Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Oil And Gas Related Earthquakes? Texas Regulators Speak no Evil

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, Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, HI.

StateImpact Texas’ Terrence Henry contributed reporting to this article.

Close to midnight last September 29th, the Tarrant County 9-1-1 call center lit up with phone calls from outside its usual service area. The ground was shaking again, and people in nearby Irving, Texas had overwhelmed their own 9-1-1 system.

“What’s going on are we having tremors?” one woman asked.

On the call, obtained by StateImpact Texas in an open records request, a child is heard yelling in the background.

“It was an earthquake, Yes ma’am. Apparently [Irving's 911] phones are being inundated with calls and they’re overflowing into our police department,” said the operator.

A review of the calls shows people who were were scared, unsure whether to go back to their houses and, at times, annoyed by the lack of information from responders.  In one tape, a caller chuckles at an operator’s suggestion that she can re-enter her house “if the building doesn’t seem to be falling down or unstable.”

Earthquakes were not a part of life in the Dallas-Fort Worth area until recently. Now, they are. There have been more than 50 of them since 2008. The people there are getting a crash course in seismic rumbling.

Doyle Willis Jr.

Libby Willis, former president of the Forth Worth League of Neighborhood Associations.

“You know it always starts as kind of curiosity,” Libby Willis, former president of the Fort Worth League of Neighborhood Associations told StateImpact Texas. ”And then as it continues, it becomes maybe kind of a nuisance and then it progresses into: ‘Well. Do we have an issue here? And what are we going to do to deal with it?’” 

Willis serves on the Gas Drilling Committee for her neighborhood group.  She became involved in the local discussion over earthquakes when the Fort Worth City Council was debating whether to permanently ban oil and gas drilling disposal wells within the city limits.

Those wells have a lot to do with the uptick in earthquakes, says Cliff Frohlich, a research scientist at the Institute for Geophysics at the University of Texas at Austin. From his office at UT’s J.J. Pickle Research Center, Frohlich recently told the story of how he received calls from reporters asking if the quakes were related to oil and gas when they began in 2008.

“I said, ‘no they don’t have anything to do with oil and gas,’” he remembered. “This is probably the most misinformed statement I’ve ever made publicly.”

“All this stuff had happened and a seismologist like me didn’t know about it,” Frohlich added.

The “stuff” he was talking about is the gas drilling boom that had rolled into North Texas.

How it Works

If he had known about the new rush to drill in the Barnett Shale around Dallas-Fort Worth, Frohlich says, the cause of those quakes would have been clearer. Here’s what happens: Liquid used in oil and gas drilling needs to be stored somewhere after it’s used.  So companies drill disposal wells, and they inject that liquid byproduct back into the ground. It’s some of those disposal wells that can cause earthquakes.

Photo by Mose Buchele

Cliff Frohlich studies earthquakes from his office at UT's J.J. Pickle Research Campus.

“The model I use is called the air hockey table model,” says Frohlich. “You have an air hockey table, suppose you tilt it, if there’s no air on, the puck will just sit there. Gravity wants it to move but it doesn’t because there friction [with the table surface].”

But if you turn the air on for the air hockey table, the puck slips.

“Faults are the same,” he says. If you pump water in a fault, the fault can slip, causing an earthquake.

“Scientists in my community know that injection can sometimes cause earthquakes,” Frohlich says.

Decades ago, researchers even found they could turn earthquakes on and off by injecting liquid into the ground, says Dr. William Ellsworth with the Earthquake Science Center of the U.S. Geological Survey.

“This was seen as validation of the effective stress model,” he told StateImpact Texas. “This is work that was published in Science magazine and many other publications.”

But there are still places where people express skepticism over the relationship between disposal wells and earthquakes. And the state agency that regulates injection wells in Texas is one of them.

Wait and See

In a recent public forum hosted by the Texas Tribune, Railroad Commission Chair Barry Smitherman said he was aware of what he called “allegations” of a link.

“I know there are a number of studies being done and I think the University of Texas is doing one, and I’m anxious to see what kind of results we’re going to get,” he said in response to a question from StateImpact Texas.

That ‘wait and see’ approach is very close to the public position the Commission has taken previously.  In an email to StateImpact Texas, Commission spokesperson Ramona Nye wrote that staff welcomes more data about  “theories that hypothesize” a causation between seismic events and injection wells.  But the Commission would not make any staff members available for interview.

To figure out how seriously the Commission was taking man-made earthquakes, StateImpact Texas filed open records requests for Commission emails relating to the subject.

The 111 pages of emails the Commission supplied show that staff members there accept what scientists and oilmen have known for decades: Injection wells can cause earthquakes. They even show staff members in communication with EPA researchers over certain quakes. The messages include forwards of media reporting on earthquakes and notes of concern from Texans.

Then the emails stop.

The last email about earthquakes that the Railroad Commission has on record was dated August 6, 2012.  There was no record of electronic communication about the quakes that hit the Dallas area in late September, nor about quakes that hit North Texas in October, November or December.

The Railroad Commission is starting the process of writing new rules about disposal wells. But in an email to StateImpact Texas, the Commission said those proposed amendments “do not address seismic activity.”

That’s disappointing to some who live within Texas’ newly earthquake-prone regions.

The Options on the Table

“I don’t think [the Railroad Commission regulators] have the lead in this area,” says Libby Willis from the Fort Worth League of Neighborhoods Associations.

“You know earthquakes catch the public’s attention, and there’s always a desire to not acknowledge the things that may not be so attractive about disposal wells or anything associated with the fracking and the drilling,” she adds. 

“Earthquakes catch the public’s attention, and there’s always a desire to not acknowledge the things that may not be so attractive about disposal wells or anything associated with the fracking and the drilling.” – Libby Willis

Other places have created regulation for earthquake risk. Last year, regulators in Ohio instituted laws limiting the depth wells could be drilled, and mandating that drillers do geological tests, and monitor the liquid volume and pressure in disposal wells.  The year before that, the state of Arkansas declared a moratorium on wells, citing earthquakes as a concern.  Here in Texas, the Fort Worth City Council went on to pass the ban on new disposal wells in its city limits.

Researcher Cliff Frohlich doesn’t agree with some of the new policies, worrying that a rush to rule making could create new regulations that are too “draconian.” But he says there are things drillers could do if they were concerned about a disposal well.

“For example, if a well is causing earthquakes you could take the fluids to a different well,” he said. “If the fluids are causing earthquakes you could treat them, the way you do sewage and put it back in the creek.”

Other researchers, like Dr. Ellsworth, say it would simply be beneficial to have more data to study. That could mean greater monitoring of water volume and pressure in disposal wells.

Frohlich says regulation may also look different in large population centers, where earthquakes pose the greatest risk to life and property. Not surprisingly, those are the same places where concern is rising that regulators aren’t doing enough about the shaking underground.

So far, seismic events in Texas have been mostly small ones. But earthquakes that were likely man-made have been larger in other parts of the world. Even a medium size quake would be a financial disaster if it struck in the heart of Dallas-Fort Worth.


  • Case Watkins

    It seems to me that the Railroad Commission is either grossly negligent for failing to discuss the seismic events in September, or hiding something by deleting emails after the fact.

  • Over the years, I’ve seen people near drilling show up at the Arlington City Council meetings claiming ground shifts causing cracks in their foundations and walls and how their yards are falling into the street and vice versa….some have said they have diglently watered their yards and that it is not related to the drought.

  • Good post, but where is State Impact’s section on climate change? This is driving many of the environmental impacts in TX. Yes, even quakes (due to the net changes on forces to the plates brought on my ice melt and sea level rise)?

    • Art Aficionado

      If Texas is blamed for producing petroeum, shouldn’t Michigan automakers
      share the blame for producing the internal combustion engines that burn
      this stuff ?

      • tua07485

        ok. Lets blame Detroit, PA, NY, etc. Does that make what is happening in TX ok? Art, externalizing (blaming others) is fine, as long as one has the courage to also identify one’s own wrong doings.

