Mike Norman

January 9, 2014

Blaming North Texas earthquakes on gas industry a difficult fight

Critics cite regulator disinterest, but the real foe will be the industry’s well-paid lawyers.

After he (rapidly) left a two-hour town hall meeting Jan. 2 in Azle, having heard angry people complain about a swarm of small earthquakes possibly caused by nearby natural gas industry activities, Railroad Commissioner David Porter was defensive.

But it’s important to realize that much of what he said was right.

“The Commission [which regulates the Texas oil and gas industry] must base its rules and regulations on sound science and proven facts, not speculation and theories,” Porter said in a news release the next day.

And sadly, even if somewhere down the road the current concern leads to a conclusion that the natural gas industry and its suspect drilling waste disposal wells are at fault (pardon the pun) for the quakes, effective regulatory restrictions on those wells are far from assured.

Notice that Porter said regulations must be based on both “sound science” and “proven facts.”

The difference is big enough for a natural gas industry lawyer to drive a full complement of hydraulic fracturing trucks through.

Critics often complain that the three Railroad Commission members are too close to the industry they regulate. Porter himself has said he sees the job as both protecting Texas constituents and promoting the industry.

Commissioners are elected statewide to serve six-year terms. Statewide campaigns in Texas are expensive (Porter reported direct spending of more than $550,000 when he was elected in 2010), and the oil and gas industry can muster a lot of votes.

But setting all of that aside, even the most populist, regulation-prone industry watchdog commissioner would face a phalanx of well-paid lawyers working full time to make oil and gas exploration and production hindrance-free or at least as easy as possible.

Anyone who has watched commission meetings, examined permit records or talked with residents and property owners in active drilling areas has seen the industry’s power.

At a commission meeting on Tuesday, Porter instructed Executive Director Milton Rister to hire an on-staff seismologist to help evaluate the earthquake issue. The job has been posted and a nationwide search launched.

That’s a positive step.

Some people say no one working directly for the agency and reporting to Rister, whose $150,000-a-year job is at the whim of the elected commissioners, will be a credible fighter. But the commissioners still need all the information they can get, and maybe it will be harder to ignore if it comes from their own employee.

Pity the poor seismologist who must come up with both “sound science” and “proven facts.” Even if he or she can show sound seismologic theory about how things work deep under ground, pinning a particular earthquake or swarm of earthquakes on a particular disposal well will be tough to do.

That’s what it will take to shut a well down or alter its operations.

Industry critics seem undaunted. Two groups, Earthworks’ Oil & Gas Accountability Project and the North Central Texas Communities Alliance, have invited residents of the Azle-Springtown-Boyd area to a meeting at 6:30 p.m. Monday at the Azle Community Center.

Their invitation showed the depth of their feelings.

“While Azle residents are at risk and their children practice earthquake drills, our regulators ducked questions and dashed away from the [Jan. 2] meeting … ,” it said. “The RRC’s behavior…shows they are not interested in overseeing the oil and gas industry so much as providing political cover for it.”

Depth of feeling will not be enough to win any battles with the oil and gas industry and its lawyers.

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