The agency that regulates oil and gas activity in Texas is considering new, tougher regulations governing the practice of injecting leftover water used to frack natural gas wells deep into the ground — a process which is believed to be responsible for an increase in human-caused earthquakes across the state.
The Texas Railroad Commission’s new proposed regulations on wastewater injection wells were heard by members of the Texas House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Seismic Activity on Monday, following complaints that earthquakes have become more frequent over the last several years. Dr. Craig Pearson, the Railroad Commission’s new seismologist, told the subcommittee that the regulations would help make sure injected wastewater doesn’t migrate onto inactive fault lines and cause man-made quakes.
“Because we’re now dealing with induced seismicity, the worry is not only about water moving up [to our groundwater] but out to dormant faults,” Pearson said, noting that current regulations are only designed to protect from groundwater contamination.
The controversial technique of hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as “fracking,” uses a great deal more water than conventional drilling. To stimulate natural gas wells, companies inject high-pressure water and chemicals miles-deep into subsurface rock which effectively cracks or “fractures” it, making the gas easier to extract.
The leftover wastewater used to frack the well is disposed of by injecting it deep underground, and scientists increasingly believe that this is causing man-made earthquakes — not only in Texas, but across the country. The large amount of water injected into the ground can change the state of stress on existing fault lines to the point of failure, scientists believe, causing earthquakes.
As it is now, Pearson said most of the earthquakes occurring in Texas are too small to be felt. But some scientists have warned that seismic activity stands to get stronger and more dangerous as fracking increases, and more wastewater propagates along fault lines underground.
If Texas’proposed rules on wastewater disposal wells are approved, companies seeking to operate them would have to include United States Geological Survey records of seismic events that have occurred around proposed well sites in their permit applications. The commission estimated that this would cost companies an additional $300, which the rules describe as “negligible.”
Additionally, the commission would be allowed to suspend or terminate any wastewater disposal operator’s permit if it finds that fluids have been leeching past where they’re supposed to be. It would also be allowed to terminate an operator’s permit if the operator is found to be responsible for earthquakes. The rules would not require that permits be suspended for fluid-leeching violations or earthquakes; instead, they would just give the commission the authority to do so if it wanted to.
The commission would also be allowed to require more frequent monitoring of fluids and pressure from certain companies, and to request additional information from the application to prove that fluids won’t spread across fault lines.
So far, environmentalists have applauded the rules as a good start, but have expressed concerns that they don’t go far enough.
“It’s kinda like when you’re in a 12-step program,” Cyrus Reed with the Sierra Club told Terrence Henry at StateImpact NPR. “You know, the first thing you need to do admit that you have a problem. And I think the Railroad Commission has done that by proposing these rules.”
Indeed, the Railroad Commission has come a long way from January, when commission Chairman Barry Smitherman refused to acknowledge that the quakes were linked to any part of the fracking process. “It’s not linked to fracking,” he told local reporters after a meeting of concerned citizens. “If we find a link then we need to take a hard look at all these injection wells in this area. Reexamine them … Perhaps there something that we’re not aware of underground.”
The Texas commission is taking public comment on the proposed rules until next month.