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Disposal Well Plan Seen as First Step in Addressing Earthquakes

Two candidates for the Railroad Commission welcomed the agency's newly proposed requirements for disposal well applications, saying they were a good first step in addressing the spate of earthquakes that have shaken up parts of North Texas.

Lynda Stokes, the mayor of Reno, Texas, testified before the Railroad Commission of Texas on Jan. 21, 2014. She voiced her concern about an increased number of earthquakes around Eagle Mountain Lake.

Two Railroad Commission hopefuls on Wednesday called the agency’s efforts to regulate wastewater disposal wells a good first step in addressing the spate of earthquakes that have shaken up parts of North Texas — a phenomenon that some suspect is linked to local disposal wells. But the candidates said the agency should do more to restore those communities’ faith in its oversight.

The comments came one day after the Railroad Commission offered rules that would require companies to submit additional information – including data on a region’s seismicity and any past earthquakes – when applying for a permit to drill a disposal well. The proposal also clarifies that the commission can slow or halt injections into a problematic well. 

The Texas Tribune asked the three candidates vying for an open seat on the commission for their thoughts on the proposal, which is open for public comment through Sept. 29.

Since Nov. 1, more than 30 earthquakes above magnitude 2.0 have struck communities atop the Barnett Shale, according to U.S. Geological Survey data. Some quakes were strong enough to crack home walls and foundations.  The trend has slowed in more recent months. But as a growing body of research links the drilling of disposal wells to earthquakes, those affected — including the mayors of Azle and Reno – have asked state regulators to work more quickly to address the problem, or at least acknowledge it could be tied to the industry.

Commissioners have tiptoed around questions about that link, leading Lynda Stokes, mayor of the quake-shaken town of Reno, to complain her town’s major concerns are "getting lost in politics."

In April, however, the agency hired a seismologist to study the issue and help shape the latest proposal.

“I’m glad that they’re taking that step,” said Steve Brown, the Democratic candidate in the Nov. 4 election for railroad commissioner. “But when you deny, deny, deny that there is an issue, it makes it harder for folks to have confidence later on,” he said of the commission’s initial reluctance to acknowledge that industry activity could cause earthquakes.

Mark Miller, a petroleum engineer and the Libertarian candidate in the race, said it was a “welcome development” that the commission was responding to the earthquakes, but he added that the rules themselves were “disappointing in their lack of scientific basis and rigor.”

The spokesman for Ryan Sitton, the Republican candidate in the race and the head of an oil and gas technology firm, released a statement from Sitton on the plan: “The Railroad Commission should always address valid public concerns. As a commissioner, my primary objective will be leading the agency to make decisions based on sound science and data to ensure that the citizens of Texas are confident in the development of our natural resources.” 

The Texas Oil and Gas Association, the state's biggest petroleum group, has yet to comment on the specifics of the proposal, but says it generally supports the commission's effort.

"The oil and natural gas industry agrees that recent seismic activity warrants robust investigation to determine the precise location, impact and cause or causes of seismic events," Deb Mamula, the group's executive vice president, said Wednesday in a statement. 

Scientists have known for decades that injecting fluid deep underground could trigger earthquakes. But they say it is difficult to tie a specific tremor to a specific well, partially because of challenges in gathering data.

In public meetings, and elsewhere, the Railroad Commission has declined to explicitly link the wells to earthquakes, saying it’s seeking more proof.

"RRC staff welcomes more data and science about current theories that hypothesize a causation link between minor seismic events and injection wells," the agency’s website says“Texas has a long history of safe injection, and staff has not identified a significant correlation between faulting and injection practices.” 

But those who have been following the issue say the latest proposal does just that – if indirectly.

“I think they’re admitting it. You kind of have to admit it, right?” said Cyrus Reed, director of Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter, who has called for more oversight for disposal well operators. “The science is pretty well-established.”

Reed said he was “pleasantly surprised” that the commission was moving forward on the disposal well rules, but would like to see additional changes related to public notice, well integrity and more input from groundwater conservation districts that could be affected.

Brown said he also wants the commission to require more public notice – in newspapers and other publications – before it issues a drilling permit. And he said he was concerned that passive language in the proposal could leave companies with too much wiggle room. For instance, the proposal states that the agency “may require” drillers to provide more information seismology and “may require” more frequently monitoring of injection and pressure rates.

Miller’s major concerns were technical. He said some of the calculations drillers would be required to make­ – such as estimating where around the well pressure from injected fluid is highest – can be subjective, and he would like to see how commission staff determined which numbers to use as a baseline.

“It might be an effort that will have little actual payoff,” he said.

Texas, home to nearly 3,600 active commercial disposal wells, is not the only state dealing with a recent uptick in quakes. Oklahoma has a bigger problem. That state has seen more than 300 earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or greater since last November, according to the USGS, after seeing just two per year over the previous three decades. The USGS and Oklahoma Geological Survey say wastewater disposal probably contributes to the trend. The state's lawmakers are debating new rules for disposal wells. 

This year, Ohio tightened its rules for waste disposal and production wells in an attempt to rein in earthquakes. In April, the state's environmental regulators unveiled new policies requiring companies to install seismometers when drilling horizontally near faults or in certain seismic areas. If those monitors detect quakes above a 1.0 magnitude, activity must stop while the cause is investigated. That change came after Ohio regulators shut down waste disposal sites near Youngstown after a series of quakes, though they said they had ruled out injection wells as the cause.

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