Officials with Fort Worth’s XTO Energy sought to prove at a hearing Wednesday that it is not to blame for a rash of small earthquakes in North Texas.
The “show cause” hearings before the state’s Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry, are the first test of the agency’s willingness to suspend permits for injection wells linked to quakes since it passed rule amendments last year regarding seismicity.
The hearings come just weeks after Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill into law that prohibits cities from banning hydraulic fracturing. The drilling method has opened up vast gas reserves in North Texas but has raised concerns that it threatens air quality and water sources and causes earthquakes.
A recent Southern Methodist University study suggested that wells where thousands of gallons of wastewater from fracking are disposed of daily are the sources of the 2013-14 quakes in Reno and Azle and other areas northwest of Fort Worth.
But Andree Griffin, XTO’s vice president of geology and geophysics, testified Wednesday that the quakes were naturally occurring. The Fort Worth Basin, where the gas-rich Barnett Shale is located, “has had several episodes of movement and reactivation of faults” over the ages, Griffin said.
She added that the earthquakes were far deeper than where wastewater is injected, challenging the SMU study’s conclusion that the quakes were triggered by rumblings in the shallow formation that migrated down the fault into the deepest layer of rock.
Separate hearings next week are set for another driller, EnerVest Operating. EnerVest officials appearing at a Railroad Commission hearing last week also disputed the SMU report, saying it didn’t match their own review of the data.
The commission won’t take any immediate action. Legal and technical examiners are hearing each case and will develop a proposal for decision, which typically takes months to finalize.
The hearings came about after a group of residents from Azle and nearby communities traveled to Austin in January 2014 to demand that the Railroad Commission suspend operations at disposal wells. The commission hired its first seismologist and expanded its range of powers to include the ability to shut down wells linked to earthquakes.
Texas officials remain unconvinced about direct links, even as neighboring Oklahoma has embraced research showing that wastewater wells were likely causing quakes there.
The state’s seismologist, Craig Pearson, said during a Railroad Commission meeting last week that he sees “no substantial proof” that the North Texas quakes are linked to oil and gas activity. And Abbott said he will wait for research from state officials before making pronouncements about the impact of oil and gas wells.
Reno Mayor Lynda Stokes, who led the North Texans to Austin last year, is skeptical that the commission will suspend either of the companies’ injection well operations and worries that the new law will nullify the city’s ban on injection wells.
“The Railroad Commission is too tied to industry to even see how dangerous this is,” she said.