Other Voices

Disposal wells, not drilling, studied for earthquake link

Headlines proclaiming that oil and gas drilling are directly linked to earthquakes in North Texas are dominating energy news this week.

You may have even read a few: “EPA: North Texas earthquakes likely linked to oil and gas drilling” (from the Star-Telegram’s website); “EPA links oil and gas drilling to Texas quakes” and “EPA links oil and gas drilling to Texas quakes.”

None of those headlines are accurate.

On Aug. 15, the Environmental Protection Agency published an end-of-year evaluation of the Texas Underground Injection Control program administered by the Railroad Commission.

One sentence in the 61-page document forms the basis of the inaccurate headlines above:

“In light of findings from several researchers, its own analysis of some cases, and the fact that earthquakes in some areas diminished following shut in or reduced injection volume in targeted wells, EPA believes there is a significant possibility that North Texas earthquake activity is associated with disposal wells.”

It is true that in a small number of cases with the right set of conditions — disposal wells located in close proximity to critically stressed faults that are properly oriented — disposal wells can cause earthquakes.

However, despite the clear language in the EPA report that disposal wells, and not other oil and gas activities, may be correlated to seismicity, the public has been misled to believe that hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and/or drilling cause earthquakes. The media needs to be more accurate when they report highly technical news.

To be clear, oil and gas drilling does not cause earthquakes.

It is widely known in the scientific community, including the EPA and U.S. Geological Survey, that drilling and fracking do not typically produce the pressure necessary to cause a felt seismic event.

We cannot definitively say that there is or is not a direct causal relationship between disposal wells and earthquakes in Texas. It is absolutely possible, and that is why we at the Railroad Commission are studying it and have taken concrete steps to strengthen our disposal well rules.

In fact, in its report the EPA recognized the Railroad Commission’s diligence in ensuring that the environment and the public are protected during disposal operations in Texas, stating, “these values reflect an outstanding enforcement monitoring program,” and “the RRC testing and surveillance program exceeds the testing requirement,” and “the RRC is also commended for establishing new regulations specific to seismicity, including solidifying RRC authority to take appropriate action related to injection well operations.”

In regard to the seismic activity in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in 2015, the EPA recommended “the close monitoring of injection activity through daily recording and reporting of accurate injection pressures and volumes from area disposal wells…”

The EPA report ultimately validates what the Railroad Commission is doing to ensure public and environmental safety.

As an engineer with 20 years’ experience in oil and gas, and a railroad commissioner, it’s my job to make sure the 27 million Texans are accurately informed about the energy industry and feel confident in how oil and gas is being produced.

Fear tactics and attention-grabbing headlines don’t serve anyone, and it’s important Texans know that the very same industry putting thousands of people to work, millions of dollars into our schools and roads and money into our economy, is the same one working to keep them and the environment safe.

Ryan Sitton is a Texas Railroad Commission member and a mechanical engineer from Friendswood, near Houston.

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