Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Earthquakes or ‘Seismic Activity?’ Lawmakers on Drilling’s ‘Unintended Byproducts’

You know what they say, “one man’s earthquake is another man’s ‘seismic activity.'”

At a StateImpact Texas panel on the legislative response to the Texas oil and gas boom, we asked some lawmakers if they are hearing concerns from constituents about the uptick in earthquakes in the state. Scientists have linked all that shaking to disposal wells used to store the byproducts from both traditional drilling and hydro-fracturing, or fracking.

State Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford) replied, first by defining his terms.

“It really hasn’t been earthquakes, it’s been seismic activity,” he said.

King said he was skeptical of the link between the drilling and the shaking underground, but “the good news is nobody’s felt it, there hasn’t been any damage we have some time to kind of look at it.”

That’s not actually the case.

There have been numerous incidents of people feeling unexpected quakes not only in the Dallas/Fort Worth area where there have been over 50 quakes reported since 2008 (and not a single one before then) but also in South Texas, and more recently in the East Texas town of Timpson. In Timpson, people blame the quakes for structural damage to homes.

Researchers say they have shown that a link exists between quakes and disposal wells, and in some cases have proven definitive links between individual quakes and individual disposal wells in the DFW area. In internal emails obtained by StateImpact Texas, the Texas Railroad Commission has also acknowledged that disposal wells cause earthquakes.

But what of the word choice? Earthquake or seismic activity?

State Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) took issue with King’s use of the word “seismic activity.” Patting King on shoulder he said “When my house shakes its an earthquake, now it’s a ‘seismic activity’ when it happens at his.”

“If you’re getting a (oil and gas) royalty check, its probably a ‘seismic activity,'” Rep. King replied.

While they differed on semantics, neither lawmaker believed the Legislature was equipped to tackle the man-made earthquakes.

“There are going to be things that we find out down the road that future leaders in Texas will have to address,” said Sen. Ellis.

Update: To solve the debate between use of the words, StateImpact Texas reached out to Dr. William Ellsworth, a seismologist with the US Geological Survey. We asked whether there is a substantive difference between ‘earthquake’ or ‘seismic activity.’

His verdict?

“Seismic and earthquake are synonymous in this context,” he wrote in an email.


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