l It was an unusual day at the Railroad Commission of Texas, which of course regulates not railroads but the Oil and Gas industry. Normally, it is three commissioners, lobbyists and lawyers making decisions about enforcement cases or permits. A busload of folks from Azle and Reno and Smithville does not arrive at the front of the William Travis Building and you certainly don’t have someone sing a version of “all shook up.” But then these are not normal times for the folks from North Central Texas. Since November they have felt over 30 earthquakes — first in Azle and more recently in Reno. They believe the culprit to be vast volumes of wastewater — saltwater and associated toxics — that are being injected underground in the three-county area near Azle (Parker, Wise and Tarrant). In the meantime, countless buildings, homes and yards have been damaged. Their demands, repeated again and again by Reno Mayor Stokes and others were threefold:
- Moratorium on injection of wastewater in the area;
- Study relationship and come up with stronger regulations on injection; and
- Set up a fund to pay for all the damage.
From citizens approaching 80, to a couple of 12-year-olds, the North Texans made clear their anger at suddenly being woken up in the middle of the night. One mom said it was unacceptable for kids to grow up terrified and traumatized. Homeowners described sinkholes that had started as depressions and had grown to 12-feet holes in the ground.
The duly elected commissioners listened attentively but did not have fast action on their mind. Chairman Smitherman explained through his staff that a moratorium is beyond their authority, though they can take action on individual permits if there is evidence that they are violating their permit levels. Field operations head Ramon Fernandez said they had recently inspected 11 out of the 13 disposal wells in the area, and that only one — Finley Resources – had issues and was currently “shut-in” due to pressure in the production well.
They also let the citizens know that they had no authority to seek restitutions for damages related to the tremors and earthquakes for surface damage, though they did want to record and look at any sinkholes, which are within their jurisdiction.
So what are they doing? First, Smitherman said they were going to hire a seismologist to do an indepth study of the issue, and they were already actively collaborating with USGS and SMU on gaining a better understanding about injection, activities, the geology and in particular the Karst formations of the Ellenburger where the wastes are being injected. They would put all injection wells on a quarterly inspection regime to monitor any issues, and they would likely publish a new proposed rule on injection wells in the next few months. It should be noted that a previous version of a proposed new rule on injection wells did not require any particular seismic evaluation or monitoring, and Sierra Club will be attempting to significantly improve these outdated rules, which were developed long before thousands of wells were producing millions of gallons of produced and flowback wastewater from fracking.
Railroad Commission staff also showed some pretty detailed data on the injection wells themselves, and noted that two private wells — one owned by Exxon-Mobile subsidiary XTO Energy and one by Houston-based Enervest Ltd. — that are nearest to Azle and Reno had decreased injection of wastewater in recent months. (It should be noted that most literature does not posit a direct relationship between total volume and seismicity but rather suggest that continued injection over a long time will lead to induced seismic activity, usually with some lag time). While pinpointing seismic activity to a particular well is virtually impossible, there is no doubt that with 13 wells injecting some 10,000 acre-feet of wastewater per year within 15 miles of the two towns — not to mention within miles of the earthen dams that keep water from Eagle Mountain Lake from downstream residents (hey Fort Worth and Dallas!) — Texans have a right to be concerned and the Railroad Commission should step up their studies and regulations. In fact, one former NASA engineer in attendance noted that while it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure this out, he was in fact a rocket scientist!
Attendees streamed out of the Commission meeting, clearly disappointed with the tepid response, and headed to the Capitol, for a pizza lunch and conversation with legislative staff. In attendance were staffers from Myra Crownover, Craig Estes, Charlie Geren, Lon Burnam, Phil King, Tony Canales and several others. It should be noted that Crownover, King, Canales and Chris Paddie were all named to a special Subcommittee on Seismic Activity last week by Chairman Jim Keffer. Crownover Chief of Staff Kevin Cruser to expect some meetings in a few months, including a potential meeting up in their area. And the discussion continues… along with the earthquakes.