Seismic study should get to cause of quakes


A Southern Methodist University researcher checks seismic equipment monitoring North Texas earthquake activity last year.
A Southern Methodist University researcher checks seismic equipment monitoring North Texas earthquake activity last year.

You’d think scientists would be able to figure out for sure whether the rash of North Texas earthquakes in recent years has a definite link to oil and gas drilling activity, including waste injection wells.

In fact, some scientists believe they have figured it out, and they say there is a link.

But at least one key scientist, Texas Railroad Commission geologist Craig Pearson, has been reluctant to agree. That’s important, because the Railroad Commission regulates oil and gas drilling in the state.

If the three-member commission doesn’t go along, scientists strung end to end across the state could all agree but wouldn’t bring about changes in how drilling or injection wells operate.

So, what it comes down to is that definitive research is necessary to convince Pearson and, eventually, the three commissioners.

Fortunately, the Legislature stepped up last year and approved $4.5 million for a comprehensive earthquake study.

It has taken a while to get that study underway, but Scott Tinker, director of the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas at Austin said this week that researchers are about ready to deploy 22 permanent seismograph stations and 36 portable stations.

A project director has been hired and will start work in February.

The new equipment will augment the 16 seismograph stations already in place in Texas.

This is not easy science. Cliff Frohlich, associate director and senior research scientist at UT’s Jackson School of Geosciences, said there are 10,000 wastewater injection wells that, so far as we know, have not caused any earthquakes.

But sometimes, Frohlich said, the two are linked. That means the task is to determine how and why earthquake activity happens near some wells but not others.

Answers won’t leap out of the seismic measurements. Of the $4.5 million allocated for the study, $2.47 million is dedicated for equipment, and a full $2 million will go toward studying what the measurements mean.

The Bureau of Economic Geology will operate the system of monitoring stations, which will be called TexNet.

The Texas Railroad Commission is not known as a stern regulator of the oil and gas industry. In fact, some commissioners seem to believe their role is to protect and defend the industry from all detractors.

All the more reason to do this study, get to the bottom of what’s causing these quakes, and figuring out ways to interrupt the cause at its source.

It won’t be easy, but the people of North Texas deserve answers.