Scientists warned West Texas’ earthquakes would get stronger. What happens next?

A SWD site in the Permian Basin.
A SWD site in the Permian Basin.(Joshua Skinner / KOSA)
Published: Nov. 23, 2022 at 8:59 AM CST
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ODESSA, Texas (KOSA) - While it’s nothing new for West Texas, last week’s 5.4 magnitude earthquake rattled the state, charting as the third most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Texas.

It brings with it new worries that, until recently, were just theories.

“We’re no longer talking about those small earthquakes where you get a little rattle,” said USGS seismologist Elizabeth Cochran. “We’re now seeing those earthquakes that sometimes can result in damage to nearby structures.”

Cochran has seen this scenario in Oklahoma, where earthquakes eventually grew to a 5.8 magnitude before regulators stepped in and made significant changes.

In Texas, the culprit is produced water-disposal sites West of Midland-Odessa near Mentone, an area where almost nobody lives.

So far, the quakes haven’t caused much damage, but increased disposal means increased earthquake intensity.

“It’s very possible that the earthquakes will continue increasing,” USGS seismologist Justin Rubenstein said back in February. “It’s very likely you’ll reach some sort of maximum, and that to some degree will be controlled by the amount of fluid injected.”

That’s where the Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC) comes into play. If earthquakes are happening in less populated areas, nobody bats an eye. When people in San Antonio and Austin start shaking, regulators take notice.

The agency announced it would send inspectors to the sites, but what will be done about the situation is unknown. The RRC could ban or reduce injection in the area, forcing operators to find alternative water disposal methods like in Oklahoma.

But as water is injected into the ground in mass quantities, the dumping effect can push that water to unknown distances, a problem that’s still being studied in Texas.

“Those fields have traveled tens of miles, and they’re affecting earthquake rates at pretty high distances from the high-rate injection wells,” Cochran said.