eNews March 2020

NM Bureau of Geology Lands Grant To Study Induced Seismicity

By Kristin Pearthree, NM Tech Staff Scientist

The New Mexico Bureau of Geology, in partnership with faculty at New Mexico Tech and the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, received a grant from the New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute (NM WRRI) 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,” Bureau petroleum geologist Joseph Grigg said. “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.”

NM WRRI is funding this project for $24,950 over six months. This is the first phase of a project expected to be an extensive five-year project. This research will integrate seismic monitoring, surface deformation monitoring, and detailed geologic and hydrogeologic models to understand the association between injection of produced waters and seismicity. Dr. Mairi Litherland, manager of the NMT Seismological Observatory, will oversee the seismic monitoring. Dr. Ronni Grapenthin at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks will conduct the surface deformation monitoring using interferometric synthetic aperture radar (InSAR).

“This will be the first integrated monitoring work in the Permian Basin in New Mexico,” said Dr. Alex Rinehart, NMT associate professor of hydrology 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 NM WRRI involving New Mexico Tech, the N.M. Bureau of Geology, the Petroleum Recovery Research Center, faculty at NMSU, the Utton Law Center, and faculty 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,” Rinehart said, “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.”