Climate

Texas Oil And Gas Companies Must Now Research An Area’s Earthquake History Before Drilling

CREDIT: AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

A sign placed along the sidewalk reads, Common Sense Against Earthquakes, as a small group with Frack Free Denton protest outside city hall, Tuesday, July 15, 2014, in Denton, Texas.

Oil and gas companies in Texas must now research seismic data for a given area before they can receive a permit to drill disposal wells, according to new rules from the Texas Railroad Commission.

The agency, which is in charge of regulating oil and gas activity in the state, adopted new rules Tuesday that require oil and gas companies to “include a printed copy or screenshot” of the seismic data for the area they’re proposing to drill in their permit application. The seismic data will include instances of previous earthquakes in the 100-square-mile region around the proposed drilling site, and will help the Texas Railroad Commission determine what spots might be too risky for disposal of fracking waste. The rules also allow the agency to change, suspend or end a company’s permit for well disposal if the well is “likely to be or determined to be contributing to seismic activity.”

“These comprehensive rule amendments will allow us to further examine seismic activity in Texas and gain an understanding of how human activity may impact seismic activity, while continuing to allow for the important development of our energy resources in Texas,” Railroad Commissioner David Porter said in a statement.

The new rules, which will take effect November 17, come after multiple strings of earthquakes in the state, small quakes which in some cases have been linked to the injection of fracking wastewater deep underground. The town of Azle, Texas experienced more than 30 small earthquakes in the last few months of 2013 and the first month of 2014. Azle residents were angered by the quakes, which many thought were likely a result of fracking activity in the area.

“They haven’t had earthquakes around here for 100 years, and to have this happen now — 32 within just the last couple of months — is crazy,” Azle resident Darla Hobbs told NBC in January. “And it’s not our fault for living here. It’s the gas well industry for drilling, and fracking, and the injection wells.”

Before the Azle quakes, a cluster of more than 50 earthquakes hit Cleburne, Texas in 2009 and 2010. Last year, a Southern Methodist University study linked the string of Cleburne earthquakes to the underground injection of fracking wastewater, a link that wasn’t surprising — before 2008, the region had never experienced an earthquake.

Scientists believe that, in general, the fracking process does make the risk of earthquakes greater: the U.S. Geological Survey states that wastewater injection is a possible trigger of earthquakes. Last year, scientists also linked the disposal of fracking wastewater to 109 earthquakes that shook Youngstown, Ohio in 2011.

While Texas’ new rules will help the state determine which wells are too dangerous to inject wastewater into, they fall short of some environmentalists’ wishes. The rules don’t, for instance, require that oil and gas companies provide research demonstrating wastewater injection won’t increase the risk of earthquake activity in a given area — something environmentalists in the state have called for.

“The faults are what is important for people to know when they place the injection wells,” Sharon Wilson of Earthworks told the Dallas Morning News. “The industry does seismic testing that needs to be made public … or at the very least let the railroad commission have that information.”