— By CHRISTIN COYNE
As groups calling for more restrictions on oil and gas activity in the Barnett Shale plan a meeting with Azle-area residents regarding the recent swarm of earthquakes in northeastern Parker County, it’s not clear when state-hired scientists will begin studying the issue.
“The search will last as long as it takes to find a qualified candidate,” Ramona Nye, spokeswoman for the Texas Railroad Commission, told the Democrat on Wednesday of Commissioner David Porter’s proposal to create an in-house seismologist position.
The person hired will be expected to coordinate with other experts and evaluate seismic activity associated with known faults and/or oil and gas activity, according to the commission.
A week ago, Porter faced an angry group of more than 800 Azle-area residents frustrated with the lack of information from the state agency that regulates the oil and gas industry.
Many in the crowd expressed a belief that local injection wells are responsible for the two dozen quakes originating between Reno and Briar that have caused damage to area homes and buildings. They called for the commission to take action to protect their property.
In an effort to narrow down the area of origin of the Azle-area quakes, researchers with the USGS and Southern Methodist University are still attempting to obtain additional seismic data with the help of additional monitoring equipment placed in the area. They have not determined whether the local quakes may have been triggered by human activity.
However, studies in Texas and other areas of the nation have indicated a possible connection between earthquakes and wastewater injection wells in some areas.
“USGS scientists have found that at some locations the increase in seismicity coincides with the injection of wastewater in deep disposal wells,” a publication by the USGS published in July states. More than 300 earthquakes above a magnitude 3.0 occurred in the central and eastern U.S. between 2010 and 2012, compared with an average rate of 21 events per year observed between 1967 and 2000, researchers noted.
At the announcement Tuesday of the creation of the seismologist position, some Azle-area residents expressed concern a Texas Railroad Commission-employed seismologist, rather than an independent scientist, could face political or oil-and-gas-industry pressure regarding research on the issue.
“The commission bases its regulatory on actions and rules on sound science and proven facts,” Nye said in a statement responding to the concerns.
A spokesman for the Bureau of Economic Geology, a research unit at the University of Texas in Austin and the state geological survey, confirmed Monday that the bureau is currently putting together a proposal to study the Azle-area earthquakes to submit to the Texas Railroad Commission.
However, it’s not clear when the proposal will be presented to the commission or what the study is expected to cover.
Inspection of additional area injection wells was scheduled for later in the week, Nye wrote Wednesday.
The Texas Railroad Commission inspected two northern Parker County injection wells in late November and early December, according to records obtained by the Democrat.
One, referenced by at least one resident during the Texas Railroad Commission town hall last week, is operated by XTO Energy and is located off Knob Hill Road. The other, a commercial disposal well operated by Bridgeport Tank Trucks LLC, is located off FM Road 51 south of Springtown.
No violations were noted at either location.
At XTO’s well, an employee reportedly told the inspector that he had not felt any of the quakes.
A spokeswoman for XTO Energy told the Democrat the company’s injection well, identified by the USGS as located in the area of the earthquakes, is still active and operating as usual.
“XTO and Exxon Mobil are working with seismic experts, as well as state and local officials, to study the situation,” Suann Lundsberg said, adding that their injection well was one of eight injection wells identified by the USGS in the area.
A group calling for additional oversight and regulation of the oil and gas industry, including Earthworks’ Oil & Gas Accountability Project, North Central Texas Communities Alliance and former mayor of Dish, Calvin Tillman, has scheduled a public meeting for Monday in Azle.
The meeting, set for 6:30 p.m. at the Azle Community Center, is intended to educate residents on how to “force our ‘regulators’ to do their jobs and protect our property and communities.”
The meeting organizers accuse the Texas Railroad Commission of showing no interest in “overseeing the oil and gas industry so much as providing political cover for it.”
“We have some ideas about how we can all work together to get what we want: protection from the harm this industry is causing,” organizer Sharon Wilson said. “The residents of Azle came together and forced the RRC to hire a seismologist. We need to keep the momentum of that big success going.”