SMU Researchers Who Found Earthquake-Drilling Link Sit Out Key Regulatory Hearing

Last week, Texas authorities made the unprecedented decision to reject science. (Just kidding, they do that all the time.) The science dates back to April, when a peer-reviewed study by Southern Methodist University geologists seemed to finally confirm what many people living in Azle had long suspected: A recent, surprising string of earthquakes in town is related to the extensive natural gas drilling in the region, conducted by Exxon subsidiary XTO Energy.  The SMU seismology team reported "high volumes of wastewater injection," a byproduct of fracking, "combined with saltwater (brine) extraction from natural gas wells is the most likely cause of earthquakes occurring near Azle, Texas, from late 2013 through spring 2014." Pro-industry regulators quickly took action.

In June, the Texas Railroad Commission, the agency that regulates fracking, began holding a series of hearings into the matter. XTO Energy denied causing the earthquakes; the SMU researchers stood by their research, but from the first hearing made clear they were not interested in commenting on public policy or saying anything too harsh against XTO.  "...we will not be providing comments on the hearings or on any non-peer reviewed science being presented at the hearings," they said in a statement to the Observer several months ago. "We remain confident in the conclusions presented in our peer-reviewed publication, which was based on multiple lines of evidence. As always, we look forward to collaborating with government, industry and subject-matter experts."

But the latest Railroad Commission hearing on fracking and earthquakes, which took place last week, has us wondering if the SMU researchers are perhaps being too nice to their drilling-industry frenemies.  XTO Energy representatives spent hours criticizing the fracking-earthquake study. The SMU researchers, though present at other hearings, didn't show for this one. At the end of the hearing, the examiner ruled in XTO's favor, reasoning: "XTO's witnesses testified to a number of shortcomings with the [SMU] study. These shortcomings ... undermined the study's conclusion."   

Why weren't the SMU researchers there to fire back? "It's not our job as scientists to get between a regulatory agency and the group they regulate," said SMU geologist Heather DeShon. "We had already talked to all the parties about the paper extensively, there was no reason to show up on that particular day." Asked about her take on the researchers' previous meeting with the Railroad Commission, she said only, "It was fine."

The good news for researchers: They were given 15 days to file an objection to the state's conclusion. Officials in Azle are not happy that the state ruled against SMU's research. “It appears to me the railroad commission’s main purpose is to protect the oil and gas industry, not regulate it,” Azle Mayor Alan Brundrett told the Dallas Morning News

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