Texas Restricts Fracking Practice Because It Causes So Many Earthquakes

The Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC) is halting new permits for the injection of wastewater from fracking in a swath of the state after a wave of earthquakes were connected to the practice. 

In a release to fossil fuel producers published Friday, the state’s oil and gas regulator said it would no longer be permitting disposal wells around Midland, in the northwest region of Texas because of earthquakes until further notice. The agency requested that an existing 76 wells reduce their daily injection volumes and ordered that permitted wells that aren’t yet in service refrain from starting injection. The announcement came the same day as a 3.3 magnitude quake just 36 miles north, E&E News reported Monday. 

“​​The Railroad Commission of Texas’ most critical mission is protection of public safety and the environment,” Andrew Keese, spokesperson for the agency, told Motherboard. “The RRC’s Seismologist and staff have been investigating recent earthquakes close to populated areas near Midland and Odessa, and assessed steps that could be taken by oil and gas operators to help mitigate the events.”

Wastewater injection is a common practice for the disposal of brine, which is produced in the fracking process. It involves shooting polluted liquid deep underground into containment zones in porous geological formations, where it is intended to stay there indefinitely. That water typically includes a cocktail of chemicals used in the fracking process, which are at risk of leaching into nearby waterways, contaminating groundwater and ecosystems. 

The practice is commonplace in the Permian Basin in Texas, the largest oil field in the country (an estimated five trillion liters were disposed of in the region between 1978 and 2016). It’s also well-understood to cause seismic activity. When fluid is injected at such a high pressure so deep (sometimes miles) into the ground, it runs the risk of hitting a fault line, counteracting existing friction between tectonic plates and spurring on a quake. In Oklahoma, also home to ample oil and gas drilling, the state geological survey tied a 900-fold increase in earthquakes between 2008 and 2019 to wastewater injection, a pattern that state seismologist Jake Walter told Scientific American is “unprecedented in human history.” 

Known to some as “frackquakes,” the seismic disturbances are a common consequence of wastewater injection that have alarmed residents near the state’s petroleum-producing zones for over a decade.

In 2009 and 2010, researchers at Southern Methodist University linked a string of earthquakes in Cleburne, Texas to the injection of fracking wastewater underground after installing sensors near fault lines and pinpointing injection wells near the epicenter of a number of quakes. The same authors reported the same trend around a wave of earthquakes a few years later, between 2013 and 2014, in Azle, Texas, 50 miles north. 

The practice, and the resulting quakes, have long disturbed nearby residents. 

“They haven’t had earthquakes around here for 100 years, and to have this happen now — 32 within just the last couple of months — is crazy,” Darla Hobbs, a resident of Azle, Texas told NBC news about the string of earthquakes in her town in 2014. “And it’s not our fault for living here. It’s the gas well industry for drilling, and fracking, and the injection wells.”

As recently as March of 2020, a magnitude 5.0 earthquake in west Texas, near the New Mexico border was tied to nearby wastewater injection. Located in an area of “known human-caused seismicity,” the United States Geological Survey reported at the time, it was the largest event recorded in the region in two decades, spanning 5.3 miles and triggering more than 1,000 reports from residents, despite its location in a sparsely-populated area. 

The months since have seen another six earthquakes, including Friday’s, hit the area around Midland and Odessa. The RRC said in its release to operators that wastewater injection “likely contributes” to this activity. 

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