After sharp increase in earthquakes, NM announces new requirements for oil and gas drillers

By: - December 2, 2021 5:32 am

Workers stand on the platform of a fracking rig in the Permian Basin oil field in 2016 in Texas. (Photo by Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

A New Mexico agency overseeing oil extraction in the southern part of the state has issued a new protocol to deal with earthquakes caused by oil and gas production.

State data showed an increase in the number of earthquakes in the Permian Basin, according to a report by Capital and Main. The number of magnitude 1 earthquakes jumped from about 40 to nearly 500 between 2018 and 2020. The number of magnitude 2 earthquakes rose from zero to 158 in that same time period. 

After effects

Typically, most people don’t feel earthquakes below magnitude 3, according to the United States Geological Survey.

Seismic activity in the area has been quite rare in recent decades — until now. Earthquakes seldom caused damage. One of the only known casualties occurred in a magnitude 5 earthquake in 1971, when a Persian gazelle at the Albuquerque BioPark died after sensing a quake, getting scared and running into a wall.

New Mexico had no safety guidelines for oil and gas wells when it comes to seismic activity. The new protocols are an attempt at “a proactive approach to managing seismic activity in New Mexico,” said Adrienne Sandoval, the director of the state’s Oil and Conservation Division, in a news release. 

The new protocols from the state require monitoring and reporting when the drillers detect two magnitude 2.5 earthquakes within 30 days and a 10-mile radius. The detections can come from private or public data sources, according to the new protocols. If those earthquakes occur, drillers will be required to provide weekly reporting of injections and other info, and share that data with the state when it is requested.

The protocols also will require the same reporting and monitoring when one magnitude 3 or greater earthquake occurs, and drillers will have to reduce their injection rate by 50% within 3 miles and a 25% between 3 and 6 miles. Operators also have to reduce their injecting even more if a magnitude 3.5 event or above occurs.

The new guidelines will also require additional review in the area south of Malaga, N.M., where the state has detected multiple seismic events. There were seven earthquakes in that area of magnitude 2.5 to 4 between March 2021 and September 2021, according to the state’s data. 

“While some of the biggest events have occurred over the state line in Texas, the time is now to ensure larger events do not occur in our part of the oil field,” Sandoval said. 

Earthquakes can result from the injection of briney water, or “produced water,” into deep rock formations. The water is extracted along with oil and then is injected at different wells. 

Injecting the “produced water” can push on underground faults, causing them to slip and slide past each other to release increasing pressure. And that slipping and sliding can cause earthquakes, according to the report.

Rise in New Mexico earthquakes likely triggered by oil industry

Between 2011 and the end of 2020, the amount of briney water injected underground in southeast New Mexico rose nearly 40% from 656 million barrels to 916 million barrels a year. 

The risk of increased seismicity extends toward several highly sensitive facilities in Southeastern New Mexico, including the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a storage site for radioactive waste, and URENCO, a nuclear fuel enrichment plant, reporter Jerry Redfern pointed out. 

There are five injection wells within a 12-mile radius of WIPP and 448 within 12 miles of URENCO, according to New Mexico Oil Conservation Division records. Still, an expert told Redfern that seismic activity can occur up to 24 miles away from the injection site.

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Patrick Lohmann
Patrick Lohmann

Patrick Lohmann has been a reporter since 2007, when he wrote stories for $15 apiece at a now-defunct tabloid in Gallup, his hometown. Since then, he's worked at UNM's Daily Lobo, the Albuquerque Journal and the Syracuse Post-Standard. Along the way, he's won several state and national awards for his reporting, including for an exposé on a cult-like Alcoholics Anonymous group and a feature on an Upstate New York militia member who died of COVID-19. He's thrilled to be back home in New Mexico, where he works to tell stories that resonate and make an impact.