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Legislative Subcommittee Addresses Growing Concerns over Fracking and Seismic Activity in Texas

Last week, a special committee of the Texas House of Representatives began to address the emerging issue of possible links between seismic activity and hydraulic fracturing.  The Special Seismic Activity Subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy Resources was formed to hear concerns coming from a group of citizens living in the Azle and Reno communities northwest of Fort Worth who have been beset by a series of earthquakes they believe are linked to the numerous oil and gas wells in and around their community.

At the packed interim hearing, Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter Conservation Director Cyrus Reed told the Special Seismic Activity Subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy Resources that it was time to act now by strengthening the Railroad Commission’s authority over disposal wells.

Reed said that while establishing definitive proof that a particular disposal of wastewater caused a particular seismic activity is next to impossible, the association between disposal of large volumes of wastewater and seismic activity had been established for decades, and both the Railroad Commission itself through rulemaking and the Texas Legislature through clarifying authority, must act. He said Texas should not aim to be number one in seismic activity, a crown currently worn by Oklahoma, which has experienced more earthquakes over the last six months than any other state in the continental US, with strong evidence that fracking and oil and gas wastewater disposal are the culprit.

The meeting started with presentations by the Reno Mayor Lynda Stokes and Azle Mayor Alan Brundrett, small towns west of Fort Worth which in over a four-month period in 2013 and 2014 experienced dozens of tremors. Both mayors called for stronger rules, collaboration and clear direction that the RRC could act to shut down operations when lives and property were in danger.

The RRC noted that it has the ability to revisit its rules on disposal wells and in fact did so last year, though that particular draft rule package did not include additional requirements on seismic activity and analysis. In a first step, the RRC hired a seismologist for the first time in their history. Dr. Craig Pearson. Pearson said the RRC was collaborating with SMU on a study of seismic activity in the Barnet Shale region of Texas, while also investigating other areas that have experienced tremors include an area in East Texas in the Haynesville Shale also located close to oil and gas disposal activities.

Most presenters – including those from the Oil and Gas industry -- shied away from making definitive conclusions about the relationship between oil and gas disposal activities and earthquakes, instead calling for further study.

 Reed, joined by Scott Anderson of Environment Defense Fund, noted that other states with significant hydraulic fracturing and disposal wells had already taken action by passing new rules or legislation, including Ohio, Arkansas and Colorado. Both Reed and Anderson said that while Texas did not need to copy these regulations, a number of good ideas were contained within them, including requiring a shut-off valve, specific permit criteria to shut down disposal wells, and pre and post disposal seismic monitoring.

Reed noted that while the RRC should take the first step by proposing new rules to deal with the negative impacts of disposal operations, the Legislature could also clarify existing statutes to give the RRC added authority and sufficient resources. Ultimately, industry must move toward other waste solutions other than injecting billions of gallons of toxic waste underground.