RRC implements first-ever operator-led plan to reduce seismicity in West Texas

In the Western Permian Basin, the Railroad Commission began implementation last week of a first of its kind operator-led response plan that addresses injection-induced seismicity to help keep residents and the environment safe.

The plan for the Northern Culberson-Reeves Seismic Response Area (SRA) – which is adjacent to Guadalupe Mountain National Park to the west and is near the border of New Mexico to the north – is meant to reduce the intensity and frequency of earthquakes, including a goal to eliminate 3.5 magnitude or greater earthquakes no later than Dec. 31, 2023.

The comprehensive plan for the Northern Culberson-Reeves SRA provides variable reductions in disposal volumes of produced water (water that comes out of the ground with oil and gas during production) across all disposal wells. It will provide the RRC with additional information with the expansion of the seismic monitoring stations in the area, which will provide better data on the precise location and depth of earthquakes.

This is one of three SRAs in West Texas that the RRC has created to address injection-induced seismic activity from disposal wells. In December, the RRC indefinitely suspended deep disposal in the Gardendale SRA between Odessa and Midland. An operator-led response plan for the Stanton SRA is currently being developed.

The Northern Culberson -Reeves SRA plan affects 57 shallow saltwater disposal wells (typically less than 7,000 feet in depth) above the top of the Wolfcamp Shale Play and 31 deep disposal wells (typically between 11,000-16,000 feet in depth) below the bottom of the Wolfcamp.

“Industry asked RRC to allow them to come up with a plan to address the issue,” said Sean Avitt, Manager of RRC’s Injection-Storage Permits Unit. “We provided extensive feedback to ensure the plan met our goals. Industry was able to produce a plan leveraging what they know about the area and their injection operations there. However, we made it clear that if circumstances change, the Commission may have to take further actions to reduce seismicity.”

Saltwater disposal well operators within the Northern Culberson-Reeves SRA have created a response plan which begins on March 1, 2022. The plan employs a two-tiered approach based on the depth of the disposal zone (shallow vs deep disposal wells) and includes expanded data collection efforts, contingency responses for future seismicity, and scheduled checkpoint updates with RRC staff. Although the lag time between reductions in injection volume and reductions in seismicity is uncertain, a 12 to 18 month lag time has been estimated between injection volume increases and seismicity increases within the Northern Culberson-Reeves SRA.