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Lawmakers Consider Boosting Earthquake Research

State lawmakers are considering a nearly $2.5 million plan to help answer a pressing question in some Texas communities: Why does the ground keep shaking?

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

State lawmakers are considering a nearly $2.5 million plan to help answer a pressing question in some Texas communities: Why does the ground keep shaking?  

An item hidden in House Speaker Joe Straus991-page budget proposal would fund a “TexNet Seismic Monitoring Program,” at the University of Texas at Austin, aimed at helping Texans understand the unexpected surge of earthquakes underneath their feet.

“TexNet would create an improved statewide seismic monitoring network capable of detecting and locating earthquakes more precisely than can currently be done,” said Scott Tinker, director of the university’s Bureau of Economic Geology, which would manage the project. The program “would also improve our ability to respond to earthquakes quickly, if such a response were deemed appropriate," he added.

The idea emerged after months of discussion between lawmakers and regulators about how to respond to the quakes that are shaking unsuspecting communities throughout the state, but particularly North Texas.

The more than two dozen temblors that hit the Dallas area this month have grabbed recent headlines, but a quake surge in Reno and Azle – much smaller towns atop the gas-rich Barnett Shale – kicked off the discussions last year.

Experts are only just beginning to study the Dallas quakes, but researchers suspect nearby disposal wells might have triggered the quakes elsewhere. The number of those wells — deep resting places for liquid oil and gas waste — has surged amid Texas’ drilling bonanza. Drilling areas in South and West Texas have also seen more earthquakes.

In the past year, the Railroad Commission hired a seismologist and approved requirements that companies submit more information before drilling disposal wells. Meanwhile, the Texas House formed a subcommittee on seismic activity.

(The nearest active disposal well to the epicenter of the Dallas quakes, however, is 10 miles away. That, the state seismologist suggests, means oil and gas activity isn't the cause.)

Scientists have known for decades that injecting fluid deep underground could trigger earthquakes. Neighboring Oklahoma has seen an increase in earthquakes even greater than Texas has, and has surpassed California as the country’s most quake-prone state. The USGS and Oklahoma Geological Survey say wastewater disposal probably contributes to the trend.

Though Texas, home to nearly 3,600 active commercial disposal wells, is four times the size of Oklahoma, it has far fewer seismometers – devices that monitor quakes – positioned throughout the state. That makes it difficult to estimate the precise size and locations of each quake and, in turn, understand what caused it. 

Researchers aim to bolter those capabilities through TexNet, which would need legislative approval.

Improving the state’s understanding of earthquakes, Tinker said, would reduce risks to property and people, “improving business practices and protecting important revenue streams for Texas.”

His isn’t the only Texas university investigating the quakes. Experts at Southern Methodist University have also shared their research with state and local officials. They added 15 seismometers in Irving this month. 

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. Southern Methodist University was a corporate sponsor of the Tribune in 2013. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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