Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Could Evidence of Manmade Quakes Bring Tectonic Shift in Texas Regulation?

A dozen smaller earthquakes have struck Dallas this week.


A dozen smaller earthquakes have struck Dallas this week.

There have been earthquakes in almost every corner of Texas since the start of the state’s most recent oil and gas boom. One “swarm” that really captured people’s attention started in the town of Azle in 2013.  When oil and gas regulators at the Railroad Commission of Texas visited the town, local people suggested ways to handle the waste water disposal wells thought to be causing the quakes. One idea came up over and over again.

“Why is it we can’t shut the wells down around here for a period of time?” asked resident Gale Wood. “If nothing happens after a while, that would be one way to determine what’s going on.”

The Railroad Commission has a different approach. In the case of Azle, it waited over a year while a team of seismologists at Southern Methodist University undertook a study.  The results came back this month, confirming that disposal wells likely caused the quakes. That has some residents in Texas’ quake country hoping the simple notion put forth at that public meeting -shut down disposal wells if there’s a chance they’re related to earthquakes- may get another hearing.

“When I saw the report I thought ‘wow, finally people will realize that we’re not as dumb as they were trying to make us look,’” says Lynda Stokes, Mayor of the town of Reno, near Azle. “It makes a lot more sense to shut them down. [To] take care of your citizens.”

Lynda Stokes is the mayor of Reno in Parker County, where dozens of medium-sized earthquakes have been recorded in an area that used to be quake-free.

Doualy Xaykaothao / KERA News

Lynda Stokes is the mayor of Reno in Parker County, where dozens of medium-sized earthquakes have been recorded in an area that used to be quake-free.

Under rules it adopted last year, the Railroad Commission doesn’t shut down a disposal well  unless there’s scientific data suggesting the well caused a quake. That data can take months or years to gather.

“There’s no diagnostic tool that can help us just say ‘this earthquake was cause by wastewater injection, this earthquakes was caused by the fracking process, this earthquake was a natural earthquake,” says Mark Peterson, a scientist with the US Geological Survey who just authored another report out this month re-affirming the link between oil and gas activity and earthquakes.

So, even if scientists know disposal wells can cause quakes, and quakes start happening around a well, Texas regulators require earthquake research. Some other regulatory agency’s recommend a more aggressive approach.

“We are strongly recommending being proactive… get in front of it,” says Philip Dellinger. He’s head of the team that deals with disposal wells at EPA’s Region Six office in Dallas.

This year the EPA released recommendations for how states should manage manmade earthquake risks. That includes proposal similar to a system known in the industry as the “traffic light model.”

Philip Dellinger is head of the EPA’s Underground Injection Control Section for Region 6 in Dallas.

Photo by Philip Issa

Philip Dellinger is head of the EPA’s Underground Injection Control Section for Region 6 in Dallas.

“What that means is when you think you might be dealing with potential future induced earthquakes, you can go into a well operators permit and say ‘hey we’re gonna let you do this,’ says Dellinger.  “But if we start getting earthquakes and if those earthquakes reach a magnitude over some defined magnitude. We’re gonna bump up what you have to do.”

That “yellow light” could mean the operators wouldnt be able to inject as much wastewater into the well or would need to inject it as a lower volume.

“The red light would be if it gets over magnitude X. you shut in the well,” says Dellinger.

In Texas, disposal well operators have shut down well, or changed the amount they pump into them after quakes. But such actions are voluntary and rarely discussed publicly. In Oklahoma, the traffic light system is part of official regulation.

Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton.

Screen capture from Ryan Sitton campaign video.

Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton.

But even after the most recent scientific reports, Reno Mayor Lynda Stokes doesn’t think the Railroad Commission is likely to adopt those rules. She points out that Commissioners still publicly question the link between oil and gas and the surge in quakes. A fact confirmed in an interview with Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton late last week.

“I am very much not convinced that there is a causal link that has been determined yet,” said Sitton. He’s called for a public hearing reviewing the study that links the Azle quakes to disposal wells. No date on that yet, but in June the Railroad Commission will hold two hearings to determine whether two disposal wells in Azle will be shut down.


  • Rufus Mann

    The Texas Legislature just passed a bill that says jurisdictions cannot ban fracking so all of their energy sector buddies could drill indiscriminately across the State. Do you really think these same individuals will allow anyone to regulate the same industry? I don’t care how many earthquakes hit Texas, they will still stand up at their podium and state ‘there is no evidence that Fracking causes any kind of damage to the State of Texas’ just like the Tobacco Industry did circa 1975.

  • Roger

    What is sad about this dilemma is that the BIG OIL TYCOONS have generously provided special campaign contributions and other perks to manipulate the system in Texas especially with regards to the fracking situation in Denton Texas. It is another example of how MONEY has corrupted the minds of politicians in favor of BIG OIL over the people despite all the research, and data that has been collected with regards to historical frequency of seismic activity from fracking, BIG OIL waves the
    mighty royal dollar in front of the Texas Legislature, and low and behold they
    take the bait.. Personally, I think this is an issue that should be taken to
    the US Supreme Court.

  • pbr90

    Anyone who thinks you can pump water into the earth while taking oil out knows nothing about physics: 700 level 3 earthquakes last year? Just how dumb can Commerce and Congress be?

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