State Regulators Sit Idle as Quakes Rock North Texas

A USGS map showing the 17 earthquakes that measured 2.5 on the Richter scale and above in the past 30 days.
A USGS map showing the 17 earthquakes that measured 2.5 on the Richter scale and above in the past 30 days.

So far, none of the two dozen earthquakes recorded in North Texas since the start of November have caused any serious damage. The Eagle Mountain Lake Dam is fine. Homes and businesses are intact, save for the occasional hairline crack. No one has been hurt.

There's no guarantee that won't change as the quakes, centered near the Parker County town of Azle, creep toward 4.0 on the Richter scale, the magnitude at which seismic activity can start causing damage. The most recent quake, which happened just after midnight on Sunday, registered a 3.6. At 3:23 a.m. Monday, a 3.7 shook Mineral Wells.

The earthquakes aren't directly related to hydraulic fracturing, the process of releasing oil and natural gas from rock formations by blasting them with a pressurized liquid. But they probably are caused by injecting the resulting wastewater -- nine billion gallons per month in Texas -- deep underground.

See also: Whistleblower Lawsuit Supports Our Worst Suspicions About How the Railroad Commission Regulates Oil and Gas

That's what the science, preliminary though it may be, suggests, and what the average lay person would conclude by the quakes' proximity in time and place to fracking disposal wells in the Barnett Shale. The USGS has reached the conclusion quakes and disposal wells are probably linked.

The Texas Railroad Commission, the state's notoriously spineless oil and gas regulator, begs to differ.

"Texas has a long history of safe injection, and staff has not identified a significant correlation between faulting and injection practices," according to the agency's website.

See also: Connection Between Quakes and Underground Frack-water Disposal Looks Solid

It's not clear what burden of proof is required before the RRC begins taking the earthquakes seriously. It's clear from a lengthy report this weekend from StateImpact Texas that it hasn't yet been met. The agency's rules currently focus on preventing groundwater contamination and have no provisions governing a disposal wells' possible connection to seismic activity. So, even if a preponderance of evidence suggests that a certain disposal is causing earthquakes, there's nothing the RRC can do to shut the well down or limit the amount of fluid injected.

The calls for the RRC to do something to change that are growing louder. Last week, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram urged the agency to revisit its current limit on disposal sites, which stands at 30,000 barrels of wastewater per day at many wells. This weekend, The Dallas Morning News urged it to be much more proactive about seeking the earthquakes' cause.

Hopefully, the earthquakes don't get strong enough to cause serious damage. It's looking like that's what it will take to get the RRC's attention.

Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >