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North Texans to Texas Railroad Commission: Stop the ‘Frackquakes’

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Residents of Azle and surrounding areas protest wastewater injection wells at a Texas Railroad Commission hearing in Austin.
Forrest Wilder
Residents of Azle and surrounding areas protest wastewater injection wells at a Texas Railroad Commission hearing in Austin.

The North Texas citizens at the Texas Railroad Commission hearing this morning tried to make it as simple as possible: For as long as anyone could remember, there hadn’t been earthquakes in Azle and surrounding areas. Then the fracking boom took off and the wastewater injection wells went in. Soon the earthquakes started, more than 30 in just the past few months, rattling homes and nerves. A considerable amount of research, including work by SMU scientists, links wastewater injection wells to earthquakes.

“No disrespect, but this isn’t rocket science here,” said Linda Stokes, the mayor of Reno, a small town 20 miles northwest of downtown Fort Worth. “Common sense tells you the wells are playing a big role in this.”

And just in case the rocket science theme wasn’t emphasized enough, a bona fide rocket scientist, Gale Wood of Azle, took his turn at the mic.

“It really does not take a rocket scientist to conclude that in certain geologically sensitive areas, the pumping of fluids is the probable cause of earthquakes,” Wood said. “There has been enough data collected over the last few years to support this statement.”

People in the Azle area have grown increasingly angry at the Texas Railroad Commission, which has pledged to hire a seismologist to study the issue, but has refused to shut down the suspect injection wells. Almost 1,000 people attended a raucous Jan. 2 meeting in Azle, organized by Railroad Commissioner David Porter. Residents asked the commission for a 90-day moratorium on wastewater injections in the Azle area—a call reiterated today.

Mack Smith, 72, described being woken up in the middle of the night by a recent quake and grabbing onto his bed to keep from being knocked to the floor. “Just give us some peace,” Smith said. “Stop the injection wells for a period of time.”

One advantage of a moratorium, citizens argued, would be to see if the earthquakes stop or diminish.

But commissioners, including Republican Chairman Barry Smitherman, who is running for Texas attorney general, made it clear that they have no plans to do so. Smitherman mentioned several times today that two of the suspect injection wells closest to the quake epicenter in Azle have seen reductions in the amount of fluids injected even as earthquake activity continues.

“If it had ramped up and continued to ramp up, then that might’ve been the culprit,” Smitherman said. Smitherman seemed to be suggesting that the frequency of earthquakes is linked to the rate of fluid injection. However, as NPR-StateImpact Texas has reported, the more important factor may be the cumulative total of wastewater injected.

While touting the benefits of fracking—and standing behind a weirdly technical definition of fracking to avoid making a connection between the hydraulic fracturing process and the disposal of the wastewater that results—Smitherman would promise only to study the issue more.

“We are still investigating the connection, we want to find out what the connection is, if any,” he said. “Once we find out, then we can hope to take additional steps.”

Meanwhile, folks in Azle are trying to make the best of it. One man, who described himself as “Santa Claus trying to do Elvis,” played a version of “All Shook Up”:

I’m in Azle,
I’m all shook up
My hands are shaking
And my knees are weak
My roof’s falling in and I’m doing my best
It hurts so much
It scares me to death
I’m in Azle, I’m all shook up

Plenty of his neighbors sang along today.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.

  • george the sceptical

    I’m in Midlothian.
    When West blew up it shook the house for a couple of seconds.
    Me brudder and me just looked at each other….

    Earthquake? Again?

  • Wes_Scott

    Barry Smitherman and his fellow Commissioners prove, beyond of a shadow of a doubt, that THEY are not “rocket scientists.” Apparently, they are unaware of the long term, cumulative effects of pumping millions of gallons of water under high pressure into a fault zone. Earthquakes may not start immediately after the beginning of the injection process because there is a lot of friction material between tectonic plates that is being squeezed by the natural forces of gravity and compaction, but as that friction material, which holds the plates in place, gets liquified and lubricated plates can begin to slip.

    If I start loading straw on an elephant’s back the elephant will hardly notice it, but if I continue loading straw onto its back, then eventually the elephant will note the added weight, and if I add enough straw, regardless of the rate at which the straw is added, eventually it will break the elephant’s back. Why is is so hard for Smitherman, Craddick and Porter to understand this basic scientific principle?

