breaking news

Appeals court halts, for now, abortion for immigrant teen in Texas

Responding to Texas quake uptick, seismic study gets underway


With earthquakes shaking parts of North Texas ahead of the last legislative session, lawmakers were in a bind: The public appeared increasingly anxious that the tremors could damage their property, and some scientists were saying the uptick in temblors could be traced to fracking-related activities.

But the oil and gas industry, which long has had influence among many legislators, claimed the science remained murky.

In the end, lawmakers decided to set aside $4.5 million to increase the study of seismic activity.

Now the TexNet Seismic Monitoring Program, overseen by the University of Texas, is getting off the ground, with two key hires about to start work and new seismographic equipment soon to be deployed.

The findings of the project could have long-term consequences for the oil and gas industry.

An American-Statesman analysis of U.S. Geological Survey records found that there have been about two dozen quakes of magnitude 3.5 or greater in Texas since 2011, a period that covers the height of the fracking boom. That compares with five quakes of at least 3.5 magnitude between 2006 and 2010, and just one quake between 2001 and 2005.

“Although there are always naysayers, the vast majority of scientists in the earthquake community would agree (that the uptick in quakes) is caused by human activity, mostly from wastewater injection wells associated with fracking or oil production,” said Cliff Frohlich, a UT seismologist.

Seismologists have long known humans are capable of causing earthquakes, and some suspect the injection of wastewater material related to fracking has lubricated long-stuck faults, leading to the shifting of earth underfoot.

But Texas policymakers had been reluctant to acknowledge the scientific papers by Frohlich and other seismologists.

Last year, the state seismologist, an employee of the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry, said, “I don’t have a mechanism in mind (to describe quakes) other than natural tectonic activity.”

But the U.S. Geological Survey announced last April that earthquake activity had sharply increased since 2009 in the central and eastern United States, including Texas, due to industrial operations; university researchers drew a link between disposal of fracking-related material and a spate of earthquakes in the Fort Worth area; and state officials in Oklahoma, which had seen even more pronounced quakes, concluded after reviewing its own data that there was a link as well. (There is no fracking in the Austin area.)

That led the Legislature to act.

Lawmakers learned that “more seismic data was needed to understand the characteristics of Texas faults and the geology of our state,” said state Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, who chairs the House Energy Resources Committee. The money will “provide monitoring infrastructure and technical advice to the Legislature and governor. Both are critical when evaluating policy proposals targeted at mitigating seismic activity.”

The new project manager for TexNet is Alex Savvaidis, who ran a similar program in Greece. The UT Bureau of Economic Geology has also hired Peter Hennings, a structural geologist who has worked for ConocoPhillips, to manage research at the new Center for Integrated Seismicity Research, which will analyze the TexNet data.

Hennings will work with Ellen Rathje, a UT civil engineering professor who studies the impact of quakes on infrastructure.

Besides the hires, the money will be used to install 22 new, permanent seismograph stations — there are about 16 now — and pay for 36 portable seismographs.

UT’s Bureau of Economic Geology will manage and maintain the equipment. Previously, no Texas organization was responsible for providing information about seismicity, or investigating and evaluating earthquakes, Frohlich said.

Sharon Wilson, Texas organizer for the environmental group Earthworks Oil and Gas Accountability Project, said the state “already has the research it needs” to further regulate oil and gas drilling. “This will lead to another study to tell us what we already know,” she said.

But Frohlich said the new, more precise data will help inform regulatory decisions by the Railroad Commission, which has adopted rules requiring applicants for new disposal wells to conduct a search of a U.S. Geological Survey seismic database for historical earthquakes within a circular area of 100 square miles around a proposed, new disposal well.

“The Railroad Commission is looking forward to the implementation of the TexNet system to help gain a better understanding of natural and induced seismicity in Texas,” commission spokeswoman Ramona Nye said.

Scott Tinker, director of the UT bureau, said it’s been a “pretty rapid process of education” and regulatory response. He cautioned that causation involving quakes is difficult to prove.

An advisory committee, appointed by the governor, will include the state seismologist, two industry representatives, two academics and several others, yet to be named.

According to legislation setting up the program, the committee will advise on how the $4.5 million is used and on the preparation of a report, to be delivered by Dec. 1 to the governor and lawmakers, that will include an analysis of how the money was spent and the data collected by the seismic equipment as well as identify equipment and personnel costs necessary to maintain the program after 2016.

Texas Oil and Gas Association President Todd Staples said he welcomed the new seismology work.

“Robust research rooted in sound methodology is essential to better understand natural and induced seismicity and to inform science-based policy,” he said.

Tinker said the industry brings valuable know-how when it comes to understanding shifting rock.

“We want to get academics, and government and the industry to all work together on this,” he said.


Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Texas News & Politics

Killeen police searching for man accused of sexually assaulting 7-year-old
Killeen police searching for man accused of sexually assaulting 7-year-old

Authorities in Bell County are asking for the public’s help in searching for a man suspected of sexually assaulting a 7-year-old. According to Killeen police, authorities obtained an arrest warrant for Antoine Latrell Williams on Wednesday. He is accused of aggravated sexual assault of a child. Police believe he may be driving a black Nissan...
Appeals court halts, for now, abortion for immigrant teen in Texas
Appeals court halts, for now, abortion for immigrant teen in Texas

One day after a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to allow an undocumented teenage immigrant to have an abortion in Texas, an appeals court temporarily blocked the order and set oral arguments for Friday morning on whether to allow the procedure to occur. The order by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia still...
AUSTIN CITY COUNCIL: Here’s what we’re watching today
AUSTIN CITY COUNCIL: Here’s what we’re watching today

The Austin City Council is back today with a busy agenda. The council could move forward on an anti-lobbying ordinance update that has been months in the making that revises the city’s rules on contractor interactions with the city. The rules have revolved around waste contracts; the updated ordinance would shorten the period in which bidders...
AUSTIN POLICE CONTRACT: Thursday is last day for deal before impasse
AUSTIN POLICE CONTRACT: Thursday is last day for deal before impasse

Austin police and city officials are concluding negotiations today for a new employment contract that could either result in a new agreement or a possible impasse that could have serious impacts on officers and the city. The talks have spanned several months for a new contract and have ranged from friendly to contentious at times. Issues that remain...
Texas congresswoman on Weinstein: Sexual assault prevention ‘as much the woman's responsibility’
Texas congresswoman on Weinstein: Sexual assault prevention ‘as much the woman's responsibility’

U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, whose district covers part of the Dallas area, has weighed in on the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault scandal. According to reports, Johnson puts some of the onus for preventing sexual assault on female assault victims. According to Fort Worth NBC affiliate KXAS, Johnson said: The TV station reports that Johnson...
More Stories