Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Ask the Candidates: What Can the Railroad Commission Do About Man-Made Quakes?

Disposal wells like this one are the point where a small operation could turn out to be causing big tremors that can be felt miles away.

Photo by Terrence Henry/StateImpact Texas

Disposal wells like this one are the point where a small operation could turn out to be causing big tremors that can be felt miles away.

Texas has seen the number of recorded earthquakes increase tenfold since 2007, the same time a drilling boom spurred by hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” took off. Scientific studies of those quakes has linked many of them to oil and gas drilling activity. In North and East Texas, peer-reviewed studies have pointed the finger at oil and gas wastewater disposal wells, where fluids from drilling are injected underground. The state oil and gas regulator has been slow to respond to the phenomenon, maintaining that links between the quakes and oil and gas activity are “hypothetical.”

But that’s beginning to change after residents of the towns of Azle and Reno in North Texas got vocal about the earthquakes in their region. It’s seen over 30 earthquakes since the beginning of November, and in response, the Railroad Commission has announced it’s hiring a seismologist to study the issue. A committee of lawmakers will be doing so as well. Other states have been more active in their approach to the issue, however.

In our third installment of questions for the candidates for Railroad Commissioner, we asked each of them where they stand on the science and potential solutions to the tremors. We reached out to candidates from all parties, but three of the Republican candidates did not participate. (Again, Malachi BoyulsWayne Christian and Ryan Sitton — we’d still like to hear back from you.)

The six candidates that did respond had varying answers and views on the quakes and regulating disposal wells:

Do you think disposal wells are causing earthquakes in parts of Texas? What kind of research have you done to support your opinion?

Some of the candidates, like Republican Becky Berger, deny that any of the quakes are linked to drilling activity. “If the media and the public would look at the distribution of earthquakes in Texas, they would find that the events are all in fault zones and most happened before we were drilling or fracking or disposing of wastewater,” Berger says. Others, like and Democrat Dale Henry, deny that some of the quakes are linked to disposal wells.*

The candidates, including Steve Brown, along with Libertarian candidates Jason Kute and Mark Miller, take the view that many of the quakes are manmade and linked to oil and gas production activity.

Libertarian candidate Jason Kute believes there is need for more study, however. “We must do more to understand the mechanisms involved if we are to reliably prevent anthropologically induced seismic activity,” he writes.

Green Party candidate Marina Salinas says there is not much scientific study yet, but “there is overwhelming public opinion that needs to be addressed.”

If disposal wells are scientifically determined to be the culprit behind earthquake swarms, as they have been at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport and in Cleburne, who should pay for damages to homes and infrastructure caused by the quakes?

Becky Berger, Republican: “From the information I have collected, the developer in the area where the earthquakes are happening built the homes over a fault zone.  I would be more inclined to require that builders have geological studies done prior to development, but that is not the agency I will working for if elected.  If it turns out to be the builder’s responsibility who would you suggest pay for damages then?”

Steve Brown, Democrat: “We will need to see what legal recourse these families and small businesses have.  I think the state should probably set up a dedicated fund, using existing proceeds from the oil and gas industry, to assist with repairs as well.”

Dale Henry, Democrat: “The earthquakes are the result of high-density producing wells purposely hydraulically fractured with very large volumes of fluids and propping agents. This can be scientifically proved.” Henry says “well owners and operators” should pay for damages from quakes “proportionally to the number of wells being pumped by each operator.”

Libertarians Jason Kute and Mark Miller say operators of the disposal wells should be financially responsible. Kute ways that it may be “useful to require bonding of these entities to ensure the availability of reparation funds.” Miller says it isn’t clear that the Railroad Commission has the authority to order or pay for earthquake damages, however.

Green Party candidate Martina Salinas says “more discussions are needed” before assigning damages.

Do you support more rules and regulations for oil and gas wastewater disposal wells with regards to manmade earthquakes? If yes, what rules and regulations would you propose as a commissioner?

Becky Berger, Republican: “There cannot be manmade earthquakes without bombs being exploded or nuclear testing being done, since the natural fault zones are where earthquakes happen, which are the only potentially manmade criteria that would cause an earthquake with the scientific evidence we have now.”

Steve Brown, Democrat: “Yes.  It’s important that we establish baseline best practices statewide to mitigate potential earthquakes.  We need to vigorously investigate what factors may be contributing to the quakes – daily volumes, proximity to fault lines, setbacks from homes – and establish policy accordingly.”

Democrat candidate Henry said he’s against any more rules or regulations for disposal wells; Libertarian candidates Kute and Miller said more study is needed before considering new regulations. Green candidate Salinas says more site inspections of disposal wells by the Railroad commission are needed.

We also asked the candidates if they would support requiring disposal well operators to share more data on the amount of wastewater being injected and at what pressure. All of the respondents said they would, with the exception of Republican Becky Berger. All of the candidates said the commission should have the authority do shut down or suspend disposal wells believed to be causing earthquakes with the exception of Democrat Dale Henry.

Up tomorrow: Where do the candidates stand on reforming eminent domain for pipelines?

Early voting for the Republican and Democratic primaries is currently underway and runs until Friday; the primary is next Tuesday, March 4. Unless one of the candidates receives more than fifty percent of the vote in each party, the top two candidates will go to a runoff, with voting on May 27.

This is the third in a series of questions for the candidates for Railroad Commissioner. Part 1 asked if the name of the commission should be changed to better reflect its mission; Part 2 asked the candidates for their positions on a variety of reforms for the commission. You can read more about the Railroad Commission here
Participants: Becky Berger, RepublicanSteve Brown, DemocratDale Henry, DemocratJason Kute, LibertarianMark Miller, LibertarianMartina Salinas, Green PartyRepublican candidates Malachi BoyulsWayne Christian and Ryan Sitton did not respond.

*This post was updated to clarify that some of the candidates deny a link between earthquakes and drilling activity and some only deny a link to disposal wells. 


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