On Monday, lawmakers in Texas, for the first time, formally addressed the recent rash of earthquakes that rocked northern Texas this winter. At the first hearing of the newly created Seismic Activity Subcommittee in the Texas House, lawmakers heard testimony from local leaders, scientists and the Texas Railroad Commission, about the effects of the recent surge in seismic activity and its possible links to the state’s booming oil and gas industry.
“Our school district now conducts earthquake drills,” Azle Mayor Alan Brundrette said at the hearing — something schools in the area have never before had to worry about. Residents have also been complaining about cracking foundations and breaking water pipes.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), since November 1, 2013, at least 27 earthquakes with magnitudes between 2.1 and 3.7 have struck near the border of Parker and Tarrant counties in and around the towns of Azle and Reno in northern Texas. The affected area sits atop the Barnett Shale, one of the nation’s most productive natural gas fields.
For decades, there have been concerns that fracking operations could trigger tremors. While fracking itself has only been definitively linked to quakes in a handful of cases, including most recently, in Ohio, it is the injection of fracking wastewater deep into the earth that is believed to trigger most fracking-related tremors. The fluid increases underground pressure and acts as a lubricant on faults. Texas is home to nearly 3,600 active disposal wells.
Arkansas has already imposed a moratorium on new injection wells in areas that have recently experienced unusual seismicity, as has Ohio. But Monday’s testimony from the Texas Railroad Commission, which oversees oil and gas operations in the state, suggests that the Lone Star State is in no hurry to act.
“A knee-jerk reaction could have a negative impact on our economy because of the large role the oil and gas industry plays here,” Milton Rister, executive director of the Texas Railroad Commission said during the hearing. “I think the three commissioners are aware we need to make some adjustment … but don’t want to do something we all end up regretting a year from now.”
“The industry’s right to profit does not surpass our right as citizens to the quality of life we’ve come to know,” said Lynda Stokes, mayor of Reno at the hearing.
Part of the problem in linking any particular quake with wastewater injection is the lack of information scientists have about injection well activity. Researchers at Southern Methodist University, who in December added 12 seismometers to the Reno-Azle area to get more accurate readings, say they can’t create a full picture of what is going on underground without knowing the volumes and pressures of wastewater injections at each well. That data is not publicly available as it is considered proprietary.
“We have a state agency that has the authority to regulate those operators, yet we can’t get everyone together to share the information we need to address the problem,” said Brundrett, mayor of Azle. “It’s time to step up and confirm — once and for all — whether disposal wells are causing these quakes and why.”
In April, Ohio moved to take tough new action to manage the threat posed by increased seismicity, by releasing strict new guidelines for monitoring seismic activity in the state. The rules require companies to install seismic monitors before beginning to drill within three miles of a known fault or in an area that has experienced seismic activity greater than 2.0 magnitude. If seismic monitors detect a quake of 1.0 or more, regulators will suspend fracking and investigate whether drilling is connected to the quake
The recent wave of tremors is not the first time that the usual quiet ground in Texas has shifted suddenly. In 2008 and 2009, the Dallas-Fort Worth area was shaken by three series of earthquakes, with magnitudes as high as 3.3. Researchers at Southern Methodist University and the University of Texas at Austin concluded that local fracking wastewater wells were the plausible cause for the quakes. Prior to 2008, the Dallas-Fort Worth area had just one recorded earthquake greater than 2.0 — there have since been 70.
While many small earthquakes may be more of a nuisance than a danger, they can also be a warning of much more serious earth-shaking to come. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) recently issued an earthquake warning for another heavily fracked state, Oklahoma, where the rate of earthquakes has increased by about 50 percent since last October. The sharp uptick in small quakes increased the likelihood of larger, more dangerous earthquakes — 5.0 and greater — in the future, the scientists warned.
An informal survey conducted by the Oklahoma Insurance Commission found that 12 to 18 percent of residents now have earthquake insurance, up from just 2 to 4 percent in 2011.