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Railroad Commission to Hire Seismologist to Study Drilling-Quake Link

The Texas Railroad Commission said it would hire a seismologist to research the link between earthquakes and disposal of oil and gas waste in injection wells.

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The Texas Railroad Commission on Tuesday made an earth-shaking announcement: It will hire a seismologist.

The announcement came after a spate of mild earthquakes has rattled North Texans, who have called on the state’s oil and gas regulator to investigate the phenomenon’s ties to oil and gas waste disposal in the Barnett Shale. Some residents say the problem is to blame for cracked walls, floors and busted water pipes at their homes.

In a news release Tuesday, the commission said an in-house seismologist will “strengthen its ability to follow new research, as well as coordinate an exchange of factual, scientific information with the research community.”

At least 32 earthquakes have hit North Texas since Nov. 1, according to U.S. Geological Survey data. Most of those quakes, whose magnitudes ranged from 2.0 to 3.7, shook towns near the border of Parker and Tarrant counties, which sit atop the Barnett Shale, home to hundreds of natural gas wells and injection wells used to dispose of drilling waste.

Scientists have known for decades that injecting fluid deep underground could trigger earthquakes, and one state — Ohio — has tightened its rules for waste disposal in an attempt to rein in earthquakes. But the Railroad Commission has refused to link the injection wells and earthquakes, saying it needs more proof.

That stance has rankled many who have felt the earthquakes, and their frustration boiled over in Azle last Thursday at a town hall meeting held by Commissioner David Porter. More than 800 locals peppered Porter and other agency staff with questions, and many said they were unsatisfied with how few agency officials answered.

The move to hire a seismologist appears to be a direct response to that feedback.

Among other duties, the seismologist will be tasked with "coordinating with other academic experts studying seismic events in Texas," and he or she will "obtain, study and interpret various forms of data to evaluate seismic activity associated with known faults and historic and/or ongoing oil and gas exploration and production activities," the Railroad Commission said. 

“It is imperative that the Commission remain engaged and involved in gathering more evidence and data into any possible causation between oil and gas activities and seismic events,” Porter said in a statement. “Commission rules and regulations must be based on sound science and proven facts. In order to do so, I propose the Commission hire an in-house seismologist.”

The agency said it would immediately post the position and begin a nationwide search. 

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