Lawmaker wants to speed up funding for earthquake study

A researcher checks a solar powered seismic monitor installed by Southern Methodist University to record earthquakes in the area around Reno last November. State legislators are proposing to spend $4.4 million on equipment and analysis of earthquake activity in the state.
A researcher checks a solar powered seismic monitor installed by Southern Methodist University to record earthquakes in the area around Reno last November. State legislators are proposing to spend $4.4 million on equipment and analysis of earthquake activity in the state. AP

Following the strongest recorded earthquake in North Texas, a key state lawmaker wants to speed up approval of $4.4 million for new seismology equipment and a statewide study to help determine why the ground is shaking.

Following the magnitude-4.0 earthquake near Venus and Mansfield on Thursday night, State Rep. Drew Darby, chairman of the powerful House Energy Resources Committee, said Friday that he is rewriting a budget appropriation and will ask that the money be made available this summer.

Specifically, the budget amendment would ask for $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 and identify them by date, location and depth. The equipment would augment the 16 seismograph stations that have already been placed in the area.

By making his budget request an amendment to HB2, the state’s supplemental budget, it would also kick-start the process by several months. If the funding was part of next two-year state budget cycle, the money would not be available until Aug. 31, he said.

“I think this is a significant event and I think the state is going to need to respond,” said Darby, a Republican from San Angelo. “I’d like to move this effort up to get this equipment purchased and deployed. … I think there is a broad consensus to acquire those resources.”

Researchers at Southern Methodist University said that Thursday’s earthquake is part of a series of smaller temblors that the university’s team has been following in the Midlothian area. The National Earthquake Information Center has reported seven earthquakes within 6.2 miles of the epicenter, which was 3 miles northwest of Venus and 6 miles south of Mansfield, SMU reported.

On Friday, SMU’s seismology team indicated that they were not surprised by the earthquake near Venus, saying it’s exactly what they were talking about when they testified Monday before Darby’s energy resources committee regarding a study of earthquakes northwest of Fort Worth.

In a prepared statement, Matthew Hornbach, an SMU associate professor of geophysics, said they emphasized the need for “a permanent regional network, supplemented by portable instruments, that we can deploy in a time-sensitive manner when earthquakes occur.”

Texas Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton toured disposal well sites on Friday with one of four groups of inspectors dispatched to the area to check well casings, among other things, after Thursday’s earthquake. Everything “looks to be in 100 percent good condition,” he said.

“There is nothing abnormal that would indicate that this was caused by oil and gas, but we don’t know because we don’t have enough data to say that definitively,” Sitton said.

Sitton, a mechanical engineer serving his first term on the commission, applauded Darby’s efforts to expedite research funding that will give scientists, lawmakers and regulators the kind of scientific data they need to make good public policy decisions.

“The engineer in me loves data and the sooner we get that data the better,” Sitton said.

Don’t panic

Lawmakers have predicted that funding for additional equipment and studies likely would be approved by the Legislature.

“I am in full agreement with Chairman Darby,” said state Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, a member of the energy resources committee. “I particularly want to understand the Dallas-area quakes where there are no disposal wells in the area.”

State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, who is a top lieutenant to House Speaker Joe Straus, said the funding “has a good chance of making it through.” Geren’s district is in the heart of the Barnett Shale, where some have blamed the shale-drilling boom with triggering the earthquake activity.

Even before Thursday’s seismic event, earthquakes had captured the attention of state lawmakers.

There had been 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.

Then, last month, in the peer-reviewed science journal Nature Communications, researchers from SMU, the University of Texas at Austin and the U.S. Geological Survey published a study stating that the 27 earthquakes near Reno and Azle from November 2013 to January 2014 were likely caused by drilling-related operations. The researchers ruled out natural causes for the earthquakes.

In their testimony, the scientists recommended that the state boost its efforts to monitor seismic activity, even if there is no link with drilling operations. For example, scientists don’t necessarily believe the rash of earthquakes in Irving and West Dallas are being caused by drilling.

“Now is not the time to panic but to take stock of the resources available and make well-informed, science-based decisions that allow Texans to understand and prepare,” Hornbach told the committee.

Worthy of the effort

Darby’s budget appropriation would do just that. Under his amendment, the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas at Austin would operate and maintain the equipment and conduct the study, which was first mentioned in a bill by state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas. His bill will now be incorporated into the budget amendment being prepared by Darby.

Darby said the amendment would also call for the establishment of a commission to provide the state with information about the seismicity in the North Texas region and the state.

“I think it is worth the effort to make sure we have as much data as possible to make sound scientific decisions based on that data,” Darby said. “I think the state is responding appropriately and I think our job is to get the resources on the ground as quickly as possible.”

Jay Kipper, associate director of administration at the Bureau of Geology, worked with lawmakers to design the TexNet Seismic Monitoring Program and said it was a “proper investment at this time.” To get the money for setting it all up a few months earlier, that’s even better, he said.

“How can it hurt?” Kipper said. “This is not something we can go to Walmart or Home Depot to buy. It’s going to take some design time.”

Staff writer Patrick M. Walker contributed to this report, which includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Max Baker, 817-390-7714

Twitter: @MaxbakerBB

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