Texas

Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Could Earthquakes Shake Up the Race for Railroad Commissioner?

After 20 earthquakes in a month, will state regulators respond?

Photo: OLIVER BERG DPA/LANDOV

Most candidates for Railroad Commission of Texas don't recognize the link between quakes and injection wells.

Scientists have known that man can create earthquakes by injecting fluids into the ground for decades. But if you listen to the people campaigning to regulate the Texas oil and gas industry, you may think the idea was in serious dispute.

Every Republican party candidate this primary season for the Railroad Commission denies that there is a link between injection wells used to pump oil and gas waste water underground and the surge in earthquakes that have struck Texas since the current oil and gas boom got underway. (The Railroad Commission of Texas has nothing to do with railroads; it’s the state’s oil and gas regulator.)

It’s a denial that has people living in quake-prone parts of the state deeply upset.

“Are they blind?!” Lynda Stokes, the mayor of the North Texas town of Reno, says. “Except for maybe one or two, every study says that they [quakes and injection wells] are linked. How can they say that there is no correlation?

Reno is at the epicenter of the most recent swarm of quakes. She calls herself a political independent.

Lynda Stokes is the mayor of Reno in Parker County, where more than 30 earthquakes have been recorded since November.

Doualy Xaykaothao / KERA News

Lynda Stokes is the mayor of Reno in Parker County, where more than 30 earthquakes have been recorded since November.

“[Candidates are] choosing to just turn their face and look the other way, while the very people they’re supposed to be representing and protecting are suffering the consequences,” she says.

Like many in her area, she blames political contributions from the oil and gas industry for politicians’ unwillingness to acknowledge the link between disposal wells and quakes. She believes those politicians will pay a price at the ballot box.

“Yes, I do,” she says. “We have a lot of very intelligent people in our area. We have a lot of people who get on the internet and read the studies that are available and everybody knows that these wells are linked to this.”

None of the current slate of Republican politicians running for the open seat on the Railroad Commission has acknowledged that injection wells can cause earthquakes.

When asked by StateImpact Texas how she explains a recent “swarm” of quakes near the North Texas town of Azle that are occurring within a few miles of disposal wells, Becky Berger, one of the Republican candidates, answered that “the earth is covered all over by faults.”

Becky Berger is running to be the Republican nominees for Railroad Commission.

Photo courtesy of Berger campaign website.

Becky Berger is running to be the Republican nominees for Railroad Commission.

“One of the things the people in Azle didn’t realize was that their developer had them build that subdivision on top of a fault zone,” she says. “And there’s nothing the Railroad Commission can do about that!”

The other GOP candidates did not respond to our request for comment, but a report in the Dallas Morning News by David Barer details how each of them share a similar position to Berger’s, as does one of the two candidates running as a Democrat.

Of candidates who have responded to StateImpact Texas’ request, only Mark Miller, a Libertarian, and Steve Brown, a Democrat, agreed with the body of scientific evidence showing how injection wells can, in some cases, cause earthquakes.

Steve Brown is running to become the Democratic nominee for Railroad Commission.

Photo courtesy of Steve Brown for RRC Facebook page.

Steve Brown is running to become the Democratic nominee for Railroad Commission.

When it comes to the more than 30 quakes that have recently jolted residents of Azle and Reno in North Texas, Brown tells StateImpact Texas “the [Railroad] Commission needs to find a way to suspend operations for the cluster of injection wells in that area until we’ve found some kind of conclusive evidence that everyone’s comfortable with of what’s causing these quakes.”

He believes that position will win him votes as well, though that may be harder than it sounds.

Many of the parts of Texas that are feeling a surge in quakes are rural or exurban. Those are, not surprisingly, the same areas where disposal wells are often located. They are also usually areas that dependably vote Republican. In Parker County, where the town of Reno is located, voters supported Mitt Romney by 82 percent in 2012.

Still, Brown, the leading Democratic candidate, thinks he has a chance with those voters.

“Sitting down with them, and talking with them,” Brown says, “it became quite clear that this became more about their interests than their political alignment. So I think that there are Parker counties throughout the state.”

Zan Prince, head of the Parker County GOP, believes if there are “Parker counties throughout the state,” then she probably has no reason to worry.

“I think when it comes to general election, GOP voters will show up regardless whether or not this issue is resolved concerning the earthquake connection to drilling,” she tells StateImpact Texas.

Regardless of who wins, the issue already seems to have more people focused on the race for the Railroad Commission, a race that’s usually treated as a down-ballot afterthought by many Texas voters.

