New Rules Proposed To Address Fracking And Earthquakes At Texas Railroad Commission

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The fact that fracking for oil and gas may be causing earthquakes puts some legislators in an awkward position pitting their land-owning constituents against the oil and gas industry.

The Energy Resources Subcommittee on Seismic Activity met this week to discuss new rules proposed to address the connection between hydraulic fracturing and the seismic activity that has been taking place more frequently near disposal wells.

Small town mayors in the affected area of North Texas say they are grateful the issue is being addressed but believe these proposals should only be a “first step.”

Before we go any further let’s review a few definitions, that’s also how Chairwoman Myra Crownover started the hearing:

    When we talking about fracking, we talk refer to hydraulic fracturing of rock by pumping water or other fluids at high pressures into the rock formation to release the oil and gas in that rock for production purposes during the completion of a well.

Injection well is a broad category of well that is permitted by the Railroad Commission. Injection wells are primarily used by oil and gas operators to pressurize an oil or gas field, for enhanced oil recovery or secondary recovery,

Disposal well is a subset of an injection well that is used to dispose water and other fluids that are a byproduct of oil and gas production.

Crownover then described the committee’s scepticism of a connection between fracking and earthquakes.

    “At the last meeting there appeared to be consensus that fracking was likely not the cause of recent seismic activity. There was also consensus that while there has never been a definite causal relationship between atny particular disposal well and seismic activity, that the correlation between disposal wells and increased seismic activity needed further examination.”

The Railroad Commission’s own seismologist Dr. Craig Pearson seemed to make the connection a little more certain:

    When you start injecting into an underground reservoir you begin to build the pressure…We believe that its that change in pressure that is affecting existing faults in the earth and allowing them to move and cause earthquakes.

Representing the Railroad Commission, Pearson proposed 4 new rules for the industry saying the current rules regarding disposal wells are merely to protect groundwater and not meant to address seismic activity that could lead to infrastructure damage. The new rules would allow the Railroad Commission to address trimmers by reviewing permits, and collecting and monitoring more data.

Specifically it would grant review staff of the Railroad Commission the ability to modify, suspend or terminate disposal well permits if the specific wells were determined to be creating seismic activity. They would also grant the commission the ability to require operators of disposal wells to provide more frequent monitoring and reporting of injection pressures and volumes. Currently they only report monthly totals once a year.

I spoke with Democratic Railroad Commission candidate Steve Brown who said the new rules needed more fleshing out before it was clear if they could be effective and he wasn’t sure if they would be “retroactive.”

I asked about who’s liability it was when a manmade earthquake causes damage and there is no state agency to hold anyone accountable. He told me that more individuals are buying earthquake insurance and that the question of liability is a developing issue but reminded me that, “it took the tobacco industry 80 years or so to acknowledge a link between cancer and smoking.”

He believes the industry will downplay or resist acknowledging any direct link between fracking and earthquakes for as long as it can, but says the Railroad Commission must be vigilant in protecting the interests of the public.

That sounds very similar to the attitudes of local mayors whose residents have been affected.

Rep. Phil King read a letter he received from Reno Mayor Linda Stokes:

      After reviewing the proposed changes and additions I must say the citizens of Reno and myself are grateful such attempts are being made. They are a step in the right direction. It is however the first step along a long road. It is akin to stopping the bleeding without clamping the artery.

I believe strongly that the industry needs to be encouraged to move to recycle frack water. I feel it is ecologically irresponsible to continue to pour, push or dump our most prized natural resource underground having it gone forever.

    This can be done with some sort of incentives program. Water like any other natural resource is not in unlimited supply, We must all understand that as goes nature so go we.

Watch the full hearing here.

Follow me on Twitter at @joethepleb.

About Author

Joe Deshotel

Joe was born and raised in Beaumont, Tx, but live music and politics brought him to Austin. He has worked in and around government and elections for over a decade including for a member of US Congress, the Texas Legislature, the Mayor of Austin. He currently serves as Communications Director for the Travis County Democratic Party. He is most interested in transportation, energy and technology issues. He also likes Texas Hold'em and commuting on his electric skateboard. Follow me on Twitter at @joethepleb.

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