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Bureau/NMT receive grant to study Permian Basin seismicity

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An oilfield pulling unit in Chaves County, NM.
Courtesy of Ron Broadhead

Permian Basin, NM
— March 12, 2020

The Bureau of Geology in partnership with faculty at New Mexico Tech and the University of Alaska Fairbanks received a grant from the Water Resources Research Institute (WRRI) at New Mexico State University (NMSU) to study induced seismicity in the Permian Basin likely related to injection of produced waters.

Three to seven times as much water as oil and gas is produced in the Permian Basin. Although the reuse or recycling of this poor-quality water is increasing within the petroleum industry, much of it currently is injected back into brackish or brine water aquifers in the subsurface.

“When you increase pressure, you’re changing the stress state within the subsurface which has the potential to induce seismicity,” says Bureau petroleum geologist Joseph Grigg, “that is what the basic physics of pore pressure indicate. We are just trying to understand how injection in New Mexico is affecting the subsurface.”

This project will integrate seismic monitoring, surface deformation monitoring, and detailed geologic and hydrogeologic models to understand the association between injection of produced waters and seismicity. The seismic monitoring will be completed by Dr. Mairi Litherland, the manager of the New Mexico Tech Seismological Observatory. The surface deformation monitoring will be conducted by Dr. Ronni Grapenthin at the University of Alaska Fairbanks using interferometric synthetic aperture radar (InSAR).

“This will be the first integrated monitoring work in the Permian Basin in New Mexico,” says Dr. Alex Rinehart, New Mexico Tech Earth and Environmental Science Associate Professor and lead scientist on the project, “Just simply cataloguing and coming up with relatively simple numerical models and having the seismic and the surface deformation, having all that together. It’s going to be the first synoptic look.”

This grant is part of a larger collaborative project directed by WRRI involving New Mexico Tech/Bureau of Geology/Petroleum Recovery Research Center, faculty at NMSU, and the Utton Law Center at the University of New Mexico. The project is designed to help the state develop the monitoring and legal framework necessary for permitting produced water disposal in the Permian Basin. The project will help companies extract oil and gas and reinject produced waters safely.

The data used in this study is largely publicly available and developed independent from industry. The results of this study will be made publicly available as well.

“We’re providing a neutral look,” says Dr. Rinehart, “And so, long term, that means that the regulators will have a base data set that they can use, and there will be reliable information for decision makers that isn’t completely reliant on oil and gas.”

For more information, contact Dr. Alex Rinehart at