      • FKACurmudgeon

        Texas is not being blamed with producing petroleum. They and many other states and countries do that. Nor is Texas being blamed with causing earthquakes. If anyone is causing earthquakes it is the drillers, not the state. It appears from the article that Texas is being blamed with a “look the other way” attitude about the potential causes of the quakes.

  • charich

    Says the car owner to the mechanic: “The rattling noise is getting worse in my engine! Are you sure the holes you are drilling in the side of my engine aren’t the cause?”

    Mechanic: “Absolutely not! Totally unrelated! However, bring your car in and I’ll drill a few more ok?”

  • mantaray

    1) If these disposal fluids would need to be *treated* before they could be released, then why are we just sticking them right into the ground? If we’re not monitoring these wells for pressure, are we monitoring them for whatever harmful agents they might be leaching into the ground?
    Haven’t we all learned by now that the earth’s different ecologies are connected?

    2) Why are we leaving this kind of thing up to individual states? If Texas wants to allow unregulated well-drilling that definitely causes earthquakes and may cause poisoning of the land/water, then how should Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma etc feel? Why is it ok for each state to write their own rules on these kinds of things? It’s not like ecology ends at the arbitrary state lines.

    • soonerheis

      When you inject water into the ground, it is naturally filtered by passing over rock, sand and silt. Oil and gas are not water soluble and they naturally separate from the water as it passes through the natural filters. This is how water is treated in your municipal water supply. Natural enzymes break down solid waste material in the water which is then released into the ground to be filtered. This is also the same method to treat waste water in private waste water disposal systems (septic systems). In areas where they have found gas in the water supply, it is a result of improper disposal. Which is indeed a problem.

  • tua07485

    “I know there are a number of studies being done and I think the University of Texas is doing one, and I’m anxious to see what kind of results we’re going to get,”………… didn’t they just caught recently a professor out of UT who did a biased study in favor of the gas industry?

    Look, obviously we are all choosing to ignore the facts for a short-term gain of money. At least, lets not bring science into it, and then try and twist it to confirm our greed.

    Its sad though, problems that we know are problems, and can be prevented, are often allowed to do damage BEFORE we take action. After, the greedy and the powerful do their exploits. What’s is happening with natural gas fraking is not for a lack of knowledge.

  • dorian

    Texas is experiencing a drought, how many Millions of gallons of water, our most valuable resource, is used for “FRACKING” . Salt, poison fresh water and then bury it in another “WELL”. Who’s going to clean this up? Future generations after they learn of or need a source of fresh water. Its OIL AND PROFITS ABOVE ALL ELSE.

  • florendo

    “these earthquakes and the poisoned aquafirs all across america are no more dangerous than cigarettes or drinking hanfords waste through a straw, except on a much more devastingly huge basis”=the stupidest government on the face of the planet=USA all the way

  • florendo

    texas……………….just plain sucks…………….deep fractures=GUESS STUPID!!!!!

  • This is like the climate change situation in miniature.

    A prolonged history with, at best, only a few, intermittent minor incidents in the past.

    A sudden upswing in activity, in sync with a major politico-economic assault on the planet.

    Insistences, by those who stand to gain if the new situation persists, or who will lose if steps are taken to stop it, that there is no apparent connection between one thing and the other.

    Demands for a “wait and see” strategy, which consists only of ignoring the situation as it gets steadily worse.

    If it can be accepted that these facets indicate surely that fracture mining is causing the earthquakes, it is hard not to go the extra step and see that human interference is causing climate change.

  • billy

    y’all might also want to consider the effects of a century of removing all the shock-absorbing pressurized oil/gas from the ground there in the 1st place, ie, fracking merely triggering the slips that would otherwise have never eventuated had the earth there still had the stabilizing effects of in-ground hydrolic/pneumatic shock-absorbers in place, but that would sooner or later occured with or without the addition of fracking.

About StateImpact

StateImpact seeks to inform and engage local communities with broadcast and online news focused on how state government decisions affect your lives.
Learn More »