Although The New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology is rated as one of the top STEM universities in America, the campus in the town of Socorro, a little more than 80 miles south of Albuquerque is modest.
But NM Tech, as the school is known, is more than big enough to hold two different points of view on the threat of increased use of fracking to extract gas and oil from the Permian Basin in Southeastern New Mexico.
Dr. Robert Balch, the director of the Petroleum Recovery Research Center at New Mexico Tech told our guest today, Jerry Redfern of Capital and Main (and Source NM,) “I guess I’m not very concerned about earthquakes in the Permian.”
Then he added, in a mockery of caution, “But tomorrow if there’s a 9.6 (magnitude quake) I’d have to change my mind, would’t I?”
The biggest tremor ever registered on the Richter Scale — the Valdivia Earthquake in Chile in 1960 was a 9.5, the quake that kicked off the huge Indian Ocean tsunami of 2005 was an 8.8.
But an earthquake of a mere a 5.6-magnitude in Prague, Oklahoma in November 2011, severely damaged several houses, toppling chimneys and collapsing the turret on a building at a local college about 45 miles east of Oklahoma City. That same year, 2011, an earthquake in the Raton Basin that straddles the New Mexico state line with Colorado measured 5.3 on the Richter Scale, big enough to damage some buildings in Trinidad, Colorado 15 miles away from the epicenter.
Both of these quakes signaled some serious stresses underground in the rockbeds of their regions, and both were followed years later by what’s called a swarm — dozens of smaller seismic events, most of them too small to feel even if you’re standing where they’re happening.
Not that the small size of the mini-quakes was reassuring. The number of them was more significant, because, as Dr. Mairi Litherland, the manager of the Seismological Observatory at New Mexico Tech told Jerry Redfern, “when you start to see more of these smaller events, it can lead to larger events.”
Like the 4.0 Richter Scale earthquake this July in Southeastern New Mexico, and half dozen almost as large temblors that hit the Texas side of the Permian Basin this summer. That, Dr. Litherland told Redfern, “is something that we pay attention to, for sure. It indicates that there is a risk in that area that we need to understand.”
Since this debate, about the possibility that predicted increases in fracking in the area will produce more and more damaging seismic events, clearly has implications beyond the NM Tech campus in Socorro. So, here are two notes about how the NM state agency overseeing oil and gas extraction sees the situation.
The Director of the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division Adrienne Sandoval says that her office hasn’t seen any seismically induced quakes in New Mexico large enough to damage wells. This, even as tiny quakes in the state’s southeast have gone from about 40 in 2018 to nearly 500 in 2020, and that this year, the count could reach 300, and over that same period, quakes of a magnitude of 2.0 or greater rose from none to 158.
But even if Director Sandoval took notice, she probably could not take action because New Mexico doesn’t have specific seismic safety guidelines for oil and gas wells.
I guess you could call this a shaky situation.
Visual journalist Jerry Redfern covers the environmental and humanitarian issues across Southeast Asia and other developing regions. His work ranges from the aftermath of American bombs in Laos to agroforestry in Belize to life amid logging in Borneo. Jerry’s photos have appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and Der Spiegel, among others. He has contributed to four book projects, including Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos (co-authored with Karen Coates), which was a finalist for the IRE Book Award.
After graduating with a degree in journalism from the University of Montana, he spent several years as a staff photographer at newspapers in the American West. He began his freelance career in Cambodia where he shot news, features and investigative stories for Agence France-Presse, The New York Times, The Cambodia Daily and other publications. These days he works with video as well as photos, and he is in the final stages of post-production on his first feature-length documentary film, Eternal Harvest, an extension of the book project.
Jerry was a 2012-2013 Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a Senior Fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University.
His reporting on the American Southwest has included articles first published by Capital & Main, and were then co-published locally by the Santa Fe Reporter and NM Political Report.