By CHRISTIN COYNE
It is expected to be months before researchers have answers for the public on whether oil and gas activity may be causing earthquakes in the Azle area.
But many residents who attended a meeting Wednesday night, held by KERA/StateImpact Texas at Azle High School and attended by a crowd of about a 100, expressed frustration with officials’ response to the issue.
More than two dozen earthquakes measuring between 2.0 and 3.6 in magnitude rattled the area between November and January, and researchers say they’ve continued to record an additional 300 unfelt smaller earthquakes with monitoring equipment.
“The railroad commission is under particular assault right now because its credibility is in question,” one Wise County resident said to the panelists with applause from the crowd. “The commission says one thing. Independent people say something else. Credibility is what government is about. When government loses credibility then people like us out here begin to say, ‘enough is enough.’ That’s what these people are saying. Enough is enough. So the question is: how can we expect you guys to take care of the problem when you can’t even admit the problem exists?”
Heather DeShon, an assistant professor of geophysics at Southern Methodist University, told the crowd that the group of researchers that has been collecting data and studying whether the Azle-area earthquakes are related to area oil and gas activity is about six months into a one- to two-year process before their research will be published and peer-reviewed.
“I understand very much that it is frustrating to you all when I say that I’m not going to provide definitive conclusions until our studies have gone through peer review,” DeShon said. “But it’s an incredibly important process for us to make sure that we are providing the best data possible so that others involved in public policy can really make good decisions that are good long-term decisions and not short-term decisions.”
They don’t just want to solve the Azle-area question but to truly understand why some disposal wells are associated with earthquakes and others are not, she said.
The earthquakes have been occurring 2 to 8 kilometers below ground, while injection wells extend 2 to 3 kilometers below the surface, DeShon said.
Reno Mayor Lynda Stokes expressed her belief that the earthquakes are due to injection at nearby disposal wells.
“I think they [residents] want to shut those wells down,” Stokes said to cheering from the crowd.
Industry spokesman Bill Stevens, a government relations consultant for the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers, told the crowd that oil and gas producers recognize that there is a human factor and want more data on the issue, as well.
“We believe there are good guidelines at the railroad commission,” Stevens said. “They have the jurisdiction to control disposal wells, but they can’t shut it down, if it is in fact, causing the earthquakes.”
State Rep. Phil King said he believes residents reporting that the series of earthquakes caused property damage.
As a representative of the area, King said he felt it was his job to have the Railroad Commission of Texas take a hard look at the issue.
King, also a member of the House Energy Resources Subcommittee on Seismic Activity, said he wanted to make sure everybody was being collaborative to find out what was going on and he wanted to make sure the Railroad Commission of Texas does have the authority to address the issue if it is shown that disposal wells are inducing the area’s earthquakes, something the agency has said they do.
With other studies showing a link between disposal wells and earthquakes, including in Oklahoma and other states, what will it take to have legislators do something about the issue, moderator Doualy Xaykaothao of KERA asked.
“Well I think we are doing something right now,” King said. “I think that, again this just started in November or December, and since that time we’ve hired a state seismologist.”
Texas has never had to deal with this issue before and the only place in Texas that he’s aware of that there’s been a suggestion of man-made seismic activity is in Shelby County, King said.
“The day that Heather [DeShon] comes up and says, ‘I’m convinced that salt water disposal wells in the North Texas area are causing earthquakes and here’s why,’ then the next question’s going to be what do we need to do about it and we’ll go do that,” King said.
Studies have linked earthquakes with disposal well activity in Shelby County and DFW, according Mose Buchele, a reporter with StateImpact Texas, who said that to say earthquakes linked to oil and gas activity is just localized in the Azle area is inaccurate.
Another study appeared to link earthquakes around Snyder in West Texas with oil field activity, as well, he added.
“We’ve also seen slews of studies coming out linking disposal and quakes and when we do open records requests with the Railroad Commission of Texas, we see that their own staff members recognize that link [between earthquakes and disposal wells],” Buchele said. “So this is not really up for debate right now. We know this happens. So the question is whether that’s what’s happening here.”
“What people want is they want a system and policy that could perhaps address the potential that disposal is causing earthquakes and investigated quickly to a level that might reassure people,” Buchele said.
“What we’ve seen from the railroad commission is a public denial that these things can even be linked scientifically so far, which I don’t think inspires much confidence among people that live here.”
While some other states have taken the lead and put forward some possible policy solutions, Texas has not gone that far, according to Buchelle, later adding that, “this is something that we’ve been reporting on for years and years and time has taken a while for the machinery of politics and our government agencies to catch up.”
By CHRISTIN COYNE
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