the time of the November earthquake. “It was different,” he said of the shake. “But I was not afraid.”
In Reeves County, oil and gas production has increasingly led to fracking, an extraction process that, as a by-product, produces a massive amount of wastewater. Some of this wastewater is reused in fracking operations, but most of it is injected back underground. Regulators and geoscientists agree that the process of pushing tens of billions of gallons of water into the ground is responsible for many earthquakes.
The relationship between sewage disposal and earthquakes has long been understood. Other states with large fracking operations have also seen the ground shake as a result, including Oklahoma, where a similarly rapid increase in seismicity more than a decade ago included a 5.6-magnitude earthquake in 2016 that shut down several sewage wells.
Disposal of “produced” water is a big business in West Texas, and sites marked “SWD”—brine disposal—dot the landscape of rigs and truck-strewn roads. Each of the past few years, about 168 billion gallons of sewage have been dumped this way, according to data from the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil industry.
Texas recently began its statewide seismic program, after a series of small earthquakes in North Texas shook residents of Dallas and Fort Worth. Monitoring began in 2017 — just as petroleum development accelerated in the Permian Basin, particularly in and around Reeves County — and began detecting increased seismic activity.
“It was really very serendipitous,” said Dr. Peter Hennings, principal investigator of the Center for Integrated Earthquake Research at the University of Texas.
While natural earthquakes can occur in West Texas, Dr. Hennings said, they can also be triggered by human activity: Injecting a large amount of water in a short period of time increases fluid pressure underground, essentially reducing “stabilization.” between rocks along natural faults and allowing them to slide, creating an earthquake.
Dr Hennings said seismologists have established a relationship between smaller earthquakes and larger ones: the more small earthquakes there are, the greater the probability of a larger earthquake.
The problem can be addressed by reducing the amount of saline water pumped back into the ground. Oklahoma, for example, has done this in recent years and has seen a decrease in the number of earthquakes.
In 2021, the Texas Railroad Commission noted an “unprecedented frequency of large earthquakes” in and around Reeves County and asked companies to implement their wastewater plans, hoping to reduce the number of earthquakes of magnitude 3.5 or greater by the end of this year.
To address earthquakes outside of Odessa and Midland, state regulators have suspended permits for deep disposal wells. And just north of the border with Texas, regulators in New Mexico have taken their own steps to control the brine dump, including $2 million in fines to Exxon for failing to comply.
The issue of fracking has been a major issue for environmental groups in Texas, which have raised concerns about pollution, climate change, social injustice — and now earthquakes. “It is time for the Texas Railroad Commission to update the rules on injection wells,” said Cyrus Reid, conservation director for the Lone Star Chapter at the Sierra Club, adding that there should be restrictions on injecting “fracking-contaminated sewage” in places affected by the activity. seismic.
For local officials in West Texas, the earthquakes presented new and unexpected concerns about the structural integrity of buried buildings and pipes, as well as basic questions, such as, What are you supposed to do in an earthquake?
“I highlighted that we need to do some safety training,” said Pecos City Manager Charles Leno. He was at a staff meeting on the second floor of the City Hall — a building Mr. Lino described as “very old” — when the floor began moving for what seemed like a minute during the November earthquake, which had its epicenter northwest of the city.
“Most of the staff were a little shaky and were like, ‘What do we do?'” He said. “I don’t know how to act either, because I’m from this area.” Mr. Lino said the city is just beginning to develop its earthquake training.
Months earlier, in March, the county’s chief of emergency management, Jerry Pollard, began tracking earthquakes. “There were two yesterday and one today,” he said on a recent weekday, looking at his list. He presented his catalog to the leaders of the county at a meeting in December. “They were kind of surprised,” he said.
His attention was focused on the old infrastructure in the area, including the three-story courthouse in Pecos. But the county has traditionally been ineffective when it comes to building laws in unincorporated areas. “This county doesn’t even have a county fire code,” Mr. Pollard said.
At the same time, storing extra sewage — with its volatile mixture of chemicals — above ground to avoid pumping too much into the ground has created a new risk, Mr. Pollard said. He said two explosions this month have occurred at brine disposal facilities in the county, setting them on fire and creating a “black stream of smoke” for miles around.
So far, earthquakes have not caused much noticeable damage. Some residents said they noticed new cracks in their walls or patios, or a roof that seemed to lean a little more than before. Earthquake insurance isn’t something people generally buy in West Texas, although there is talk of it now, particularly in the larger cities of Odessa and Midland.
“We have tall buildings — not many tall buildings — but people are worried about the foundations,” said Javier Goffin, Odessa Mayor, who met with state organizers and Midland leaders on the issue in 2021. Most of the tall buildings in the area were constructed decades ago, below requirements now common in earthquake-prone areas, officials said. (Many in Midland have long sat empty, some have recently been demolished or are slated to be.)
So far, he said, officials have not taken steps to change building codes to cope with earthquakes, which could add significant new costs to construction. Meanwhile, every jerk becomes a topic of conversation. The mayor said he felt at least three.
“The big popular debate here is: Did you feel it? Didn’t you feel it?” He said. “And everyone goes on Facebook: I felt it. I felt it.”
Sound produced by Adrienne Hurst.
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