By Lauren Sierra
February 27, 2023
ABILENE, Texas — Earthquakes are becoming an increasing and nerve-wracking issue here in the Big Country. Less than 2 weeks ago, the US Geological Survey measured a 4.7 magnitude earthquake near Snyder, and the effects felt all the way in Abilene.
“I was sitting at my breakfast counter having a bowl of cereal and it felt like all of a sudden someone had pushed my chair into my island, because the next thing I know my knees were touching the island,” said Donna Hughes, an Abilene resident. “I had a couple of things on my display counter that I have in my living room, they tipped over, and then the dogs got up from the sofa and they were kind of looking around like, am I supposed to be barking at something?”
As many people may assume, the increased earthquakes in the area have to do with oil production. But contrary to popular belief, the process of hydraulic fracturing – otherwise known as fracking – isn’t the main culprit. Rather – it’s high volumes of underground injection of waste water from oil and gas wells.
“You tend to get earthquakes from underground injections when the injection takes place near a natural fault, and so that lubrication from the fluids causes slippage in the fault and that’s what causes the earthquake,” said Virginia Palacios, the executive director of Commission Shift, an organization aimed at reforming oil and gas oversight in Texas. According to Palacios, seismic activity around the Dallas-Forth Worth area has ramped up over the past 10 to 15 years.
So what can be done with the waste water if not it’s not injected under ground?
“I think that’s the broader, more existential question,” said Palacios. “It’s very salty, it sometimes contains radionuclides and other harmful materials. So it’s the kind of thing that takes a lot of care to deal with. You don’t want it to end up in public water supplies, you don’t want it to end up untreated on land where it could contaminate soil.”
Researchers are looking for a better solution, and a bill was passed to create a consortium in the Texas legislature last session. The goal is hopefully to treat that waste water and reuse it for other purposes.
For now, earthquakes may remain in our future.
“I’ve never felt an earthquake before,” said Hughes. “I kind of didn’t know if that was really what I was experiencing, but I really feel for the people out on the West Coast or any place else in the country that go through that on a larger level, because it was pretty startling.”
The Texas Railroad Commision, who oversees oil activity, told KTXS in a statement that they’re limiting injections in the Permian Basin area in hopes of reducing earthquakes, and are requiring certain new disposal wells to have pressure monitoring gauges to help with studying seismic activity.