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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.

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