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State investigates second 5.4 magnitude earthquake to strike the Permian Basin in a month

USGS Image of the Midland 5.4M Earthquake
United States Geological Survey
A 5.4 magnitude earthquake struck just north of Midland on Friday, Dec. 16.

One of the largest earthquakes in Texas history struck 12 miles north of Midland on Friday — a month after another 5.4 magnitude earthquake struck the region. Now state inspectors are investigating whether nearby oil and gas operations played a role.

At 5:35 p.m. on Friday, a 5.4 magnitude earthquake struck approximately 12 miles north of Midland. The quake — one of the largest ever recorded in Texas — left walls and ceilings cracked after shaking the oil field city harder than any other quake in recent memory.

No casualties were reported by Midland Memorial Hospital and a spokesperson for Midland County told Marfa Public Radio that as of Monday there had been 23 reports of minor property damage.

This is the second 5.4 magnitude earthquake to strike the Permian Basin in a month, which has prompted the Railroad Commission of Texas, which regulates the state’s oil and gas industry, to dispatch inspectors to the region to investigate.

Oil and gas operations, specifically hydraulic fracking and wastewater injection wells, have been linked to oil field earthquakes in the past. And just last year, the state barred some operators in the Midland-Odessa area from disposing of wastewater by shooting it deep into the ground after a series of earthquakes hit the region.

Following the order however, questions emerged whether the sanctions were effective as some companies reportedly continued to inject wastewater into deep substrata. Inspectors with the Railroad Commission are currently looking into injection wells near Midland to see what can be done to “reduce the intensity and frequency of earthquakes,” according to the agency.

Todd Staples, President of the Texas Oil and Gas Association, released a statement saying the state’s inspection of injection wells was “appropriate and should inform, along with industry data, the best next steps forward.”

He went on to list “reducing injection volumes, targeted shut-in of injection wells, expanding the size of the [Seismic Response Area], and comprehensive data collection and analysis” as ways to respond to the recent earthquake.

Mitch Borden is Permian Basin Reporter & Producer at Marfa Public Radio.