NEWS HEADLINES

Proposed changes link injection wells, earthquakes

By Bob Buckel | Published Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Texas Railroad Commission is proposing some rule changes to the permitting process for disposal wells – taking into consideration the possibility that those wells might play a role in earthquakes.

The TRC is the state agency that regulates the oil and gas industry.

Injection wells, used to dispose of fluid recovered from the hydraulic fracturing (fracking) process by pumping it into formations deep underground, became the focus of public outcry after more than 30 minor earthquakes struck the area around Azle and Reno – northwest Tarrant, northeast Parker and southern Wise counties – last December and January.

The proposed changes would require a company applying for a disposal well permit to include seismic information on their application in areas designated as “high-risk” for seismic activity.

An area is so defined if it has characteristics that may increase the possibility that fracking fluids would not be confined exclusively to the injection zone – including areas with “complex geology” or a history of seismic events.

Companies applying to operate an injection well in a high-risk area would also be required to submit logs, geologic cross-sections and structure maps, and the proposed changes would allow the TRC to suspend or terminate a permit if seismic activity occurs near an injection well.

The commission can also require more frequent monitoring and reporting of injection pressure and injection rates – information regulators had trouble getting after the rash of earthquakes last winter.

State Rep. Phil King, who represents Wise and Parker counties, said the proposed rules on seismic activity “seem reasonable.”

He said there is a hearing Monday, Aug. 25, of the House Subcommittee on Seismic Activity, of which he is a member, and the TRC is expected to testify along with other parties.

“I’ll know more after the hearing,” King said.

Tracy Smith, Wise County Democratic party chair, who has been seeking action on the earthquake issue, was “cautiously optimistic” about the proposed new rules.

“As with all things political, the citizens of Texas have yet to see how the traditionally pro-industry Railroad Commission will interpret the new proposed rules,” she said via email. “It is certainly a step in the right direction.

“The citizens of Texas still have a long way to go to get elected leaders to refocus on the job of protecting citizens as the No. 1 priority,” she said. “The Texas Railroad Commission has earned a reputation of supporting the traditonal industry attitude of denial first, and it will take a while for the public interest to trust both the TRC and the industry again.”

Railroad Commission spokeswoman Ramona Nye said the link between disposal wells and earthquakes has still not been fully established. Staff seismologist David Craig Pearson was hired in March and is studying the link between injection wells and seismic activity.

“As our agency continues to work with the scientific community to coordinate an exchange of information … we have seen a need for laying the groundwork for some basic industry best practices,” Nye said.

The TRC estimates the proposed regulations would add about $300 to the cost of an injection well permit application.

The rule changes were published Aug. 5 and approved without comment by the TRC in a conference on Aug. 12. They will be published in the Texas Register Aug. 29, and after that, there will be a 30-day comment period.

The public has until noon Monday, Sept. 29, to weigh in on the proposals.

Public comment may be submitted to the Rules Coordinator, Office of General Counsel, Railroad Commission of Texas, P.O. Box 12967, Austin, TX 78711-2967; online at www.rrc.state.tx.us/legal/rules/comment-form-for-proposed-rulemakings; or by email to rulescoordinator@rrc.state.tx.us.

Comments should refer to O&G Docket No. 20-0290951.

The TRC has issued permits to more than 50,000 Class II injections wells in Texas since the 1930s.

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