Amid Increasing Earthquakes, Texas Forces Reduction in Fracking Disposal

Oil and gas operators pressured to recycle wastewater

An oil rig in New Mexico (Photo by Getty Images)

From November 8 to December 17, 2023, there were seven recorded earthquakes in Culberson and Reeves counties, near Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

One of them, at a 5.2 magnitude, constituted the fourth-strongest earthquake in Texas history. Texas’ oil and gas regulator, the Railroad Commission (RRC), determined that the recent rise in seismic activity in the area is a result of fracking wastewater injections, and has suspended 23 oil and gas operators’ disposal permits, effective January 12.

This is a rare move for the industry-friendly RRC, but points to an increasingly irrefutable acknowledgment of the effect fracking has on the West Texas landscape. A 2022 UT-Austin study found that seismicity rates have been increasing related to fracking wastewater injections in the Delaware Basin, which encompasses West Texas and New Mexico. More seismic events than previously identified were associated with hydraulic fracking itself, which uses high-pressure water to widen cracks to allow oil and gas to be extracted. However, the study notes that the process of disposing of wastewater produced from fracking is linked to many more earthquakes. Wastewater is produced after oil and gas is pumped out of the wells, when the groundwater that comes up with it is then injected back into the ground. That injection then puts pressure on fault lines, causing more earthquakes.

The RRC move will put pressure on operators like Chevron and Coterra to reconsider how they handle fracking wastewater, the Houston Chronicle reported. Chevron released a statement last month that it had already reduced its injection volumes by around 75% following an earthquake in 2022, and the RRC said last month that injections from multiple operators in the region had already been reduced by up to 80% in response to last month’s earthquake. Now, because of the RRC’s permit suspension, companies will have to redirect 100% of that wastewater. That means they’ll either see higher costs associated with pipelines to ferry the wastewater elsewhere, or will have to build out water recycling facilities within the region.

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