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Texas Quake Study Shakes Regulators to Action

A study linking seismic activity with oil/natural gas drilling activities got the attention of the newest commissioner on the Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC) on Thursday, and then his two colleagues jumped on the injection well-seismicity bandwagon Friday.

Ryan Sitton, who joined the RRC in January, called for a public meeting on the research.

Sitton said he has told RRC staff to work with researchers at Southern Methodist University (SMU) to schedule a public meeting in response to their recently published study in Nature Communications titled, "Causal Factors for Seismicity Near Azle, Texas" (see Shale Daily, April 21).

The commissioner announced the action in a press release on Thursday. Friday afternoon commissioners Christi Craddick and David Porter said in their own press release that they were directing the RRC hearings division to initiate proceedings for a show cause order to the operators of two waste disposal wells in the Azle area.

The operators are to be called upon to show why their permits should not be cancelled and the wells shut in, given their suspected link with area seismicity, Craddick and Porter said.

The wells at issue are XTO Energy Inc.’s West Lake SWD No. 1, Newark, East (Barnett Shale) Field in Parker County and Enervest Operating LLC's Briar No. 1, Caughlin (Strawn) Field in Wise County.

XTO’s hearing is set for June 10 and 11, and Enervest’s hearing is to be June 15 and 16.

"In light of SMU's study linking disposal well activity to earthquakes in 2013, it is important to assess this new information in relation to the continued operational safety of the wells," Craddick said.

The action follows previous RRC meetings at which residents of Barnett Shale towns criticized the commission for inaction on their complaints. One year before Sitton was sworn in, a busload of residents from Azle traveled to Austin to appeal to the RRC to investigate tremors that were cracking their driveways (see Shale Daily, Jan. 21, 2014). About three months after that, the RRC hired David Craig Pearson, who holds a doctorate in geophysics from SMU, to be its quake investigator (see Shale Daily, March 28, 2014).

As recently as January, Pearson was advocating caution before blaming seismic activity on oil/gas industry activity such as waste injection wells and hydraulic fracturing (see Shale Daily,Jan. 16). State Rep. Myra Crownover leads the Texas House subcommittee on seismic activity and also is skeptical of an oil/gas industry-seismicity connection. "Everybody's curious about this," she told the Austin American Statesman in response to the SMU study. "We want to know but don't want to blame any single thing till it's a proven link."

On Thursday, Sitton appeared to be breaking from the pack with his lone wolf call for a public meeting on the issue.

"Since November 2013, certain areas of Texas have experienced elevated levels of seismic activity, and residents are concerned that this may be caused by oil and gas related activities," Sitton said."Since that time, the commission has held hearings in Azle and Austin, hired an in-house seismologist and adopted disposal well rule amendments that are designed to address disposal well operations in areas of historical or potential seismic activity [see Shale Daily, Oct. 28, 2014].

Sitton's Friday announcement did not mention the RRC's other two commissioners; nor did it say whether they supported holding a hearing on the SMU findings.

Porter said in his release with Craddick that "due to the that fact the wells were permitted prior to the commission's rule amendments addressing disposal well activity and seismic activity, and in light of the new research contained in SMU's report, it's appropriate and necessary for the commission to consider the operation of these wells in a fully informed manner and determine the appropriate course of action.”

The SMU study in Texas isn't the only recent research that bolsters the argument for a connection between drilling activities and seismicity. The Oklahoma Geological Survey has made a similar finding (see Shale Daily, April 22), and the U.S. Geological Survey, which has traditionally assessed seismic risks on a six-year schedule, is proposing an annual hazard model to more effectively predict earthquakes (see Shale Daily, April 23).

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