January 13, 2014

Parker, Wise residents vow to confront state officials about quakes

People at a meeting in Azle pledge to fill buses to go to Austin on Jan. 21 to confront the Texas Railroad Commission about recent earthquakes. The agency regulates the state’s oil and gas industry.

Armed with the battle cry “Shake the earth in Austin!” residents of Parker and Wise counties on Monday vowed to pack the next meeting of the Texas Railroad Commission to demand answers about the earthquakes that have rattled their communities since November.

About 300 people turned out for the meeting in Azle’s Community Center, many saying they did not get good answers from Texas Railroad Commission officials at a meeting on Jan. 2.

Monday’s meeting was organized by groups generally critical of the use of hydraulic fracking in natural gas production.

There seemed to be consensus that the 32 quakes — the latest one was several hours earlier Monday near Reno — must be the result of injection wells in northeast Parker County that are being used to dispose of enormous amounts of wastewater from natural gas drilling in the Barnett Shale.

On Jan. 7, the railroad commission approved adding a seismologist to the agency’s staff to investigate links between energy production and seismic events. A number of studies have linked wastewater disposal wells and such events.

Monday night, speaker Gary Hogan of Fort Worth, representing the North Central Texas Communities Alliance, asserted that it is “more probable than not” that the quakes are caused by the wells.

“Slow it down and shut it down and see what happens,” Hogan said.

His comment was one of several from the speakers that drew applause from the audience.

The railroad commission sent an email statement Monday through its spokeswoman, Ramona Nye:

“The Commission bases its regulatory actions and rules on sound science and proven facts and will investigate any formal complaints filed with the Commission that involve our agency’s regulatory authority delegated to us by the Texas Legislature.”

In Azle, Hogan was joined by Sharon Wilson of the Earthworks Oil & Gas Accountability Project; Calvin Tillman, former mayor of the town of Dish; and Marc McCord of the group FracDallas. They all urged those in attendance to organize and demand answers.

Hogan and Tillman said the agitated crowd at the Jan. 2 meeting in Azle rattled Railroad Commissioner David Porter and staff members who came up from Austin.

“That doesn’t happen often,” Wilson said. “You did a wonderful thing.”

Jim Schermbeck of the group Downwinders at Risk warned the audience that they could be in for a long fight.

“You’re mad, and that’s good,” Schermbeck said, “but it’s not good enough.”

He called on attendees to come up with 12 volunteers to form a steering committee, and a dozen people immediately crowded in front of the stage.

Wilson asked audience members to sign up to donate $15 each to cover the cost of buses to take people to Austin on Jan. 21 for the railroad commission’s next meeting.

Tillman said a robust showing at the meeting will “shake the earth in Austin.”

After the meeting, Schermbeck said there was momentum at the meeting, but only time would tell if it is sustained.

“Three years from now, there might just be a dozen of the hard core left,” he said, “but they’ll get it done.”

On Tuesday, Steve Everley, spokesman for Energy in Depth, an outreach campaign by the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said that scientists who have studied the question agree so far that the risk of a major seismic event linked to injection wells is very low.

But, Everley said in an email, “Low risk obviously doesn’t mean ‘no risk’.”

“The good news,” he said, “is that state regulators are taking a comprehensive look at the issue so we can all move forward using the best available data.

“The last thing we want to do is leap to conclusions simply because a few activists who ideologically oppose oil and gas development happen to be the loudest people in the room.

“We should be focusing on science-based solutions, as opposed to ginning up fear and anger.”

Jim Popp of Greenwood in Wise County attended the Monday night meeting. He said he knows well how tough it is to deal with state officials on oil and gas issues. He said he was part of an effort to stop a commercial injection well near his home, but the effort failed in the Texas Supreme Court.

He introduced his neighbor, Tracy Smith, who joined him in the legal fight against the well. Smith said she is the chairman of the Democratic Party in Wise County.

“And I’m a conservative Republican,” said Popp, an Air Force veteran. “But people have got to understand that this is purely a nonpartisan issue.

“And I’m not against the oil and gas industry. I want to drill here and drill now, but I want it done safely for everybody.”

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