The House Energy Resources Subcommmittee on Seismic Activity held its first meeting Monday in Austin.
Echoing a January public forum in Azle, there were still many more questions than answers with regard to the series of 27 earthquakes that began last November and continued through Jan. 28 in northern Parker and southern Wise counties.
But even though the shaking has mostly subsided, pressure on the state to get to the bottom of the earthquake phenomenon seems to be ratcheting up.
At Monday’s hearing, legislators joined scientists and citizens in calling on the Texas Railroad Commission to demand the inforamtion needed for an in-depth study on the issue.
“The citizens of Texas are looking to their elected officials to answer these questions,” said subcommittee chair Myra Crownover of Denton. “This is why we are all here today, asking questions of experts in the geoscience field so we can assess the status of our knowledge, identify the shortcomings and begin to formulate a plan of action.”
State Rep. Phil King, whose district includes both Parker and Wise counties, said he has been “surprised how difficult it is to find the answers.”
“From the state’s standpoint, there’s this commitment to do whatever’s necessary, whenever there are issues that affect the public from oil and gas production,” he said. “At the same time, you don’t want to make rules that don’t make an impact, or are not necessary.”
He said much more information is needed to be able to connect the seismic activity with disposal wells, which inject the flowback fluid from fracking deep into rock formations.
That’s a connection some environmentalists and community advocates say has already been established.
Arkansas does not allow disposal wells, and in Ohio, four disposal wells were shut down in late 2011 after a 4.0 earthquake near Youngstown. Even in North Texas, injection wells at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport and near Cleburne were closed in 2009 after quakes nearby.
Industry voices say more time and data is needed. But the sense at Monday’s hearing is that the clock is ticking.
“It’s my hope that the state, SMU, the USGS and others will commit substantial resources to looking into this issue, and try to find out what’s really going on,” King said. “At the end of the day, the science – whatever it shows is what it shows. If it’s something that’s related to disposal wells, then we deal with that.”
King said the committee’s role is to “make sure everyone is doing their job.”
The Railroad Commission seems to be moving. A Dallas Morning News story said the agency sent out letters last week to seven operators, requesting well logs as well as seismic maps, hoping to identify fault lines and areas where injection wells should be avoided.
MAYOR SPEAKS OUT
Azle Mayor Alan Brundrett spoke to the subcommittee Monday and urged them to get all the participating agencies on the same page.
“If I could sum up our experience in one word, it would be frustration,” Brundrett said. “We’ve met with state representatives, seismologists, representatives of the industry and officials with the Railroad Commission. While everyone seems genuinely concerned, there is a disconnect among the various stakeholders.”
He said seismologists need data on the volume of fluid being injected each day, and the daily pressures at these wells – but noted that operators are only required to report monthly total volumes and average pressures. Those reports are only filed in November of each year.
Brundrett said he spoke earlier this year with a representative of the company operating the largest injection well near the epicenter of the quakes, just north of Azle.
“I asked for data from November 2013 to January 2014, and he indicated it would not be a problem,” he said. “Then later, he informed me that he was advised he could not release that data until after it had been filed with the Railroad Commission in November 2014.”
Some industry representatives claim the information is “proprietary” and would damage their competitive position if it were released to the public.
King said the committee does not want to release protected information – but the RRC can and should be able to get it.
SMU seismologist Brian Stump told the panel Monday that the school’s network of monitors has gathered enough information to create an image of a fault under the area. What’s needed now, he said, is data from nearby disposal wells.
Brundrett said sharing information is the key.
“Right now we have scientists working to determine the connection between injection wells and earthquakes, and what may be causing these to happen,” he said. “We have operators who gather data daily, to monitor their wells and bill their customers, and there’s a state agency that has the authority to regulate those operators – yet we cannot get everyone together to share the information needed to address the problem.”
Brundrett said it’s time the state agency gets out and leads the effort.
“Find out the connection and take steps to locate disposal wells where they will not cause these problems,” he said. “We’re asking you to help bring people together to help find these answers.”