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Risk of quakes caused by oil, gas in New Mexico rising

November 21, 2021 GMT

CARLSBAD, N.M. (AP) — Multiple earthquakes were felt earlier this fall in West Texas, leading regulators in that state to designate a seismic response area and call for less wastewater from oil and gas development to be injected in disposal wells.

As more seismic activity was reported closer to the state line, officials in New Mexico have been watching closely and gathering data. Some officials are concerned that as Texas limits the injection of produced water as a means to curb the seismic activity, that could affect producers in New Mexico.

In October, Texas regulators created a second seismic response area just along the border with southeastern New Mexico. Officials pointed to more than a dozen quakes along the state line since Jan. 1, 2020, with six of those reported this fall.

That meant almost half of the heightened seismic activity in the area since last year occurred in the last month, the Carlsbad Current-Argus reported. Texas officials referred to the activity as “unprecedented.”

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Michael Hightower, director of the New Mexico Produced Water Research Consortium at New Mexico State University, said it was clear Texas’ earthquake problem was spreading toward New Mexico.

“We know there’s a lot of water coming over from Texas,” he said. “If you inject all that, you’re going to have seismicity problems.”

He said most of the seismicity being observed is due to saltwater disposal wells and possible over-pressurization.

The consortium worked with Texas regulators, Hightower said, aiming to devise technology that could treat produced water and recycle it for uses like agriculture or even drinking water.

Many oil and gas companies already recycle produced water for subsequent fracking operations, but Hightower said expanding the potential for its reuse presents an economic opportunity and a way to address environmental and water scarcity concerns tied to fossil fuels.

“The big issue is how do you reduce the volume of produced water you’re disposing of. That is the exact mission of the consortium,” he said.

New Mexico was targeting a goal of a 30-60% reduction in produced water disposal, Hightower said.

Jason Jennaro is CEO at Breakwater Midstream, a company that transports produced water and treats it. He said the recent seismic activity made finding alternatives to disposal injection more urgent.

With a second commercial-scale water recycling facility, the company estimates it could treat and distribute more than half a million barrels of produced water a day for the Midland Basin.

“Operators are looking for environmentally sustainable alternatives to disposal within these SRAs and seismic clusters, which is why system interconnectivity and commercial recycling is central to sensible stewardship of the water,” Jennaro said.

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Regulatory action from the Texas commission, he said, will severely impact operations and force the industry to seek alternatives.

Jennaro said the occurrence of smaller earthquakes began to increase in 2017, when oil and gas boomed in the region, up to about three per day recently.

In 2021, records show the region was on track for more than 1,200 earthquakes with magnitudes of 1 to 4.

With more seismicity in Texas, Jennaro said that could mean sending more water to New Mexico to avoid Texas’ increased regulatory action.

Adrienne Sandoval, director of New Mexico’s Oil Conservation Division, said her agency is encouraging operators to recycle and reuse water instead of injecting it.

To avoid over-pressurization, Sandoval said the division implemented well-spacing requirements as a condition of permitted disposal wells.

Sandoval said the state has seen some induced seismicity on the New Mexico side of the border.

“It’s sort of along the Texas line and along the Lea and Eddy county line. We’re working with operators to gather data,” she said, noting that officials want to be proactive and protective ”so we can minimize seismic activity as much as we can.”