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Responding to Quakes, Texas Regulators Pass Disposal Well Rules

Texas regulators on Tuesday tightened rules for wells that dispose of oilfield waste, a response to the spate of earthquakes that have rattled North Texas.

Each day, dozens of trucks hook up to the Gulf Coast-run fracking fluid disposal well site near Gonzales, Texas.

Texas regulators on Tuesday tightened rules for wells that dispose of oilfield waste, a response to the spate of earthquakes that have rattled North Texas.

The three-member Texas Railroad Commission voted unanimously to adopt the rules, which require companies to submit additional information – including historic records of earthquakes in a region– when applying to drill a disposal well. The proposal also clarifies that the commission can slow or halt injections of fracking waste into a problematic well and require companies to disclose the volume and pressure of their injections more frequently.

The commissioners – all Republicans – said the vote showed how well Texans can respond to issues without federal intervention.

Commissioner Barry Smitherman called the vote a “textbook example” of how the commission identifies an issue and “moves quickly and proactively to address it.”

“We don’t need Washington,” he said.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency last month said it supported the proposed rules.

The number of disposal wells — deep resting places for liquid oil and gas waste — has surged amid Texas’ drilling bonanza. Texas has more than 3,600 active commercial disposal wells. In 2013, the Railroad Commission approved 668 permits for disposal wells, double the number of approvals in 2009, according to state data. The trend corresponds with a surge of earthquakes in communities where such hazards were once unheard of. 

In the past year, about three-dozen earthquakes with a magnitude of 2.0 or higher have struck communities atop North Texas' gas-rich Barnett Shale. Some quakes were strong enough to crack home walls and foundations. Most of the quakes hit months ago, though three of them – accompanied by thunderous booms – rattled the Dallas-Fort Worth area in September, waking some residents from sleep. A 2.2-magnitude quake shook an area outside of Irving earlier this month.

Drilling areas in South and West Texas have also seen an uptick in quakes. That includes a 3.2-magnitude tremor that hit Atascosa County, just south of San Antonio, on Sept. 10.

As a growing body of research links the drilling of disposal wells to earthquakes, those affected — including the North Texas mayors of Azle and Reno – initially criticized what they described as a slow and disjointed response from the Railroad Commission.

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

Ahead of the commission’s vote, the mayors said they were generally happy with the proposal, even if they had called for more.

“What they did, I think it’s acceptable," Alan Brundrett, the Azle mayor, said in an interview last month. "It wasn’t every recommendation that we had, but it was quite a few of them.” 

Brundrett, who called for more comprehensive seismicity tests before drilling, said the commission had grown more accessible in recent months. 

“I think it’s a lot better than it was. They are talking, and before they actually announced the proposed rules, the Railroad Commission called me,” he said.  

The Texas Oil and Gas Association, the state's biggest petroleum group, applauded the commission's effort on earthquakes.

Following the vote, Commissioner David Porter called the rules a work in progress.

“We may have to amend it in the future depending on what information comes to light,” he said. 

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