August 14, 2014

Railroad Commission candidates voice support for action on injection wells

The Democratic and Libertarian candidates say the proposal is a welcome first step, while the Republican candidate expresses caution that any action is based on “sound science.”

Two Railroad Commission hopefuls are calling the agency’s efforts to regulate wastewater disposal wells a good first step in addressing the spate of earthquakes that have shaken up parts of North Texas — a phenomenon that some suspect is linked to local disposal wells. But the candidates said the agency should do more to restore those communities’ faith in its oversight.

The comments came after the Railroad Commission offered rules that would require companies to submit additional information, including data on a region’s seismicity and any past earthquakes, when applying for a permit to drill a disposal well. The proposal also clarifies that the commission can slow or halt injections into a problematic well.

The Texas Tribune asked the three candidates vying for an open seat on the commission for their thoughts on the proposal, which is open for public comment through Sept. 29.

Since Nov. 1, more than 30 earthquakes above magnitude 2.0 have struck communities atop the Barnett Shale, according to U.S. Geological Survey data. Some quakes were strong enough to crack home walls and foundations. The trend has slowed in more recent months. But as a growing body of research links the drilling of disposal wells to earthquakes, those affected — including the mayors of Azle and Reno – have asked state regulators to work more quickly to address the problem, or at least acknowledge it could be tied to the industry.

Commissioners have tiptoed around questions about that link, leading Lynda Stokes, mayor of the quake-shaken town of Reno, to complain her town’s major concerns are “getting lost in politics.”

In April, however, the agency hired a seismologist to study the issue and help shape the latest proposal.

“I’m glad that they’re taking that step,” said Steve Brown, the Democratic candidate in the Nov. 4 election for railroad commissioner. “But when you deny, deny, deny that there is an issue, it makes it harder for folks to have confidence later on,” he said of the commission’s initial reluctance to acknowledge that industry activity could cause earthquakes.

Mark Miller, a petroleum engineer and the Libertarian candidate in the race, said it was a “welcome development” that the commission was responding to the earthquakes. But he added that the rules themselves were “disappointing in their lack of scientific basis and rigor.”

A spokesman for Ryan Sitton, the Republican candidate in the race and the head of an oil and gas technology firm, released a statement from Sitton on the plan: “The Railroad Commission should always address valid public concerns. As a commissioner, my primary objective will be leading the agency to make decisions based on sound science and data to ensure that the citizens of Texas are confident in the development of our natural resources.”

The Texas Oil and Gas Association, the state’s biggest petroleum group, has yet to comment on the specifics of the proposal, but says it generally supports the commission’s effort.

“The oil and natural gas industry agrees that recent seismic activity warrants robust investigation to determine the precise location, impact and cause or causes of seismic events,” Deb Mamula, the group’s executive vice president, said Wednesday in a statement.

Scientists have known for decades that injecting fluid deep underground could trigger earthquakes. But they say it is difficult to tie a specific tremor to a specific well, partially because of challenges in gathering data.

In public meetings, and elsewhere, the Railroad Commission has declined to explicitly link the wells to earthquakes, saying it’s seeking more proof.

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