On November 21, 2022, a moderate earthquake with a magnitude of 5.6 occurred on the island of West Java, which is part of Indonesia. Because the population density is high, nearly 300 people died and others may be buried under the collapsed buildings.
A moderate magnitude 5.4 earthquake occurred on November 16, 2022 in the West Texas desert. No one died and there was little damage because the population density is low.
As a rule of thumb, magnitudes greater than 3 can be felt on Earth’s surface. Greater than 4 can cause damage to buildings. Greater than 5 may result in loss of life in high density areas.
Magnitude 5.4 was felt for many miles—from El Paso to Big Bend National Park (see Figure 1). Here are some quotes:
Lanette Brown Giese: Here in Karlovy Vary, it was exactly like a helicopter landing next to our house. It took almost 20 seconds.
Mari Annelise Thomas: I can’t believe I felt this in Midland. My bed was shaking and my blinds were swinging.
Susan D Rayburn: I felt it in Alpine! It shook my bed while I was in it and watched my house shake! Fierce.
Lonna Edwards Gideon: My 4Runner rocked back and forth in San Antonio
Earthquakes in the Delaware Basin.
These are mainly caused by oil and gas operations which are extensive in the Delaware Basin. It is the largest and most active oil basin in the US.
Salt water comes from an oil and gas well and must be disposed of. The cheapest way is to drive wastewater deep underground using vertical disposal wells. As water accumulates in the underground layer, its pressure rises and spreads out of the injection well. When it encounters a fault that is at its breaking point (near stress imbalance), the fault can slip and cause an earthquake.
Regulators monitor earthquakes using seismic detector systems. When earthquake numbers or magnitudes reach a certain level, they dictate that water injections into the usual rock layers be reduced or injected into other layers to relieve the water pressure underground.
The history of earthquakes in recent years is shown in Figure 2. The bad news is that earthquakes increased exponentially before Texas regulators intervened in 2021. The good news is that regulations have limited but not stopped the rise in earthquakes.
But the worse news is that the pressure of the injected salt water spread further from the injection wells and caused the largest Permian earthquake to date: 5.4 M on November 16, 2022. There is a 6-12 month lag in earthquake response to ground changes. rates or volumes of water injection.
This pattern was a repeat Oklahoma earthquake when the peak earthquakes occurred in 2015, almost 900 > 3M. After the peak, the largest earthquake ever occurred on September 3, 2016: 5.8M.
Who cares about such earthquakes?
Deep in the desert isolation of West Texas, one might guess that an earthquake wouldn’t matter much, even if it exceeded a magnitude of 5. It doesn’t!
Because of the potential harm to the environment and people, oil and gas companies have been urged to dispose of the brine waste in other ways. This includes on-site treatment and recycling of dirty water for use in further fracking. Or send the dirty water to a commercial treatment such as a desalination plant.
Apart from earthquakes, there are some very good reasons for this. This would save a large amount of aquifer or city water that was and continues to be used in fracking. How much water? A football stadium with water up to 40 feet above the grass field is needed to fully fracture a shale well with new technology as used in the Delaware Basin. Recycling is happening in the Delaware Basin, but needs to be accelerated.
For every barrel of oil produced from a well in the Delaware Basin, 3-10 barrels of water were produced. The ratio in Oklahoma was 7-20 barrels of water/oil.
In 2017, the Perm as a whole made 63 billion gal or 1.5 billion barrels per year. Much of this was injected into waste wells. This huge volume of water was as much as Oklahoma produced in 2015, when the state experienced 890 M > 3 earthquakes.
Although these cleaning/recycling methods are more expensive, there is pressure on the oil and gas industry to correct the problem, which is not good for the industry’s image.
Nuclear waste repository.
There are also concerns about a nuclear waste repository that is in the planning process. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has evaluated Holtec International’s proposal to build the repository radioactive nuclear waste only 60 miles from Karlovy Vary.
The NRC said a license could be issued, but a final decision would be made in early 2023.
Risks evaluated by the NRC at the Holtec site included (1) failure of storage vessels, (2) potential opening of sinkholes, (3) contamination of playa lakes and aquifers, (4) earthquake damage.
Safety analysis and earthquake predictions appear to have been done by Holtec before the shale oil revolution broke out in the Delaware Basin. In fact, one Holtec figure of earthquake probability was dated 2009.
But earthquakes are often associated with oil and gas extraction, and the proposed Holtec site is near thousands of new oil and gas wells in the Delaware Basin. The earthquake swarm south of Carlsbad in Figure 1 is about 60 miles from the proposed Holtec site. So did the 5.4 million magnitude earthquake on November 16th.
So is there a threat of a major earthquake that could damage canisters of hot radioactive material and allow it to escape from the Holtec repository?
By comparison, Oklahoma’s three largest earthquakes—two magnitudes greater than 5—caused significant damage to surface buildings.
It is unclear whether crustal earthquakes of magnitude 5 or greater (such as occurred in the Delaware Basin) were considered in the safety analysis of the Holtec site.
One takeaway is that oil and gas operations that trigger earthquakes below may not be ideal neighbors for nuclear waste storage above—at least in New Mexico’s Permian Desert.
Mew Mexico Gov. Urges Biden To Intervene.
On November 16, the governor of New Mexico Michelle Lujan Grisham, President Biden asked to stand up and block Holtec’s initiative for a nuclear repository in southeastern New Mexico.
The letter cited potential physical threats to residents living in the area and controversial human and environmental effects such as uranium mining and atomic bomb testing related to past nuclear history.
Physical threats included accidents at the site or accidents in transporting nuclear waste to a site that could spread radioactive material. It doesn’t take long—one leaking drum at a WIPP site in southeastern New Mexico shut down the facility for 3 years and cost more than $1 billion to clean up.
The letter did not mention earthquakes, although there were two tremors of magnitude greater than 5 that can cause damage to buildings. Fortunately, one of them, M = 5.4, occurred on the same day, November 16 at 3 p.m., as the Governor’s letter to the President.
Perhaps thinking her state has done its part in that regard, the governor’s letter pointed out that southeastern New Mexico already has two other large nuclear facilities: the DOE’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) and the URENCO National Enrichment Facility near Eunice.