Nay-sayers are going to nay-say. And those who reject the possible link between wastewater wells used in oil and gas production and increased seismic activity in Texas – like the state Legislature and Railroad Commission — are among the biggest nay-sayers around. But the mounting evidence that concludes otherwise may force deniers to change their tune sooner rather than later.
On Monday, the U.S. Geological Survey issued a first-of-its-kind map forecasting an increased risk of earthquakes both from human-induced and natural causes over the next year in several states including Texas. State and oil and gas leaders should make good use of the map, perhaps as it’s intended to be used:
“This report can be used by government officials to make more informed decisions as well as emergency response personnel to assess vulnerability and provide safety information to those who are in potential danger. Engineers can use this product to evaluate earthquake safety of buildings, bridges, pipelines and other important structures.”
State leaders should take special note of the Geological Survey’s projection that human-induced earthquakes will be a greater risk than naturally-occurring earthquakes to people in Oklahoma and Texas.
No doubt the prediction leads many to once again ask: Is there a link between oil and gas production and earthquakes? It’s an important questions to ask, but it’s a question that has received conflicting answers.
Studies backed by energy industry leaders conveniently have shown no relationship. Environmental as well as third-party research, like those conducted by Southern Methodist University and the University of Texas, says the probability of a link is convincing.
The study released by SMU last year for instance, concluded oil and gas operations are causing the tremors that began rattling the North Texas towns of Azle and Reno in November 2013.
Those findings contradicted prior statements made by the Railroad Commission of Texas that no definitive links existed between oil and gas activity and earthquakes in the state. After the SMU findings were made public, the agency repeated the statement saying there was not sufficient evidence to the SMU study claims. SMU has stood by its research.
Unlike the attitude taken with previous studies that warned of potential risks, state and industry leaders would be wise to take the opportunity to use the U.S. Geological Survey forecast as a unifier that gets everyone on the same page. At stake are the rights and safety of Texans affected by the indisputable number of tremors that have occurred at an increasing rate.
One study by Federal Emergency Management Agency obtained by The Dallas Morning News last week detailed the potential damage from earthquakes of magnitude 4.8 and 5.6. The worse-case scenario predicted damage up to 80,000 buildings, levees collapsing and lead to $9.5 billion in economic losses. Yes, those are just predictions, but they outline potential dangers that should have proactive solutions in place.
Folks at the Railroad Commission aren’t the only ones unwilling to accept findings that may be unfavorable to the industry — but at least the agency doesn’t have the power to write laws. Which brings us to the biggest nay-sayer of them all: The GOP-led Texas Legislature.
Most recently, industry leaders successfully pressed state lawmakers to passed House Bill 40 into law giving the state exclusive jurisdiction to regulate oil and gas operations like drilling, fracking and well construction. The new law overturned any local attempts to ban fracking like the ordinance passed by the Denton City Council in 2014.
It’s true: Not all disposal wells prompt tremors. And no one denies that more research is needed, however, enough evidence now exists that naysayers no longer can afford to ignore such research, given the potential harm to Texas communities. It’s time for state leaders to use data, including the latest U.S. Geological Survey report to make more informed and balanced decisions.