Little earthquakes point state regulators to oil company’s violations

By: - February 23, 2022 4:05 am

A drum seismograph records the shaking of the ground at the new earthquake monitoring station June 23, 2004 at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

A major oil company pulling crude from quaking earth in southeastern New Mexico was hit with fines and violation notices Monday.

XTO Permian Operating LLC faces more than $2 million in civil penalties for what the state says are operational and reporting violations at four Class II injection wells. 

Class II wells are used to inject fluids associated with oil and gas production. Injection of fluids is typically thousands of feet below the surface into rock formations isolated from underground sources of drinking water. (Caption and image from the Environmental Protection Agency)

A dramatic increase in seismic activity over the last few years was likely triggered by oil and gas injection wells, regulators and researchers said in September. In 2018, there were only 40 quakes measured at magnitude 1 or greater.

Just two years later, that number ballooned to nearly 500.

These are tremblors that people can barely feel, but a lot of small earthquakes can lead to large ones, too, a scientist studying the problem warned.

Seismic activity in the area where XTO was operating those four wells prompted the state’s Oil Conservation Division to take a closer look, said spokesperson Susan Torres. The violation notices say the company injected produced water through wells on expired permits without taking the required pressure measurements, conducting mechanical integrity tests, notifying the state, or complying with reporting mandates. XTO has five days to stop disposing of the water this way and fix these violations. 

The division “takes the risk of induced seismicity from oil and gas operations very seriously,” according to a news release, and this prompted the state to issue new guidelines in late November. Torres said this set of penalties does not come out of those new guidelines, though, but rather from the demands of the permits.

The Oil Conservation Division can terminate permits and shut off wells.

For now though, the company will go through an informal process to find a resolution. As part of that, the civil penalty of $2,247,100 can be reduced. If the violations aren’t resolved, formal hearings will begin that result in binding orders.

XTO was at one point the “most active operator” in the Permian Basin, according to its website, though it sold hundreds of rigs to an Oklahoma-based company in May, according to the Carlsbad Current-Argus

Averages indicate the basin was responsible for around 40% of the United States’ total oil production in December.

Barrels per day in December 2021

11.7 million — U.S. average 

4.96 million — Permian Basin average

— U.S. Energy Information Agency

XTO has offices in Texas and Carlsbad, N.M. The company is a subsidiary of ExxonMobil. 

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Marisa Demarco
Marisa Demarco

Marisa Demarco is an Albuquerque-based journalist and lifelong New Mexican whose work has won national and regional awards. She's spent almost two decades as a reporter, producer and newsroom leader, co-founding the New Mexico Compass, and editing and writing for the Weekly Alibi, the Albuquerque Tribune and UNM's Daily Lobo. She began a career in radio full-time at KUNM News in late 2013 and covered public health and criminal legal reform for much of the last seven years. During the pandemic, she was also the executive producer for “Your NM Gov” and “No More Normal,” shows focused on the varied impacts of COVID-19 and community response, as well as racial and social justice.