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January 19, 2014

Scientific shakedown on quakes

Decades-old evidence cites injection process as a trigger for earthquakes, but can’t yet be linked to area’s recent tremors


Also, seismic monitoring capabilities in some areas where injection has increased are not capable of detecting smaller seismic activity that may presage larger earthquakes, according to Ellsworth.

One way that some have proposed to attempt to prevent larger earthquakes is a “traffic light” system of reducing injection rate or pressure if earthquakes of a certain magnitude occur or stopping injection if seismic activity increases.

But researchers feel they need more kinds of information that might not be available as they conduct more research on the complex topic and seek to develop a predictive understanding of the hazard posed by induced earthquakes.

“The Railroad Commission does collect the information that is required by federal law and that is valuable,” Ellsworth said. “From a research standpoint, we think that the frequency of reporting injection information could be improved, but that’s a regulatory issue.”

Despite various studies on the topic in recent years, the Texas Railroad Commission doesn’t appear to recognize any scientific consensus on the issue.

“RRC staff welcomes more data and science about current theories that hypothesize a causation link between minor seismic events and injection wells,” statement on the RRC website reads. “RRC staff is closely following various studies that are being conducted to determine possible man-made causes of recent seismic events. Commission staff has participated in industry workshops concerning this phenomenon and cooperates with the National Academy of Sciences and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency whenever appropriate.”

“Seismic waves are continuously traversing the earth’s crust due to both natural causes and human activity. Texas has a long history of safe injection, and staff has not identified a significant correlation between faulting and injection practices.”

Information on how much fluid has been injected since the beginning of October by at least one injection well operator in the area of the earthquakes isn’t yet available because the operator’s annual reporting cycle ended in September and that information isn’t yet due to the Texas Railroad Commission, the commission confirmed for the Democrat this past week.

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