Everything is bigger in Texas—including, increasingly, its earthquakes.
An analysis published by the Texas Tribune on Tuesday finds that earthquakes of more than a 3.0 magnitude in Texas more than doubled last year, shooting up from 98 in 2020 to 209 in 2021. It’s not a sudden natural change causing all these new quakes. Both regulators and scientists say that increased fracking and wastewater disposal from the oil and gas industry is likely to blame.
Earthquakes are not a direct result of fracking itself, but rather come from the ways oil producers dispose of the wastewater that is a byproduct of the drilling process. Much of the water that is injected underground to frack oil from the shale formations comes back up with that oil, along with a slew of chemicals, salts, and radioactive materials it accumulated underground—between three to six barrels of wastewater comes up with each barrel of oil.
The most common and cheapest way to dispose of this wastewater seems logical: why not just pump it back underground? But water added back underground can shake up dormant faults in rock formations, transforming Texas, which before the fracking boom in 2008 saw just a couple of perceptible earthquakes per year, into an earth-shaking hotspot.
“The cumulative volumes [of water] increase the pressure, and that is the force that triggers the fault to slip,” Alexandros Savvaidis, a research scientist at the Bureau of Economic Geology at UT-Austin, told the Tribune.
And there’s way more wastewater in the Permian Basin than there used to be. According to energy analysts Rystad Energy, which provided the Tribune with figures, the amount of wastewater generated in the Permian Basin sat at 217 billion gallons in 2021, up from 54 billion gallons in 2011.
More intense earthquakes are also increasing. Texas saw zero 4.0 earthquakes in 2017, but experienced nine between 2018 and 2020. In 2021 alone, that number shot up to 15. While 4.0 earthquakes are still considered “light,” they can begin to rattle buildings and possibly do damage.
“That was different,” geologist David Rosen, who lives in Midland, where a 4.6-magnitude quake hit in December, told the Tribune. “That was like riding a bicycle over cobblestones.”
The increase in earthquakes is so great that it’s even getting the attention of Texas’s famously industry-friendly regulators. The Texas Railroad Commission (RRC), which is known for being light on regulation and for going to bat for the oil and gas industry, said in September it would stop issuing new injection permits in Midland County after four earthquakes above a 3.0 hit within the span of a week. In December, the RRC suspended 33 injection permits in the Midland area and began monitoring another area of concern in late January.
As regulators struggle to monitor and stop the increasing quakes, life is changing in areas where the quakes are hitting. Christina Bock, who lives north of Odessa, told the Tribune that earthquakes in the area took the deck off her house and have cracked her walls. She and her family are planning to move. “Were the earthquakes a reason? I would say about 50% of it, yes,” Bock said. “The damage [from fracking] is done, and now we’re just paying that price. And this is what it is.”