Railroad Commission hires seismologist to study earthquakes

Posted Saturday, Mar. 29, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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The Texas Railroad Commission said Friday that it has hired its first staff seismologist, a position created in response to citizen concerns following a swarm of small earthquakes in the Azle area beginning last November.

David Craig Pearson, a Ph.D. geophysicist whose professional experience includes a stint with Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1993 to 2006, starts April 1. The Railroad Commission regulates the oil and gas industry in the state, including the operation of wastewater disposal wells, which have been linked to seismic activity in several studies.

It announced its plan to hire a seismologist on Jan. 7, days after a sometimes raucous public hearing in Azle attended by more than 800. About three dozen area residents then traveled to Austin for a Jan. 21 commission meeting to express their frustration with the lack of answers about earthquakes from the state.

“My objective is to develop a broad understanding of the impact of oil and gas extraction activities on the day-to-day lives of Texas residents,” Pearson said in a prepared release. “I believe the Railroad Commission must be able to quickly and factually determine the accurate location of all earthquakes in the state and be able to determine the cause of earthquakes, be they natural or man-made.”

Azle has a number of wastewater injection wells in the vicinity of the quakes. Seismic activity has been rising sharply in the nation’s Mid-Continent region as wastewater disposal from oil and gas production has increased. But the Railroad Commission has stopped short of attributing the quakes to injection wells.

Azle Mayor Alan Brundrett said he was pleased with the hiring. He said Pearson and other agency officials have scheduled a trip to the Azle area next week to meet with him and other municipal officials.

Azle’s last quake of magnitude 1.5 or greater was on Jan. 28, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, which tracks seismic activity. It says the Azle area had 35 quakes of 1.5 magnitude or more since Nov. 1.

Since Jan. 28, Brundrett noted that the area experienced numerous “micro-quakes” where were far too small to be felt but were recorded by a network of seismic monitors installed by a team from Southern Methodist University.

Brian Stump, an SMU professor of seismology and one of the lead researchers, said Friday that the school has 12 permanent seismic monitors in the area that allow scientists to more accurately pinpoint the surface location, or epicenter, and the depth of quakes. For about a week, the school also deployed roughly 100 small, battery-powered monitors to collect even more data, Stump said.

All the information, much of which is still being analyzed, should allow the school to create an image of the subsurface fault movement creating the quakes, he said.

Railroad Commission Chairman Barry Smitherman said Pearson will help the agency “become proactive in determining the exact cause of seismic events in Texas.” He noted that “very few and relatively minor seismic events have been documented over the past several decades compared to more than 144,000 disposal wells operating nationwide.”

Among other duties at Los Alamos, a federal research facility in New Mexico, Pearson worked on a seismic experimental field team. Immediately prior to his hiring by the Railroad Commission, he was a ranch manager in McCamey, south of Midland, and currently serves on the Upton County Water District.

Pearson holds a doctorate in geophysics from Southern Methodist University, where he worked as a graduate research assistant with Stump. Earlier, he worked for Halliburton Services from 1978-1982, including time as a “hydraulic frac treater,” according to his resume posted by the Railroad Commission.

State Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, said Friday that he and other elected officials have been working with the Railroad Commission, state scientists and others to learn more about the quakes and their cause. He said now that the agency has hired a seismologist, he expects a recently created subcommittee of the House Energy Resources Commission to hold its first hearing next month in Austin.

“We’ll bring in the seismologist, SMU, the state agencies, industry experts and the mayors” of Azle and nearby Reno for an update on the quakes, said King, who is one of four subcommittee members. He hopes Pearson will then be able to lay out a timetable for further action.

Jim Fuquay, 817-390-7552 Twitter: @jimfuquay

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