    Well, there are two reasons – first, they know and understand nothing about science, and second, their election campaigns are 85% funded by the very oil and gas industry that they regulate, so they are not about to allow truth and fact to get in the way of protecting the industry that funds their election campaigns. Smitherman is seeking the office of attorney general, and if his knowledge of law equals his knowledge of science, and if his legal integrity matches his scientific integrity, then he is definitely the wrong man for the job of attorney general for the State of Texas.

  • Marc

    Having attended the RCT hearing yesterday as a part of the group from Azle, Reno and Springtown who got on a bus at 4:30 AM and drove to Austin to attend the meeting where we expressed our concerns about the earthquake damage being done to the homes, municipal buildings and commercial structures in Tarrant, Parker and Wise Counties by earthquakes that never occurred until after injection well operations started in that area I was appalled to hear Barry Smitherman so callously and ignorantly brush off citizens’ concerns by saying that since less wastewater was being injected he did not believe there is a direct link between injection well operations and earthquakes, but that the RCT is going to hire a seismologist to study the issue.

    Seismologists and geological engineers at SMU, TCU, UT, Cornell, Duke and many other major universities have been studying this issue for a long time and have concluded that the most probable cause of these earthquakes is the operation of injection wells near areas with ground faults. Earthquakes occurring near DFW International Airport, Cleburne, Arkansas, southern Ohio and other places in close proximity to injection wells were closed and the earthquakes ceased immediately. That is compelling evidence that these earthquakes around northwest Fort Worth are being caused by injection wells where millions of gallons of contaminated wastewater from hydraulic fracturing operations are being pumped into the Ellenberger Formation at 15-20,000 psi. But, since the 1960, seismologists have been using injection wells to intentionally cause earthquakes in places like Colorado and California to relieve stress of tectonic plates to prevent big earthquakes, so the science to prove the relationship is already there.

    Unfortunately, the members of the Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT) are ignorant of these facts and refuse to even consider their possibility, so they are going to hire their own seismologist who will be commissioned to produce the results the RCT and its oil and gas industry sponsors desire, which is to find no link between the injection wells and earthquakes around Reno, Springtown and Azle.

    The next time you enter a voting booth and a candidate for the RCT is on the ballot you might remember that those now sitting on the Commission were elected by the voters, and if they are selling you out to the industry that is harming you and your property, then it might be time to look beyond party lines and ideology, and then vote for people who will be concerned enough about your best interest to act on your behalf rather than being bought and paid for by the offending industry.

    • http://westchestergasette.blogspot.com/ WCGasette

      The USGS says that smaller earthquakes don’t prevent big earthquakes.
      They say that is a myth. So, if we are to believe that, we all need to
      remember to check our established thinking about ALL of this at the
      door. Something that was thought to be established science 50 years ago
      is not necessarily the current science. It’s very clear that earthquakes
      are highly misunderstood and with the oil and gas industry pushing so
      hard to drill and frack…it’s clear that the misunderstandings and lack
      of studies will continue for the immediate future.

      http://earthquake.usgs.gov/learn/topics/megaqk_facts_fantasy.php

      [...]
      FACT or FICTION: You can prevent large earthquakes by making lots of small ones, or by “lubricating” the fault with water

      FICTION: Seismologists have observed that for every magnitude
      6 earthquake there are about 10 of magnitude 5, 100 of magnitude 4,
      1,000 of magnitude 3, and so forth as the events get smaller and
      smaller. This sounds like a lot of small earthquakes, but there are
      never enough small ones to eliminate the occasional large event. It
      would take 32 magnitude 5’s, 1000 magnitude 4’s, OR 32,000 magnitude 3’s
      to equal the energy of one magnitude 6 event. So, even though we always
      record many more small events than large ones, there are far too few to
      eliminate the need for the occasional large earthquake. As for
      “lubricating” faults with water or some other substance, if anything,
      this would have the opposite effect. Injecting high- pressure fluids
      deep into the ground is known to be able to trigger earthquakes—to cause
      them to occur sooner than would have been the case without the
      injection. This would be a dangerous pursuit in any populated area, as
      one might trigger a damaging earthquake.
      [...]

  • A. Zigon

    This is beyond comprehension that politicians are sticking up for big oil and gas to the detriment of every constituent that put them in office. Remember that at election time and think about the effects of these earthquakes beyond the shaking and rattling. When one of these occurs it means that new fractures are opening up underground that the energy companies have no control over and what is to stop the poison cocktail that they are pumping back into the ground from following these new cracks right into our precious dwindling water supply. Where do they get the billions with a B of gallons of water needed for each well. If they are taking our water because the politicians sold it to them instead of making sure we have potable safe water to drink and use the guys need to be run out of town now.