The Texas Oil and Gas Agency is investigating a 5.4 magnitude earthquake in West Texas, the largest in three decades

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Texas Railroad Commission inspectors are investigating a 5.4 magnitude earthquake that was recorded Wednesday west of Pecos near the Reeves and Culberson county line, the agency said.

The earthquake, confirmed by the US Geological Survey, was the largest recorded in the state since 1995 and the third largest in Texas history, according to the USGS National Earthquake Information Center.

The largest earthquake in Texas history was a magnitude 5.8 recorded in 1931 southwest of Valentine, according to the USGS National Earthquake Information Center.

“It was like a truck had hit the house,” said David Shifflett, a 74-year-old farmer from Reeves County, near the earthquake’s epicenter. “It looked like a real strong wind had picked up.”

It was the biggest earthquake in Texas in nearly three decades, but far from the only one. Shifflett has withstood damage from smaller earthquakes for years. One, around 2016, left a large bulge on his 2,000 acres, cracking pipes and ruining his gravity irrigation system, he said.

The quake could be felt as far away as Carlsbad, New Mexico and El Paso, and it forced University Health, the hospital district of Bexar County, out of a historic downtown hospital building of San Antonio after structural engineers declared it unsafe. The over 100-year-old building was once known as the most modern hospital of its kind in the Southwest.

Most of the building’s clinical services were moved to a new building about a decade ago, but some administrative services were still housed in the historic location. Those offices have now been moved to a different space, according to a statement from University Health.

The number of recorded earthquakes in Texas has increased in recent years, particularly in the West Texas Permian Basin, the state’s most productive oil and gas region. Scientific studies have linked seismic activity to the removal of contaminated salt water at depth – a common practice by oil companies at the end of the hydraulic fracturing process which can reawaken dormant fault lines.

Between three and six barrels of salty, polluted water also rise to the surface with each barrel of oil during the fracking process – ancient water that was trapped underground by rock formations.

Years of underground pumping of hundreds of millions of gallons of contaminated water a day in Texas has coincided with more frequent and powerful earthquakes in the state: a Texas Tribune analysis found that the number of earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 and above had doubled in 2021. from the previous year.

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The vast majority of seismicity over the past two decades that has occurred near Pecos was likely triggered by increased sewage disposal, according to a 2021 study by USGS and USGS scientists. the University of Texas.

In recent years, the Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas activity in the state and licenses water injection wells, has created several “seismic response zones” in West Texas, where the agency asked companies to limit their water disposal activities. and agree to an industry-led plan to reduce seismic activity.

Virginia Palacios, director of Commission Shift, a Railroad Commission watchdog group, said about 600 new injection wells had been licensed in Texas in the 12 months to August, including 400 in the Permian Basin. West Texas. Permit application reviews focus on possible groundwater impacts, she said.

“Sewage disposal companies are among the biggest contributors to railway commissioners’ campaigns,” she said.

This week’s earthquake occurred in a Culberson and Reeves county response zone created earlier this year. The agency said its inspectors were reviewing the industrial groups’ plan and inspecting nearby water disposal activities. Operators may be required to reduce sewage injections following the quake, according to a statement from the Railroad Commission.

It may take several months to a year after sewage injection is reduced or stopped for the area to stop shaking; the Railroad Commission warned in a statement Thursday that historical activity suggests the lag could be between 12 and 18 months.

Neta Rhyne, 73, from Toyahvale in Reeves County, has spent years protesting disposal well permits because she fears they could cause earthquakes that destroy groundwater in the area .

An earthquake in 1995, before the fracking boom, damaged the huge natural springs at nearby Balmorhea State Park, turning the water murky and halting recreational swimming for months.

“These springs are going away, this valley is going to die,” Rhyne said. “It’s our livelihood.”

Shifflett, the Reeves County farmer, said he strongly supports the oil sector but thinks Texas regulators are not doing their part to limit its impact on geological stability.

“The Railroad Commission is doing a lousy job, they let the oil companies do what they want,” he said. “They let them put too much pressure under the ground too close to the surface.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin financially supported The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the journalism of the Tribune. Find a full list here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

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