Texas Politics

Texas lawmakers look at quake funding

SMU professor Brian Stump points to seismograms.
SMU professor Brian Stump points to seismograms. The Dallas Morning News

State lawmakers are considering a nearly $2.5 million plan to help answer a pressing question in some Texas communities: Why does the ground keep shaking?

An item hidden in House Speaker Joe Straus’ 991-page budget proposal would fund a “TexNet Seismic Monitoring Program” at the University of Texas at Austin to help get to the bottom of an unexpected surge of earthquakes.

“TexNet would create an improved statewide seismic monitoring network capable of detecting and locating earthquakes more precisely than can currently be done,” said Scott Tinker, director of UT’s Bureau of Economic Geology, which would manage the project.

The program “would also improve our ability to respond to earthquakes quickly if such a response were deemed appropriate,” he said.

The idea emerged after months of discussion between lawmakers and regulators about how to respond to quakes that are shaking communities throughout the state, particularly North Texas.

More than two dozen temblors in the Dallas area this month have grabbed recent headlines, but a quake surge in Reno and Azle — much smaller towns atop the gas-rich Barnett Shale — kicked off the discussions last year.

Experts are just beginning to study the Dallas-area quakes, but researchers suspect that nearby disposal wells might have triggered the quakes elsewhere. Those wells — deep resting places for liquid oil and gas waste — have surged amid Texas’ drilling bonanza. Drilling areas in South and West Texas have also seen more earthquakes.

In the past year, the Railroad Commission has hired a seismologist and approved requirements that companies submit more information before drilling disposal wells. The Texas House also formed a subcommittee on seismic activity.

The nearest active disposal well to the epicenter of the Dallas-area quakes is 10 miles away. That, the state seismologist suggests, means oil and gas activity isn’t the cause.

Many of the quakes occurred near the old Texas Stadium site in Irving.

Scientists have known for decades that injecting fluid deep underground could trigger earthquakes. Neighboring Oklahoma has seen an even greater increase in quakes than Texas and has surpassed California as the most quake-prone state.

The U.S. Geological Survey and the Oklahoma Geological Survey say wastewater disposal probably contributes to the trend.

Though Texas, home to nearly 3,600 active commercial disposal wells, is four times the size of Oklahoma, it has far fewer seismometers — devices that monitor quakes. That makes it hard to estimate the size and location of each quake and, in turn, understand the cause.

Researchers aim to bolster those capabilities through TexNet, which would need legislative approval.

Improving the state’s understanding of earthquakes, Tinker said, would reduce risks to property and people, “improving business practices and protecting important revenue streams for Texas.”

UT isn’t the only university investigating the quakes. Experts at Southern Methodist University have shared their research with state and local officials. They added 15 seismometers in Irving this month.