Comments

  • StopTheMadness

    How interesting that the officials of both parties (Republican and Democrat) have actually acknowledged the likelihood of the correlation of quakes to injection wells, and have endorsed going with Seismologists recommendations to deploy equipment and get firm science before making a conclusion.

    This article is highly partisan, and is falsely portraying the facts, and is not objective.

    Partisan organizations should not receive federal funding such as NPR if it is going to use these avenues to promote their politics. The natural conclusion is we need to defund NPR.

    While the article targets GOP, it fails to mention that Democrat Terry Canales is on the Seismic Activity subcommittee and also has not publicly stated any conclusions.

    The article also fails to state that seismologists have recommended deploy equipment that can get to a scientific conclusion, and that this is in fact being done.

    Ultimately, affecting injection wells is going actually hurt Liberal causes, because Coal is already 10 times more profitable for producing electricity than natural gas. Making gas more expensive is going to increase the demand for coal.

    If you are going to try to leverage partisan politics to try to win an election for your friends, maybe you should consider getting the facts straight, and even your own goals.

    What do you want?

    Do you want to harm the natural gas industry and therefore help the coal industry?

    Natural Gas is the bridge fuel Liberals insisted on converting to as a cleaner alternative from coal, and has caused a skyrocket in electricity costs, while also diminishing American Citizens profits in their energy investments. Now liberals want to hurt natural gas….and do what? Go back to coal? Turn off the electricity?
    Get our gas from foreign interests at a higher cost? Or just win elections no matter who they harm?

    Maybe we need ObamaCare Seismic Coverage mandated on every household in Texas?

    I think the GOP and Democrats in office are doing the right thing…get the facts first, then make a decision that benefits Texans.

    And that decision is very likely to involve a formulation to fine tune safe practices for fracking and injection wells, and based on science, not on Liberal publications of partisan politics ultimately funded by taxpayers who do not appreciate the abuse.

    • Mose Buchele

      To avoid confusion on the part of our readers, I’d like to point out that this is a story about candidates for Railroad Commission. Not quite sure how this comment pertains to the story.

  • Paul Rowe

    Does Mr. Brown accept donations from the industry?

    Mr. Miller does not. A major difference.

    This sure reads like a Democratic campaign piece. Was it supposed to be objective?

    Also, there was room in the article to clarify that the science is that injection can trigger earthquakes in a fault zone, but the vast majority of injection wells do not.

    The oil and gas operations that can CAUSE earthquakes that weren’t set up to happen eventually anyway are extractions from large formations that have the potential to compress or collapse. This, by the way, does not include formations in which shale fracturing is done. The very reason for frac’ing is that the formation is too hard.

    Also, pressures are monitored. There was one well near Azul that was showing high pressures, and injection was stopped under current operating rules a few months ago, as I understand it.

    The science is that once a fault is lubricated through injection, the triggered (not caused) earthquakes can continue for a couple of years.

    If you can stand precise language and rigor with a balanced discussion and very little entertainment of the polarization type, see Mark Miller’s site for a clear summary with many useful links. Unfortunately, this includes few voters or journalists. More’s the pity. But we’ve got what we voted for.

  • Paul Rowe

    Just a further note after I went to Mark Miller’s site just now. Yesterday, Mark Miller posted an interesting and comprehensive discussion of what the RR Commission ought to do in regard to earthquakes. Any other definitive position statements out there?

    Use the link in the story. (Thanks to the author for these links.)

    • Mose Buchele

      Thanks for reading Paul! Mr. Miller’s position is mentioned in this story. One of the Democratic candidates also does not recognize the science linking injection and seismic activity (also mentioned in this piece).

      For more on the science of quakes and injection I recommend you check our this piece we aired yesterday (web story to follow).

      http://stateimpact.npr.org/texas/2014/02/18/exploring-the-science-behind-manmade-quakes-in-texas/

      I appreciate all comments that are germane to my reporting even if they are critical, so, again, thanks for reading and posting!

      • Paul Rowe

        You are welcome. Thanks for writing.

        Dale Henry told the Dallas News that “There should be no contributions from the industry being regulated or any supporting industries.”

        So to answer my own earlier question, yes, there is at least one other candidate that doesn’t think 90 days will exterminate the memory of a contribution (excuse the cynicism).

  • claytonauger

    Gee, if this reads like a Democratic Campaign piece, maybe it’s because the Republican candidates have refused to acknowledge the science on this issue – something many in the GOP are doing on a host of other issues as well.

    • Paul Rowe

      Point taken.

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