As Texas Shakes and Regulators Stall, Midland Will Have its Water and Frack Too

If you live just a little northwest of Fort Worth, chances are you've felt an earthly rumble and grumble at least once in the last six months. In the cities of Azle and Reno, dozens of such small earthquakes have struck in the last year. For an area that has historically been short on seismic movement, it's been cause for alarm.

On Wednesday, the state Railroad Commission announced that it's begun compiling data received from oil and gas companies across the state to determine whether or not there is a link between a rise in small-scale local earthquakes and natural gas drilling in North Texas. KERA and NPR's StateImpact Texas hosted a panel discussion last night in Azle to address the possible link.

Researchers have already drawn conclusive evidence linking the two: Earlier this month, findings presented at the Seismological Society of America showed that wastewater disposal wells places increased stress on earth faults and could lead to a rise in earthquakes in regions where gas wells are common.

For some locals, the link could not be more clear. "Common sense tells me if you take millions of gallons of water and pump it down into a fault bed, you can't expect anything else. Common sense tells you it's going to shuffle and move things around. That fluid has to go somewhere," Reno Mayor Linda Stokes said at the forum.

SMU geophysicist Heather DeShon, also a panel participant, is more hesitant to draw any conclusions -- yet. "From our perspective, our study is ongoing," she told Unfair Park today. "We are incorporating the new data released by the Texas Railroad Commission, and we continue to work toward a study that will need to go through peer review."

But cities around the area are already working to lessen the impact of fracking around the area. Denton has been making headlines recently for considering a motion to ban fracking. It would become the first city in the state to ban fracking.

The City of Azle has expressed similar concerns, and is actively seeking solutions to the dozens of small earthquakes that have recently struck. Meanwhile, Midland is doubling down on fracking.

Earlier this week, it announced a partnership with Pioneer Natural Resources to put $200 million into a wastewater recycling facility.

The facility would take city wastewater to reuse for gas wells, which require around 20 million gallons a day. Midland is facing a water shortage, and the idea is to stop fracking companies from using increasingly rare groundwater while giving them city wastewater instead. In return, Pioneer will eventually let the city access that reused water to hydrate parks and golf courses, after Pioneer has had its fill -- which could be anywhere from 10 to 20 years, a figure that will be known once contract negotiations are finalized. In the meantime, all city wastewater will be going to benefit gas wells in West Texas, and business continues to boom for fracking companies in Midland.

Holly McGrath-Rosas, interim director of utilities, says that while Pioneer will clearly benefit from the partnership, the city's desperate water shortage and eventual access to the wastewater is the reason behind the partnership.

"They're going to do it regardless, whether they want to drill water wells and frack with it, or if we want to partner with them and benefit the city of Midland. Either way I can't control who is and who isn't going to frack," Rosas says. "We want to embrace and work with them. Our goal is that we both get our needs met."

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Emily Mathis