Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

What Texas Can Do About Oil and Gas-Related Earthquakes

Still image taken from video posted to Flikr Creative Commons by Waifer X. http://www.flickr.com/photos/waiferx/2658307394/

A seismograph measures feet stomping nearby at the Thomas A. Jaggar Museum in Hawaii

Three earthquakes in six days. Those were the surprising numbers that greeted Texans on Monday morning. What’s becoming less surprising is the notion that they could have been man-made.  All three of the quakes (two near Dallas, one around San Antonio) happened near areas with extensive oil and gas excavation.

A scientific consensus is forming around the notion that wastewater disposal wells, a common byproduct of oil and gas drilling, are causing quakes. As that understanding grows, the debate has moved from what is causing the quakes to what policymakers should do about it.

Possible Solutions

Anti-fracking groups and anti-fossil fuel environmentalists might say the solution is simple: ban drilling and the accompanying disposal wells. On the other side of the debate is the argument that small quakes are nothing to worry about in the first place.

But other groups are looking for ways to continue oil and gas development while mitigating the quakes themselves.

The National Reproduced from Induced Seismic Potential in Engergy Technologies, from National Research Council http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=13355&page=R1

A checklist from researchers Davis and Frolich was included in a recent report on the dangers of oil and gas related earthquakes.

A report out from the National Research Council referenced a nine year-old checklist of best practices for drillers and disposal well operators. That includes investigating the site’s history of earthquakes and its proximity to fault lines. But it included the observation that “government agencies and research institutions may not have sufficient resources to address unexpected (seismic) events.”

And at a hearing of the Texas House Committee on Energy Resources yesterday, state policymakers heard recommendations on what can be done to mitigate the risk of earthquakes.

Melinda Taylor was one of the experts to give testimony. Taylor directs of the Center for Global Energy, International Arbitration, & Environmental Law.  She says other states have more safeguards in place against unwanted earthquakes.

In Ohio, for example, well operators need to do a “fairly detailed analysis of the geological conditions” before the state’s regulatory agency offers a permit to authorize a new disposal well. ”So they can determine whether or not it’s likely to cause problems,” Taylor says.

Taylor also said the Texas Railroad Commission may want to consider mandating setbacks, to ensure greater distance between disposal wells and  public drinking water supplies, structures, and natural resources. She says some states also have stricter rules surrounding how companies do seismic testing, a process that sometimes includes detonating explosives underground to look for natural gas pockets.

“Texas already has a requirement that seismic holes be plugged after they’ve been used for seismic testing,”  Taylor told StateImpact Texas.  “But again some states are looking at setback requirements, additional safety measures for storage of explosives, things like that.”

While the current political winds in Austin tend to blow against expanded regulation, House Committee Chair Jim Keffer [R-Eastland] responded to Taylor’s testimony saying that earthquakes related to disposal wells “certainly has been an issue around this state. And that’s something I know the railroad commission is looking at.”

In an interview with StateImpact Texas, Dr. Cliff Frolich, the Associate Director of UT’s institute for Geophysics and an expert on man-made earthquakes, had one last suggestion how to mitigate unwanted quakes: find new ways of disposing drilling related wastewater.

“If disposal is causing earthquakes you can find a different way of dispose of it. You can dispose of the stuff in a different well, or you can even take it to a fluid treatment plant,” Frolich said.

Of course, companies’ willingness to do that will depend largely on cost and state regulation.

“The people involved in this [disposal well operation] are going to do the cheapest way of doing things that is generally considered safe,” said Frolich.

StateImpact Texas intern Kelly Conelly contributed to reporting for this story.



  • Trenalg

    Unjustly and outrageously, the TX oil/gas industry has been given free reign for so long that it’s considered normal for them to have unmitigated license to do as they please in their industry.  Obviously they don’t hear, don’t want to hear, could care less and will continue to deny, any news or factual information about the consequences of what they’re doing, if it would slow them down the least bit in their ambitions.  Sadly for the rest of us, we will all pay in ways none of us can yet imagine.  They’ve helped themselves greedily in partaking of the “knowledge of good and evil”, and won’t wake up to the truth until the damage is done.   “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down…”

  • Tom from texas

    These small earthquakes are actually doing more good than harm by releasing stresses in the earth’s tectonic system before they can build to a really destructive quake.
    The New Madrid fault has released the worst earthquakes the continent has ever experienced, but it was so long ago, there was no damage.
    That won’t be the case, should the New Madrid decide to move again and it’s long overdue.
    These small quakes released by underground drilling operations are relieving these stresses before they can become destructive.
    I say, Frack it and Crack it!

    • Keesvl

      Eh, I am not so sure of your reasoning, Tom. You seem to imply that stresses are already existing in areas where fracking it about to take place, and so the act of fracking will relieve pressure. What is more likely the case, however, is that the immense pressure that’s used to inject waste water into the earth is the actual culprit that causes these quakes to begin with. That’s not an insignificant difference.

      People and industries that think they can just extract from the earth and inject whatever they want without consequences are in for a rude surprise. As we all know, when it comes to making lots of money, ‘experts’ invent all kinds of theorems to show industry practices are ‘safe.’ Good luck with that.

    • MaryTX

      There aren’t New Madrid-like stresses in Texas.  Even if there had been, the past exploration and production would have released them.

      The excessive down-hole pressure used to fracture the rock CAUSES the stresses and then, finally the structural breakage that results in the quakes.

    • Tom, and you forgot to say that these small quakes makes the casings more stronger…..right?

  • Guest

    So Tom from Texas, which big gas company do you work for?

  • babby660

    Another objection I have to the fracking process is the use of WATER.  Don’t people realize that there is only a finite amount of water on the planet?  What are we to drink when all the available water is contaminated & buried deep underground?  Oh, I guess it won’t matter because the other results of our obsessive need to wring every resource we can from the ground will have wiped us out anyway.

    • Lkregula

       Only a finite amount of water, and relatively limited.  Yes, nearly 80% of the earth’s surface is covered by water, but only 3% of that is usable freshwater.  Add in many companies’ refusal to recycle water, and the massive amount of water that fracking each well requires, and it’s a disaster waiting to happen. 

  • WVChilds

    The “Related Topics” box asks “How do disposal wells work?” 

    Answer: They work just like sweeping the dirt under the carpet.

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