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The West Texas earthquake problem

We’re number one!

Earthquakes were never anything people in West Texas thought much about. Years would pass in between tremors that anybody felt. Even after the shale revolution arrived in force a decade ago and oil crews started drilling frantically in the region’s vast Permian Basin, there seemed to be no impact on the land.

But then, suddenly, in 2015, there were six earthquakes that topped 3.0 on the Richter scale. And then six again the next year. And then the numbers just exploded: 17 became 78 became 181. And in the first three months of 2022 alone, there were another 59, putting the year on pace to set a fresh record. Lower the threshold to include tiny tremors and the numbers run into the thousands.

All of which means that West Texas, the proud oil-drilling capital of America, is now also on the cusp of becoming the earthquake capital of America. Even California and Alaska, home to massive fault lines and a never-ending series of tremors, appear bound to be overtaken soon at the current pace of things.

There’s little doubt that there is a link between the drilling and the jump in seismic activity. Huge quantities of wastewater spew out of wells as the oil gushes out, and injecting that water back into the ground—the cheapest disposal option—puts stress on the Earth’s fault lines. Industry insiders even acknowledge as much.

That none of the quakes so far has been big enough to do much damage—just a cracked wall here and a loosened skylight there—is of little comfort to those who watched a similar pattern develop in the oil towns of neighboring Oklahoma a few years ago. What followed there was a gradual pickup in size that eventually gave the tremors enough force to start ripping walls off homes and buildings. Oklahoma only broke the cycle and steadied the ground after regulators forced drillers to slow the pace of water disposal in the area and haul some of it miles away.

This is one I drafted awhile back and hadn’t gotten around to before now. The article jumps from topic to topic, so it’s either quote too much of it or tell you to read the rest. There’s not a clear technological remediation to this – as noted, the solution in Oklahoma was to do less of the thing that was exacerbating the situation. Given that that means drilling less oil, at least for now, good luck with that. But at some point we’re going to have a quake that does real damage – as the story notes, in the last two years, there have been four tremors measuring 4.5 on the Richter scale in Oklahoma; Texas will surely follow along that path – and then we’ll be at that familiar place of trying to figure out why it all went wrong and who’s to blame for it. We know how it goes from there.

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One Comment

  1. Jason Hochman says:

    The fault line most likely to cause major economic disaster in the US is the New Madrid Fault Line. Not many people know it, but the most powerful earthquake in the history of the US occurred in that seismic zone, in 1811, with an estimated 7.5 to 8.0. The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 was in that range, but, I think that the New Madrid earthquake was felt over a wider area. The tectonic zone extends through the mid-South and mid-West. A major quake could be felt in Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois.