Railroad Commission may be more serious about quakes

08/14/2014 5:53 PM

08/14/2014 5:54 PM

After months of disappointing decisions — or mostly indecision — in response to a rash of seismic rumblings in North Texas that some studies have linked to hydraulic fracturing, the Texas Railroad Commission may be turning over a new leaf.

On Tuesday, the agency approved new proposed rules that would require oil and gas drilling permit seekers to provide additional information, including data on a region’s seismicity and any history of earthquakes recorded by the U.S. Geological Survey, before drilling new injection wells.

Under the new rules, the commission would also reserve the right to suspend or terminate a permit in the event of seismic activity near an injection well.

Given the spate of minor earthquakes that shook Parker County residents earlier this year with little more than a muted response from the commission, the proposed rules are a welcome, if not surprising, development.

The commission has been roundly criticized for its lethargy in attempting to determine whether wastewater injection wells used in the fracking process are indeed connected to the quakes. And agency critics would be right to point out that the new regulations fall squarely within the scope of what the state’s oil and gas industry regulator is charged with doing — and should have been doing months ago.

Still, the rule changes may signal a shift in how commissioners will operate in the future.

In March, the agency hired an in-house seismologist, David Craig Pearson, to review and analyze the latest scientific research and data and to help formulate common monitoring procedures for when quakes occur. The ultimate goal is to create industry rules that might reduce quake frequency.

The hire was a hopeful sign that the commission was taking the earthquakes more seriously. This week’s proposed regulations are another one.

While commission spokeswoman Ramona Nye was still careful to reject the idea of a “definitive” link between fracking and seismic activity, the agency’s latest actions should restore some confidence.

The proposed rules are open to public comment through Sept. 29, after which time the commission will take action.

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