After a rash of earthquakes in North Texas that some say are connected to fracking, the Texas Railroad Commission approved proposed rules Tuesday that require drillers to provide additional information before sinking injection wells in areas where there has been seismic activity.
If the commission votes for final approval, drillers seeking a permit would be required to provide information on the history of seismic events as recorded by the U.S. Geological Survey. The proposal would also allow the commission to suspend or terminate a permit if seismic activity occurs near an injection well.
The commission, which regulates the state’s oil and gas industry, has been criticized for not acting faster to determine whether wastewater injection wells are somehow linked to the flurry of earthquakes that rumbled in and around the Azle area late last year. The commission approved the proposed rules during its monthly meeting in Austin.
“Whether there is a definitive link or not between disposal wells and seismic activity in Texas has not been determined,” commission spokeswoman Ramona Nye said. “As our agency continues to work with the scientific community to coordinate an exchange of information ... we have seen a need for laying the groundwork for some basic industry best practices.”
The commission’s effort was praised by environmentalists, scientists and industry advocates.
“I would give kudos to the Railroad Commission for recognizing that there is a connection between large volumes of oil and gas waste being injected underground in some formations and taking steps to address it,” said Cyrus Reed, conservation director for the Lone Star Sierra Club.
Bill Stevens, government relations consultant for the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers, said his group has been urging the commission to look at the possible connection between injection wells and seismic events to make sure that any new regulation is the right action.
He also stressed that scientists have not linked drilling activity with earthquakes.
“We want it to be good science and not regulation for regulation’s sake. That has been our position,” Stevens said.
‘Relatively small’ regulation price
Southern Methodist University researchers said this year that they had detected more than 300 quakes large enough to be recorded by multiple seismic monitors the school has deployed in the Azle area.
The Geological Survey has recorded 27 in the area by the U.S. Geological Survey, but they include only quakes of magnitude 2.0 or greater, generally strong enough to be felt at the surface.
Under the proposed rules, an applicant must provide information from the federal agency on the location of any seismic events within the zone of elevated pressure created by injecting fluids into the subsurface.
The commission also wants the ability to amend, modify or suspend a disposal well permit, including modifying volumes and pressures and shutting in a well, if the data indicates that it is causing seismic activity.
Commission officials have determined that the proposed regulations would add about $300 for an injection well permit within the first five years, a “relatively small” price when compared with the overall costs associated with disposal well facilities, according to a draft proposal.
“Public safety and pollution prevention are essential to the health, safety and environmental and economic welfare of the state, regardless of whether the operator subject to this regulation is a large corporation, a small business, a micro-business or an individual,” the commission staff wrote.
The proposed rules will be published in the Texas Register and the public will be allowed to respond through Sept. 29. After the public comment period, the commission will take final action.
“I wish they had done this several years ago. This proposal is a good first step, but there are additional protections that should be in place,” Reed said.
Brian Stump, an SMU professor of seismology and one of the lead researchers studying the possible link between injection wells and earthquakes, said the commission is taking on important work in proposing amendments to its regulations.
He said his team is continuing to analyze North Texas seismicity and will “make our comments directly” to the commission after the researchers have had a chance to thoroughly review them.
Officials in Arkansas, Ohio and Colorado have linked earthquakes with nearby wastewater injection wells, but Texas and Oklahoma regulators have not established such a link.
Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin also concluded that there were possible links between injection wells and seismic activity at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport and around Cleburne in 2009-10.
In March, the commission hired David Craig Pearson, a Ph.D. geophysicist, as its first seismologist in response to residents’ concerns after the small earthquakes in the Azle area. In June, the agency also posted information online about injection wells near the city.
Azle Mayor Alan Brundrett and other officials had complained that data such as injection volumes and pressures were updated only once a year and left them in the dark. But the agency did not interpret the data, which was provided by five of the seven operators of injection wells in the area.
Craddick becomes chairwoman
At the same meeting, Christi Craddick was selected as the commission’s new chairwoman. She replaces Barry Smitherman, who is stepping down from the agency after an unsuccessful bid in the Republican primary for attorney general.
Commissioner David Porter nominated Craddick, saying that with the upcoming legislative session it was “time for us to make a change in the chairmanship to prepare for the future.”
Craddick, with her father, former House Speaker Tom Craddick, in the audience, promised that the commission will have fair rules but not excessive regulation.
“I will ensure that we continue to have fair, common-sense rules that foster vibrant industry innovation, allowing industry to power our state’s economy, while keeping our citizens and natural resources safe,” Craddick said in a statement.
Craddick, elected to the commission in 2012, is an attorney specializing in oil and gas, water, tax issues, electric deregulation and environmental policy.