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Money approved for Texas earthquake study

Researchers will begin moving quickly to study what may be making the earth move in North Texas after Gov. Greg Abbott approved $4.5 million to pay for a comprehensive earthquake study.
Researchers will begin moving quickly to study what may be making the earth move in North Texas after Gov. Greg Abbott approved $4.5 million to pay for a comprehensive earthquake study. Getty Images/iStockphoto

Researchers will begin moving quickly to study what may be making the earth move in North Texas after Gov. Greg Abbott approved $4.5 million to pay for a comprehensive earthquake study.

The money was included in a supplemental appropriations bill signed by Abbott over the weekend. It includes $2.47 million to buy 22 permanent seismograph stations and 36 portable stations as well as $2 million to analyze the data from any earthquake that exceeds magnitude-2.0.

Including the funding in House Bill 2, the state’s supplemental budget, kick-starts the process of buying the equipment and setting it up within several months. If the money had been part of the next two-year state budget cycle, it would not have been available until Aug. 31.

The equipment, to be operated under what is known as TexNet, would augment the 16 seismograph stations already in place. The Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas at Austin will operate and maintain the equipment and conduct the study.

State Rep. Drew Darby, chairman of the House Energy Resources Committee, said it became obvious that the state needed to take action after North Texas was hit by a rash of earthquakes during the session, including a 4.0-magnitude temblor, the largest on record.

“It became apparent we needed to spend the money and spend it quickly,” said Darby, a Republican from San Angelo. In reference to the earthquakes, he said, “Someone was telling us we needed to listen and we listened appropriately and we have a measured response.”

Jason Modglin, Darby’s chief of staff, said the bureau, in preparation for conducting its studies has a “pretty aggressive schedule through July.”

Scott Tinker, state geologist and director of the Economic Bureau of Geology, said there is already a good team put together and he hopes to have seismometers in the field by the fall. He said the new tools can gather data and produce unbiased research that will guide decision-makers in the future.

“It is good for Texas. I think it’s something that is needed across the whole industry and academic research space,” Tinker said. “Everybody is involved with this. When we get access to new data from the seismometers, that will be a good thing.”

Besides setting up the network of seismographs, the budget appropriation also calls on the governor to appoint a nine-member technical advisory committee — with at least two members representing higher education institutions and another two from the energy industry.

One of the advisory commission members is supposed to be a seismologist for the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry in the state. Currently, Craig Pearson is the commission’s only seismologist, but it has been recommended that another be hired.

Earlier this month, Pearson was quoted as saying that he sees “no substantial proof” that the North Texas earthquakes are linked to oil and gas activity. The commission conducted two show-cause hearings earlier this month to determine if two injection wells near Reno and Azle were the cause of a rash of earthquakes in 2013-2014 and should be shut down.

XTO Energy and EnerVest Operating, operators of those wells, disputed the findings in a study by Southern Methodist University researchers that linked the temblors to oil and gas activities. The Railroad Commission also said there is no conclusive evidence connecting a 4.0-magnitude earthquake near Venus and Mansfield last month to five nearby disposal wells.

Scientists don’t necessarily believe that a rash of earthquakes in Irving and West Dallas are being caused by drilling. There were 49 earthquakes from November 2013 to April along a narrow 2-mile strip from Irving to West Dallas, indicating a fault. The epicenter was in Dallas, but the temblors were definitely felt in neighboring communities like Irving and Farmers Branch.

But a massive new study published last week in the journal Science said that faster saltwater injection into the ground has triggered more earthquakes.

That’s why more study is needed, Darby said.

“I think it is critical to have sound science,” Darby said. “It has to be scientifically analyzed and peer-reviewed, then our decision makers need to react to that data.”

Max B. Baker, 817-390-7714

Twitter: @MaxbakerBB

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