Railroad Commission noncommittal as residents seek action on quakes

A busload of residents from the Azle area packed a Texas Railroad Commission meeting on Tuesday and urged commissioners to halt the use of nearby injection wells following a series of minor earthquakes.

One by one, they told commissioners about their concerns over the quakes and their suspicions about injection wells, used to dispose of wastewater from natural gas drilling. One resident, Bill Hoffman, even grabbed his guitar and sang an adaptation of Elvis Presley’s All Shook Up, adding references to Azle and drawing a refrain from the audience.

But at the end of the meeting, they left disappointed.

The three-member commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry in Texas, remained noncommittal about a response to the tremors. Railroad Commission Chairman Barry Smitherman said after the hearing that 11 injection wells in the area have been inspected and are either operating as allowed or are being worked on.

“We are hiring a seismologist and working with SMU,” which has installed several seismic monitors in the area to more precisely pinpoint the quakes’ locations, Smitherman said. Researchers from Southern Methodist University have said they expect it to take a couple of months for them to collect enough data.

“We will try to conclude if there is a nexus” between the injection wells and tremors, Smitherman said, but as of now that relationship hasn’t been established. He said he expected the hiring of a seismologist to take another couple of weeks.

During the three-hour meeting, commissioners heard a steady stream of complaints about disruptions and health concerns related to the quakes from more than 30 speakers. And each had the same suggestion to stop the tremors, which have shaken an area around Azle and Reno in northern Parker County.

“No disrespect, but this isn’t rocket science here. Common sense tells you the wells are playing a big role in all this,” said Reno Mayor Lynda Stokes.

Eagle Mountain Lake resident Gale Wood even approached the three commissioners and introduced himself as “a retired rocket scientist,” drawing a round of laughter from the packed chamber. Wood, who said he worked on the Apollo space program, borrowed a page from that program, saying, “I’m going to try to convince you to take a giant leap and turn off the injection wells right away for the people who live in Azle, Reno and Springtown who might be affected.”

Milton Rister, executive director of the railroad commission, expressed doubts about whether injection wells were causing the tremors, saying that there are studies “all over the map.” State officials cited other possible causes such as the drought or falling water levels at nearby lakes.

The lack of action by the agency frustrated Stokes, one of about three dozen citizens who attended the meeting.

“In a perfect world, they would have said, ‘You’re right, we’re going to shut down the wells,’ ” Stokes said after the meeting, which lasted about three and a half hours. While the commissioners patiently listened, she said her residents were especially dissatisfied by the lack of additional movement on the problem by regulators.

“I think they’re more frustrated than after the first meeting,” Stokes said, referring to a Jan. 2 meeting which Commissioner David Porter held in Azle. Porter and other Railroad Commission officials offered no new information about the quakes at that meeting.

Several researchers have established a relationship between seismic events and underground injection wells, which are used to dispose of millions of gallons of wastewater used in the fracking process used to extract gas from the Barnett Shale.

They include Cliff Frohlich at the Institute for Geophysics at the University of Texas at Austin and researchers at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, who concluded that the “plausible” cause of small earthquakes at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport in 2008 and 2009 was a recently drilled injection well nearby.

On Tuesday, agency officials offered an overview of its efforts thus far, which included inspecting 11 injection wells located within 15 miles of the area hit by the quakes.

Ramon Fernandez, a staff member with the railroad commission, said one of those wells showed improper pressure and was being repaired. The others showed no signs of malfunction and were injecting volumes within the amounts allowed by their permits.

Smitherman noted that the two injection wells closest to the epicenter of the quakes are injecting less now than they were a year earlier, and considerably less than their permits allow. That led him to think the wells were “maybe not the most likely culprits.”

Marc McCord, who said he is the director of Frac Dallas, an anti-drilling group, said he was concerned that the agency is holding out for an unreasonable level of certainty linking the injection wells and the quakes.

“It’s probability,” he said. When an area goes decades with no earthquakes, and then earthquakes occur after injection wells are drilled, “that’s pretty good evidence the earthquakes were being caused by injection wells. That’s about as close as science is ever going to get,” McCord said.

He said researchers from various universities, including the University of Texas and SMU, have already established a link between the tremors and injection wells, and the wells should be temporarily closed.

“I’m asking you do to that. Shut them for 120-180 days, and watch the result,” he said.

Robert Hobbs said he’s concerned about the integrity of the dam at Eagle Mountain Lake.

“I wonder what’s happening to this dam and spillways,” which are near his home, Hobbs said. “We need to put a stop to this right now.”

Speaking with reporters after the meeting, Smitherman seemed to indicate that the injection wells can’t be shut down without impacting natural gas production in the area. Several speakers asked that hydraulic fracturing also be discontinued, since the millions of gallons used in the process then must be disposed of as it returns to the surface along with oil and natural gas.

“If we’re not fracking, we’re not producing,” Smitherman said. “It’s just part of the process,” he said, and at present “there is no economic way to recycle flowback fluid,” which would decrease the volume of wastewater that must be disposed of.

Smitherman also said he would have staffers look into one speaker’s assertion that earthquakes stopped after Dec. 23 and did not resume until the new year because injection wells shut down for the holidays.

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