Texas Railroad Commission Lets Frackers Keep Permits Despite Quakes

The hearings held by the Texas Railroad Commission to determine whether or not fracking companies XTO Energy and Enervest could continue injecting wastewater brine into the ground in Azle and Reno — towns in Tarrant and Parker County that have been hit with dozens of earthquakes in 2013 — went out with a whimper.

Despite a SMU researcher-led study about the earthquake swarm published in the Nature Communications journal and an increasing mountain of outside studies pointing to the seismic risks that wastewater injection creates, the Railroad Commission unanimously agreed with the state's technical examiner that because it was impossible to know with certainty whether or not the the companies had cause the earthquakes, they should keep their injection permits.

"The [SMU] study is a commendable first-order study that posits the plausibility of injection-induced seismicity in these cases," technical examiner Paul Dubois told the commissioners, before calling the correlation found by the SMU researchers too weak to show cause. At the initial show-cause hearing in June, Andree Griffin, XTO’s vice president for geology and geophysics, blamed the earthquakes on 600 million years of seismic activity rather than anything his company was doing.

Ryan Sitton, a Ted Cruz supporter from Irving who sits on the commission, praised Dubois' work.

"Paul, I think that you guys did a really good job of digging into the technical meat of this issue, evaluating the models that were run and the case studies that were presented to us ... I think a lot of people have questions in places like Irving where there doesn't seem to be any oil or gas activity even in proximity."

Irving has seen 89 earthquakes in the last year despite the entire state of Texas experiencing no earthquakes large enough to be felt between 1950 and 2008.

SMU did not participate in the hearings because it felt they were about government policy, rather than the science behind the earthquakes.

"We realize the show-cause hearings for injection wells in the Reno-Azle area are taking place over the next two weeks," the research team said in June when the hearings began. "We view the hearings as a policy decision being made by the RRC that, in turn, has significant economic repercussions for the companies in question. We do not comment on policy. As such, we will not be providing comments on the hearings or on any non-peer-reviewed science being presented at the hearings. 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."

Tuesday, in a brief statement, the researchers would only say that they stood behind their report. The SMU team is still investigating the cause of the Irving earthquakes as well, but it's hard to believe their findings will matter much to Sitton and his fellow commissioners.
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young

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