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Increased New Mexico earthquakes likely tied to oil and gas industry

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Earthquake activity has increased dramatically in southern New Mexico likely due to injection wells in the Permian Basin. These are used to store wastewater that comes is produced during oil and gas drilling. Jerry Redfern covers the industry here for Capital & Main and he broke that story.

JERRY REDFERN: Oil and gas drilling down there brings up four to 10 times more of this briny water than it actually brings up oil and gas. And as Adrienne Sandoval from the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division told me, ‘Well, you got to do something with it.’ What they figured out to do is drill these deep injection wells and just jam that brine back into the ground.

KUNM: How do we know for sure this is causing the earthquakes?

REDFERN: They're able to track where people are doing these injection wells, how much they're injecting, and then essentially follow the increase in seismicity that comes after that, where there wasn't, say, any before. And it's now pretty well-studied and known, I think mainly because of a series of earthquakes that happened starting in the early 2000s and on up through 2015 in Oklahoma, where they had some really big earthquakes, that they were able to very closely tie to injection wells there.

KUNM: How much water are we talking about?

REDFERN: Yeah, it’s mind-boggling amounts of water. As I put in the story, at this point, last year there was more water injected under the ground in the Permian Basin just in New Mexico than there is water in Elephant Butte. We should be clear, too, that Elephant Butte’s running at like 6% capacity because of climate change because of drilling oil and gas out of the ground and burning it. But the main thing is it's an awful lot of water.

KUNM: These earthquakes are barely perceptible to ordinary folks. But researchers at New Mexico Tech are really paying attention to them. Why?

REDFERN: When you start seeing increases in lots of small quakes all of a sudden, it tends to lead to bigger quakes and then bigger quakes after that. It's not cumulative, but it indicates that things are moving around underground and might continue to do so if you keep doing the same stuff.

KUNM: Southern New Mexico is home to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and there are more nuclear facilities planned near or over the Texas state line. Are these earthquakes happening in those areas? Is that a concern?

REDFERN: Oh, they're happening nearby. There's a fellow who's the manager at the Texas seismological network, Dr. [Alexandros] Savvaidis and he was telling me that quakes can actually travel, that you can have an injection well in one spot, but the quake actually shows up miles and miles away. So while the quakes that have been noted so far in, say New Mexico, aren't near the WIPP plant, and they're not necessarily close to the Urenco plant or the other two facilities that they're considering putting in there, there are injection wells around all of these, and especially on the Texas border, there's just a ton of them. About the same day that my story came out, Texas shut down a series of injection wells because they tied them to a series of mid-level quakes in Texas near Midland.

KUNM: Well what kinds of regulations or guidelines are there for seismic activity around oil and gas?

REDFERN: Coming from the state, nothing in particular. When I was talking, again, with Adrienne Sandoval, the director at the Oil Conservation Division, she was saying that she does have actually a great deal of discretion in being able to shut things down, like to tell operators ‘You need to slow your injections down, you need to close this particular well,’ like what happened in Texas, where you suddenly have a dramatic increase in very noticeable quakes around a populated area. We haven't really got to that point yet. And there's not much that seems to be on the books about how to sort of quake-proof wells, I guess you'd call it. I guess it's, you know, another litany of things that comes along with developing oil and gas. We want the energy, you know, we want the gas that goes into cars. We want the natural gas that heats our homes. And it comes with an awful lot of sort of external factors. And this is one of them. It's not stuff that you can just spread on the ground. It's super, super, super saline, much saltier than ocean water. It's often radioactive because it's been underground and picks up radon as it comes up. If you’d put it on the ground, you're going to sterilize the ground, and then it has a tendency to dry up and blow those salts all over the place, which is unhealthy for anybody living nearby. So the least-worst solution I guess is to reinject it.

KUNM: Well, Jerry Redfern thanks for talking with me today.

REDFERN: Well, thanks for having me on Megan. That was great.

Megan has been a journalist for 25 years and worked at business weeklies in San Antonio, New Orleans and Albuquerque. She first came to KUNM as a phone volunteer on the pledge drive in 2005. That led to volunteering on Women’s Focus, Weekend Edition and the Global Music Show. She was then hired as Morning Edition host in 2015, then the All Things Considered host in 2018. Megan was hired as News Director in 2021.