Officials in the swarm zone taking action after taking heat

E&E News | Mike Soraghan

January 27, 2014
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The persistent earthquakes rattling Azle, Texas, aren't the biggest ones to shake the Lone Star State. But they've triggered some of the biggest political tremors to hit the state's storied oil and gas agency, the Texas Railroad Commission.

The three-member elected body and the staff it oversees have found themselves scrambling to catch up with the public on the issue of man-made earthquakes linked to oil and gas activity.

After more than 800 people showed up at a town hall meeting on the earthquakes, commissioners agreed to hire an in-house seismologist. The commission is teaming up with the state geologist to study drilling-related tremors, and the Legislature is planning hearings about the quakes.

It's a sign that state officials in the path of what's been termed a "remarkable" increase in seismicity have started taking steps to deal with the shaking.

Developments have been quieter in Oklahoma, which has seen the sharpest increase in earthquakes linked to drilling activities, than in Texas. The Oklahoma Corporation Commission (OCC), which oversees drilling, is proposing to require logging of more information at wastewater disposal wells, the operations that have been linked to some earthquakes (EnergyWire, Jan. 16).

The agency also is developing a "stress map" to show the faults in Oklahoma that are at the greatest risk for movement. And state officials have been consulting with researchers at the University of Southern California about what information would be most useful.

"There are questions out there. We have to have more data," said Dana Murphy, one of the three members of the corporation commission.

The OCC also ordered a disposal well operator to sharply limit operations last year, under what regulators call a "traffic light" approach, after a series of earthquakes nearby (EnergyWire, Oct. 2, 2013). The company then suspended operations entirely.

Talking time

More broadly, man-made earthquakes, or "induced seismicity," have become a frequent topic at the conferences of oil and gas officials. The USC professor working on the issue with Oklahoma officials, Fred Aminzadeh, spoke at the November meeting of the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission and is to speak at the next one in May.

The Ground Water Protection Council (GWPC), an organization of state oil and gas officials and environmental regulators, also has had discussions on the issue at least as far back as January 2013.

"The GWPC will be trying to coordinate the results of all this 'new' effort in the coming months," Mike Paque, the organization's executive director, said in an email exchange.

Critics, including environmental groups and rattled homeowners, say state officials are dawdling with data gathering when they should be shutting down wells.

"The Railroad Commission has a history of delaying action hoping the public will give up and go away," said Sharon Wilson, an activist and organizer in Texas who has been working with people upset by the earthquakes near Azle. "If Texas regulators want to show they're not owned by the oil and gas industry, they need to take concrete action to protect impacted people right now."

But industry is supportive of the deliberative approach.

"The Texas Oil & Gas Association welcomes additional research on this important topic to clearly identify the cause, impact and location of the seismic activity in North Texas," Deb Hastings, executive vice president of the association, said in a statement after the raucous town hall meeting earlier this month.

Geologists have known for decades that injection of any kind of industrial fluid deep underground can lubricate faults and unleash earthquakes. The shale boom in Texas and other parts of the country is driven by high-volume hydraulic fracturing, which creates millions of gallons of wastewater. The fracturing itself is not believed to cause damaging earthquakes, but much of the wastewater from "fracked" wells gets injected deep underground.

Seismologists at the U.S. Geological Survey said in 2012 that they were seeing a "remarkable" increase in earthquakes in the middle of the country, paying special attention to Oklahoma. Last year, USGS said that central Oklahoma is in the midst of a seismic "swarm" likely linked to injection. That prompted the state's insurance commissioner to urge residents to buy earthquake insurance (EnergyWire, Oct. 31, 2013).

Since 2009, Oklahoma has had more earthquakes than any of the other lower 48 states, except California, according to an EnergyWire analysis, and 10 percent of the earthquakes in the lower 48 have been in Oklahoma (EnergyWire, Dec. 2, 2013).

Varying responses

Other states have moved quickly in the past. Ohio oil and gas officials shut down an injection well in Youngstown in 2012 and rushed to implement emergency seismic rules for injection after the well was linked to repeated earthquakes. A "swarm" of quakes prompted the Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission to ban drilling waste disposal wells in a 1,150-square-mile area in 2011 (EnergyWire, March 25, 2013).

The interest in regulation didn't spread quickly to Oklahoma and Texas, where drilling is more established and dominant.

The Oklahoma Corporation Commission has continued to allow injection above the active fault that caused the state's largest earthquake, a magnitude-5.7 quake in November 2011 (EnergyWire, July 25, 2012). But at the request of OCC, it has a digital meter that provides data in "real time."

And the agency has been quietly meeting with industry, other state officials and researchers looking into the connection between disposal and earthquakes to discuss "best practices." The results of those discussions have emerged in the last few months in the form of the "traffic light" approach and the data collection proposal. The OCC limited injections to a well in Marietta, Okla., last year after earthquakes shook the area around it -- putting it in "yellow light" status.

Murphy said that the OCC, industry and other state officials are taking the issue seriously.

"This is not an abstract issue for us. The commissioners all live in the area that's been having the earthquakes. The people from these companies live in the area," Murphy said in a phone interview last week. "We've all had to learn on this."

Troubles before Azle

Azle, about 20 miles northwest of Fort Worth, has been shaken by about 30 earthquakes since early November. Some have been as strong as magnitude 3.6, which is much weaker than an injection-linked quake, magnitude 4.8, that shook Timpson, Texas, in 2012. There are at least three active injection wells near Azle, which sits atop the Barnett Shale natural gas field, and many people in the area believe the earthquakes are related to them.

No injuries or major damage has been reported from the earthquakes, though some residents say the shaking has caused cracks to appear or grow worse in their homes' walls and foundations (EnergyWire, Jan. 14).

Even before the quakes in Azle and Timpson, Texas had some of the best-documented seismic activity around injection wells. Three injection wells in the Dallas area have been voluntarily shut down by the operator after earthquakes nearby. University of Texas professor Cliff Frohlich linked injection to 24 small earthquakes around Cleburne, Texas, from 2009 to 2011. That indicated that disposal wells in the Barnett Shale might be causing more quakes than previously thought (EnergyWire, Aug. 7, 2012).

But those earthquakes triggered no policy changes from the Railroad Commission, run by three commissioners elected statewide. They undertook a large-scale revision of its rules in 2012 without looking at man-made earthquakes.

The agency's website continues to state that "staff has not identified a significant correlation between faulting and injection practices," which contradicts the view of most seismologists (EnergyWire, Dec. 18, 2013).

But after people from around Azle packed into a high school auditorium and lambasted state officials for their inaction, the commission moved quickly and publicly to hire an in-house seismologist to work on the issue. And after that, a House committee in the state Legislature created a subcommittee to look into the quakes around Azle.

There has been some dispute over what authority Texas officials have over the wells. When about 50 people rode a bus from Azle to Austin to confront the Railroad Commission at one of its public sessions, officials told them the commission has no authority to shut down injection wells even if scientists link them with earthquakes (EnergyWire, Jan. 22).

"If we're going to take those into account, then the law's going to need to be changed," Railroad Commission Chairman Barry Smitherman said.

But the commission's website on disposal wells states "commission staff could suspend or terminate a permit if science and data indicated a problem."

Injection wells are regulated by states and U.S. EPA under EPA's Underground Injection Control program. EPA officials have said the program "can and should implement requirements to protect against significant seismic events" (EnergyWire, March 15, 2012).

Tagged with: texas, railroad commission, fracking, earthquakes

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