“Texas Oil and Gas Agency Investigating 5.4 Magnitude Earthquake in West Texas, Largest in Three Decades” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that educates Texans on public policy, politics and government — and with working together with them and national problems.
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Texas Railroad Commission inspectors are studying a 5.4-magnitude earthquake that was recorded Wednesday west of Pecos near the border of Reeves and Culberson counties, the agency said.
The earthquake, which was confirmed by the US Geological Survey, was the strongest earthquake recorded in the state since 1995 and the third largest in Texas history, according to the USGS National Earthquake Information Center.
The largest quake in Texas history had a magnitude of 5.8 southwest of Valentine in 1931, according to the USGS National Earthquake Information Center.
“It felt like a truck hit the house,” said David Shifflett, a 74-year-old farmer in Reeves County, near the quake’s epicenter. “Sounded like a really strong wind coming up.”
It was the strongest tremor to hit Texas in almost three decades, but it was far from the only one. Shifflett has weathered damage from minor earthquakes for years. One left a wide bulge on its 2,000 acres around 2016, ripping pipes and ruining its gravity-fed irrigation system, he said.
The quake was felt as far away as Carlsbad, New Mexico and El Paso, and it forced University Health’s Bexar County Hospital District to vacate a historic hospital building in downtown San Antonio after civil engineers declared it unsafe. The more than 100-year-old building was once considered the most modern hospital of its kind in the southwest.
Most of the building’s clinical services were moved to a new building about a decade ago, but some administrative services were still housed in the historic location. Those offices have now been moved elsewhere, according to a statement from University Health.
The number of earthquakes recorded in Texas has skyrocketed in recent years, particularly in the Permian Basin of west Texas, the state’s most prolific oil and gas region. Scientific studies have linked seismic activity to the disposal of contaminated, salty water deep underground — a common practice by oil companies at the end of the hydraulic fracking process that can awaken dormant fault lines.
[Earthquakes in Texas doubled in 2021. Scientists cite years of oil companies injecting sludgy water underground.]
With every barrel of oil during the fracking process, between three and six barrels of salty, polluted water come to the surface—ancient water trapped by rock formations underground.
Years of pumping hundreds of millions of gallons a day of contaminated water underground in Texas have coincided with more frequent and powerful earthquakes in the state: An analysis by The Texas Tribune found that the number of earthquakes measuring 3.0 and above will double in 2021 had from the previous year.
The vast majority of seismicity over the past two decades that has occurred near Pecos was likely triggered by increased sanitation, a 2021 study by scientists from the USGS and the University of Texas found.
In recent years, the Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas activities in the state and issues permits for the water injection wells, has created several “seismic response areas” in West Texas, where the agency has asked companies to curtail their water disposal activities and one of the industry plan to reduce seismic activity.
This week’s quake occurred in a deployment area in Culberson and Reeves counties that was established earlier this year. The agency said its inspectors are reviewing the industry groups’ plan and inspecting nearby water disposal activities. The quake could prompt operators to reduce sewage injections, according to a statement from the Railroad Commission.
It can take several months to a year after sewage discharge is reduced or stopped for the area to stop shaking; The Railroad Commission warned in a statement Thursday that historical activity suggests the time lag could be anywhere from 12 to 18 months.
Neta Rhyne, 73, of Toyahvale in Reeves County, has spent years protesting disposal well permits over fears they will cause earthquakes that will ruin the area’s groundwater.
A 1995 earthquake, before the fracking boom, damaged the massive natural springs at nearby Balmorhea State Park, muddying the water and shutting down recreational swimming for months.
“These springs are disappearing, this valley will die,” Rhyne said. “This is our livelihood.”
Shifflett, the Reeves County farmer, said he strongly supports the oil sector but thinks Texas regulators are not doing their part to limit the impact on geological stability.
“The Railroad Commission is doing a lousy job of letting the oil companies do what they want,” he said. “They allow themselves to be too close to the surface to put too much high pressure under the ground.”
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization funded in part by donations from members, foundations, and corporate sponsors. Financial backers play no part in the Tribune’s journalism. find a complete one list of them here.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/11/18/texas-earthquake-fracking-railroad-commission/.
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