The number of earthquakes rattling the U.S. shale patch is growing exponentially as producers pump massive amounts of dirty water from their oil and gas wells back underground. Tremors registering at least a 2 on the Richter scale quadrupled from 2017 levels to a record 938 last year and are on pace to top that this year, according to a Rystad Energy analysis of data in Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana and New Mexico. Though earthquakes have long been linked to activity related to shale production, the report provides more evidence of the connection in the U.S. Southwest, where oil drilling has intensified in the past decade.
The increased tremors and huge volumes of wastewater have added to environmental concerns surrounding oil and gas production from shale fields. Drillers have come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, with companies under pressure from investors to disclose climate risks and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“Earthquakes are not the only environmental issue caused by water disposal,” Ryan Hassler, an analyst at Rystad, said Thursday in a report. “Fresh water sourcing in arid regions of West Texas and New Mexico threaten the water supply of local communities and essential agriculture activities, while environmental concerns surrounding the chemical composition of produced water serve only to fan the flames of public antipathy.”
To maintain water disposal at 2020 levels, the industry has to treat and recycle it, which could cost producers more than $1 billion a year, Hassler said.