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Texas House Earthquake Panel Holds First Hearing

Minor earthquakes blamed on drilling waste disposal wells have been shaking up small towns overlying the Barnett Shale of North Texas for a while now. On Monday, state lawmakers put their ears to the ground during the first hearing of a subcommittee formed on the matter, hearing from local mayors, academic, environmental, regulatory and industry representatives.

Back in January, residents of Azle and Reno, TX, two towns that have been plagued by quakes thought to be related to Barnett Shale activity, appealed to the Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC) to take a deeper look at what might be causing the seismic activity (see Shale Daily, Jan. 21). Most were said to come away from the meeting at the RRC offices in Austin unsatisfied. Comments Monday by Azle Mayor Alan Brundrett reflected citizens' dissatisfaction with the response from regulators so far.

"Over 800 people came expecting answers and got frustrated when there were not any," he said of the meeting at the RRC. "The quakes continued and the concerns and fears grew. If I could sum up our experience in one word, it would be 'frustration'...We found that while everyone seemed genuinely concerned, there is a disconnect among the various stakeholders.

"The seismologists hope to not only determine if there is a relationship between the disposal wells and the quakes but to determine why they may be causing the quakes, which in turn could identify areas to avoid when drilling new disposal wells. However, they cannot get all the information needed for their study, specifically the volume of water being injected each day and the pressures."

Some of the data being sought is thought to be proprietary by operators. Residents have called on the RRC to come up with a means for disclosure of the data to researchers so further investigation of the quakes might result in a solution. "We have operators who daily gather data to monitor their wells and to bill their customers," Brundrett said. "We have a state agency that has the authority to regulate those operators, yet we cannot get everyone together to share the information needed to address the problem."

The Texas House Committee on Energy Resources Subcommittee on Seismic Activity is chaired by Myra Crownover (R-Denton) and includes Phil King (R-Weatherford), Terry Canales (D-Edinburg) and Chris Paddie (R-Marshall).

Also providing testimony at the hearing was the mayor of Reno, Lynda Stokes, who said the earthquake issue is getting lost in politics.

"The fact of the matter is, induced...earthquakes are not even a Texas-only issue; they are a worldwide issue," she said. "I've been contacted by people from Russia, the Netherlands, Argentina, the UK and Italy...It became very clear to me that the world is watching what's going on in my backyard.

"When a group of citizens first approached the Railroad Commission, the main comment was, 'We've been fracking for years.' Well, they're right; we have. However, the technique changed. Instead of the vertical drilling we now drill horizontally. The change in the process takes almost three times as much water...This creates much more waste."

Stokes said disposal well operators should be required to keep a daily log of their activities which would be subject to state open records laws.

A trio of academics -- a geologist and two seismologists -- did not attempt to make a definitive connection between the quakes and disposal wells; however, they did allow that past research has linked disposal wells -- in particular one in Colorado operated by the U.S. Army -- to seismic activity. More research on the Texas quakes is needed, they said, and it would be aided by the addition of more seismic monitoring stations out in the field.

David Craig Pearson, the seismologist recently hired by the RRC in light of the increased earthquake activity (see Shale Daily,March 28), also gave testimony. He told the panel that he is ramping up an outreach program that he began since joining the RRC staff and has sent letters to the operators of waste disposal wells, requesting data on their operations.

"We've sent out seven letters requesting any information they might have that would be of use to [Southern Methodist University researchers and others], for open hole logs that might be available that aren't available at the Railroad Commission...They went out last week. This is the first step in that salvo is to ask for the pertinent data that's needed for us to start to unravel this problem," Pearson said.

He was asked what he expected his efforts to accomplish a year from now.

"I'm hopeful that we'll be able to say that we have studied this problem to the degree that we can make a definitive statement about what caused the earthquakes in the Reno-Azle area," he said. "I will not guarantee that, but that's what I hope."

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