House Committee Pledges to do Very Little About ‘Frackquakes’

An oil field near Odessa, Texas.
An oil field near Odessa, Texas.

A House subcommittee formed to investigate a raft of small earthquakes in North Texas that some scientists have linked to fracking met for the first time on Monday. The four-member House Energy Resources Subcommittee on Seismic Activity gathered to take invited testimony from two mayors from the earthquake-rattled North Texas, seismologists, the staff of the Railroad Commission, representatives of environmental group and the oil and gas industry itself.

At Monday’s hearing, legislators, especially the chair of the subcommittee, state Rep. Myra Crownover (R-Denton) communicated their intent to move slowly on the issue—and if possible, to coax the industry to take corrective measures itself without getting the Legislature involved.

That may come as cold comfort to the residents of earthquake-affected areas like the towns of Azle and Reno, just northwest of Fort Worth. Citizens there have seen—or felt—at least 27 small earthquakes since November 1, some as large as a magnitude 3.6. What’s more, the frequency of the quakes appears to be increasing.

Some—including the mayors of Azle and Reno, who appeared at Monday’s committee—had hoped that the Railroad Commission would put a temporary halt to the drilling and use of wastewater disposal wells in the area. The commission has so far declined to do so. Reno Mayor Linda Stokes urged the subcommittee to “give residents the benefit of the doubt. Shut these wells down, and find a safer way to do this.”

The committee seemed willing to help facilitate research on fracking quakes—researchers from Southern Methodist University talked about the need to deploy more seismic monitoring systems to speed research. At $25,000 each, that could be a costly effort. But when it comes to potential legislative action, the committee gave few encouraging signs.

“Texas has gotten it right more than we’ve gotten it wrong,” Crownover said. “Texas always leads the way.” Regarding oil and gas companies: “It’s not economically smart to put yourself in harm’s way and do something that’s more of a risk than is prudent.”

Milton Rister, the executive director of the Railroad Commission, seemed to acknowledge that Texas hasn’t really led the way on this: Several states have put into place more solid restrictions on wastewater disposal. But it was good, Rister said, that Texas hadn’t: “Other states may be moving faster than us, but their economies are not nearly as dependent on oil and gas,” he said. It was critical not to unnecessarily restrict drilling, Rister argued, because a lot of money is at stake. Texas just needed to “get it right.”

What getting it right means in this case is not clear. Crownover stressed that the Legislature—and the Railroad Commission by extension—wouldn’t take “kneejerk action,” and only act “on sound science that’s verified and re-verified.” Since it may take many years for the science on fracking quakes to be “verified and re-verified”—even though much scientific research on the question exists already—this could be a recipe for inaction.

Crownover repeatedly appealed to the good intentions and pride of the state’s extraction industries—perhaps hoping to signal that the industry could avoid greater scrutiny from state government by improving their operations voluntarily.

“Usually, government reacts very slowly. But business has a huge incentive to act smart,” she said. “I think industry is quite willing to spend millions of dollars to find a better way. I don’t think they get any great pleasure from pumping water underground.”

Steve Brown, the Democratic candidate for the open spot on the Railroad Commission, came to observe the hearing—and he joined the Azle and Reno mayors in calling for the commission to halt operations in earthquake-prone areas.

“I’ve seen the damage that’s been done to the properties and the homes in Azle,” he said. “Some of them now have sinkholes in their backyards. They don’t want their kids playing in their backyards. They have cracks in their walls, uneven foundations.”

If we don’t know what precisely is causing the earthquakes, Brown said, all the more reason we should stop drilling in the area and take stock. Continuing with the status quo while knowing that something we’re doing is causing earthquakes, he said, is needlessly reckless.

The Railroad Commission hired its first seismologist just a few months ago, so this is still new territory for a lot of people. But folks in North Texas are looking at Austin for assistance and direction. More than a thousand Azle residents showed up at a forum held by the Railroad Commission there on January 2.

Perhaps the members of the subcommittee, especially Crownover and state Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford), shouldn’t repeatedly joke that they’re still learning how to spell “seismologist.” It may not inspire a great degree of confidence.

Christopher Hooks is a freelance journalist in Austin, where he grew up. His work has appeared in Politico Magazine, Slate, and Texas Monthly, among others. He graduated from The New School in 2012 with a bachelor's degree in history.

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Published at 9:43 am CST