Barnett Shale

Earthquakes can’t be linked to XTO drilling activity, railroad commission finds

City secretary Becky Young looks at the cracks that have developed in the floor and wall of the municipal court room in Reno. Some people believe it is related to the rash of earthquakes in 2014.
City secretary Becky Young looks at the cracks that have developed in the floor and wall of the municipal court room in Reno. Some people believe it is related to the rash of earthquakes in 2014. Star-Telegram archives

A wastewater disposal well operated by XTO Energy cannot be linked to the rash of earthquakes that rattled Reno and Azle residents more than a year ago, state officials reported.

Following hearings that were conducted in June, Texas Railroad Commission examiners concluded in a preliminary report issued Monday that “the evidence in the record does not support a finding” that the well “is likely contributing to seismic activity.”

In the report, the hearing examiners also discount a study released in the spring by Southern Methodist University researchers that linked the oil and gas process to the flurry of earthquakes that hit the Azle and Reno area from November 2013 to January 2014.

The findings of the SMU-led study were “not sufficient to reach a conclusion,” the report states, but rather “a start toward understanding the issue” of injection wells and seismic activity. The report also admits that there is nothing in the record to say that the earthquakes were caused naturally.

Texas Railroad Commissioners requested that show-cause hearings be held after SMU released its study in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Commissioners wanted XTO and EnerVest Operating to show why their permits should not be canceled and their wells shut-in. The hearing examiners did not release their findings on the EnerVest well.

Prior to the hearings, Craig Pierson, the state’s seismologist, said that he didn’t see any “substantial proof” that the tremblors northwest of Fort Worth were linked to oil and gas activity.

Kim Cobb, a spokeswoman for SMU, said Tuesday that “the SMU seismology team stands by their findings in the Azle report.”

Azle Mayor Alan Brundrett was anything but shocked by the hearing examiner’s findings. He also defended the SMU report, saying it was reviewed by scientists from around the country who agreed that their findings were scientifically sound.

“I’ve been disappointed from Day One, so it’s no shock to me,” Brundrett said of the hearing examiners’ report. He has previously criticized the railroad commission for not seeking out the source of the earthquakes.

Since the report is preliminary, XTO spokeswoman Suann Guthrie would only say that the company would continue to participate in the regulatory process as appropriate.

“Every seismic event has its own set of circumstances, the causes vary, and we are committed to improving the understanding of seismicity,” Guthrie said. “This is a very important issue to us and to the communities where we operate.”

During the hearings in June, XTO officials testified that the quakes were naturally occurring. They said that the earthquakes in the Fort Worth basin, which includes the Barnett Shale natural gas formation, were far deeper than where the wastewater had been injected.

The XTO geologist also said that the faults were “splaying or breaking into a related series of smaller faults in the Azle-Reno area,” the hearing examiners’ report stated.

The examiners found that XTO had properly drilled the well and that there isn’t any evidence that fluids are migrating from the permitted area to others, causing seismic activity. While they said some of XTO’s data was not conclusive, it also could not link the wells to earthquakes.

The hearing examiner’s proposal for decision is not final, and interested parties have 15 days to file exceptions and then there is a 10-day response period after that, said Ramona Nye, a commission spokeswoman. The commissioners will take a final vote to accept or reject their findings after that.

Brundrett was not sure the city of Azle would bother to file anything with the commission.

“I hate to say it won’t do any good, but I’m kind of frustrated with the whole process,” he said.

Max B. Baker: 817-390-7714, @MaxbakerBB

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