Thunderous applause shook the crowded auditorium again and again as citizens called for a temporary shutdown of injection wells in an area rattled by more than 30 earthquakes over the past two months.
More than 800 people crammed into the Azle High School auditorium Thursday evening as Texas Railroad Commissioner David Porter held a town hall-style meeting to listen to residents’ concerns about the sudden string of earthquakes in south Wise, northwest Tarrant and northeast Parker counties.
Injection wells, used to dispose of fracking fluid produced in gas well drilling, are at the epicenter of controversy. Studies find them as the probable cause of earthquakes that have rattled south Wise and northern Tarrant and Parker counties over the past two months – a region that has never before experienced earthquakes of any magnitude.
“I live in south Wise County,” said David Johnson, one of the scores of citizens to speak to the Commission. “I myself invest in oil and gas ventures. I understand what is causing the quakes isn’t from drilling, but from the injection wells. I think we need to find alternatives to using the injections wells. In West Virginia and Pennsylvania, they use technology to recycle the wastewater rather than inject it deep into the earth.”
In the process of extracting natural gas from the Barnett Shale, drillers use a process known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.” A mixture of water, sand, silt and chemicals is injected at high pressure thousands of feet underground to crack the shale and release the natural gas. That water flows back out of the well once it starts producing gas.
The problem is what to do with it.
Currently, most of the wastewater is injected via disposal wells more than 10,000 feet below the surface. Researchers have discovered that in some areas the injection of liquids deep into the earth can cause tectonic plates to shift and move, causing earthquakes.
Like Johnson said, there are alternatives to disposal wells. Devon Energy works with a Canadian company called Aqua Pure that takes fracking water and filters it, so it can be used again at different fracking sites.
However, that doesn’t make much sense to most energy companies because Texas has plenty of injection wells. It’s cheaper to dispose of the wastewater by injecting it back into the earth.
In other parts of the country, particularly the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania, the recycling gamble looks to be a very good alternative. Pennsylvania only has six injection wells, and they aren’t drilling any more. Texas has 50,000.
But even though injection wells might save drillers money, the fact that they might also cause earthquakes has residents concerned.
Many in the crowded auditorium echoed Johnson’s idea. They cited instances of earthquakes in Cleburne and at DFW Airport several years ago after injection wells were opened. The wells were shut down and the quakes stopped.
The quakes hitting Azle, Briar, Reno, Boyd and Newark have all been between 2 and 3.6 in magnitude. To people who have lived in earthquake-prone areas like California, these quakes feel different.
“It feels like you are in Iraq or Afghanistan,” said Greg Morrison of Azle. “It sounds like a bomb going off in your house. My family is invested in oil and gas, but if you keep injecting this stuff deep into the earth, it’s a bomb waiting to happen.”
He said he recently took out earthquake insurance on his house at a cost of an additional $400 per year.
Porter said he was unable at the meeting to answer any questions directly and avoided reporters afterward. The RRC is the state agency tasked with regulating injection wells as well as oil and gas drilling.
“I was troubled to hear what these residents have been and are experiencing,” Porter said. “I believe it is important to listen to their accounts first hand to better understand their concerns. My goal was to reassure residents that their concerns are not falling on deaf ears and that the Railroad Commission is engaged and involved in gathering more evidence and data … (as) we continue to study any possible causation between oil and gas activities and seismic events.”
The meeting left residents wondering if they were actually going to see any action from the state.
“We might not get any relief right now after this meeting,” Johnson said to the crowd. “But if the earth starts shaking down in Austin, baby! We’ll get some results.”