January 4, 2014

Texas Railroad Commission can’t just tippy-toe around quakes

Commissioner David Porter sees himself as both regulator and promoter of oil and gas industry.

Thursday night’s town hall meeting held by Texas Railroad Commissioner David Porter in Azle couldn’t have satisfied anyone who wanted answers about links between natural gas drilling and waste disposal wells and a swarm of minor earthquakes in North Texas.

To be fair to Porter and the handful of Railroad Commission staff members at the meeting, they made it clear that they were there to listen and didn’t have any definitive answers to offer.

But to be fair to the rest of the people in the auditorium, it’s past time for the commission to get those answers. There have been about 30 small quakes in the Azle area in the past two months.

Porter issued a news release Friday following up on the meeting. He said he sees his role as “protecting the health and safety of Texans, while promoting the energy production that is vital for our state and for the nation.”

So in his mind he’s not a regulator of the oil and gas industry. He’s a regulator/promoter. That must be difficult, constantly requiring one to straddle a barbed-wire fence.

“I look forward to sharing the comments and concerns I received with my fellow Commissioners as we continue to study any possible causation between oil and gas activities and seismic events,” Porter said in the release. “The Commission must base its rules and regulations on sound science and proven facts, not speculation and theories …”

Is the three-member commission doing anything to separate facts from speculation and theories?

“In addition to taking the residents’ comments into serious consideration, Commissioner Porter has been in communication with the state geologist in regards to a potential study by the Bureau of Economic Geology,” Porter’s news release said. “Railroad Commission staff is also participating in a work group formed by the Environmental Protection Agency, which includes representatives from the United States Geological Survey and other state regulatory agencies.”

There’s “serious consideration,” a “potential study” and a “work group.” Sounds like tippy-toeing.

In fact, there is a considerable amount of science linking disposal wells, which push millions of gallons of drilling waste into rock formations deep under ground, with “induced” earthquakes.

A report posted in July described one study by USGS scientists. The results were also published in the journal Science.

The rate of quakes increased to about 100 a year in the central and eastern U.S. in the three-year period from 2010 through 2012, up from an average 21 a year from 1967-2000, the study showed. The increase coincided with a rapid increase in oil and gas drilling using hydraulic fracturing, which leaves large amounts of waste water for disposal.

It’s not like every disposal well triggers earthquakes. In fact, the USGS study said “very few” do.

And the hydraulic fracturing process itself “only very rarely” causes quakes.

A study by Southern Methodist University and UT-Austin researchers listed a disposal well at DFW Airport as the “plausible cause” of earthquakes there in 2008 and 2009. Other studies have looked at such links, as well.

Additional monitors have been deployed in the Azle area so researchers can study seismic activity there.

If the Railroad Commission members want more information, by all means they should get it.

A link with earthquakes does not mean all disposal wells must be shut down. The USGS study says the risk can be managed.

But the regulatory framework for the Texas oil and gas industry is too important for tippy-toeing.

The Railroad Commission must vigorously pursue the earthquake problem and provide answers.

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