The Intertubes are buzzing with news that the US Environmental Protection Agency has smacked down Texas regulators for failing to publicly acknowledge that fracking and other fossil-related activities have been linked to a spate of earthquakes, particularly in northern parts of the state. According to our friends over at The Texas Tribune, the move seems calculated toward pressuring the state to take action.
Fracking Earthquakes, A Thing Since 1951
Speaking of The Texas Tribune, let’s hear it for Trib reporter Jim Malewitz, who unearthed a link to a 1951 U.S. Geological Survey report prepared with the Department of the Interior titled, “Earthquake Hazard Associated with Deep Well Injection — a Report to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.”
That may be a bit puzzling for those of you familiar with EPA history, since the agency as we know it today wasn’t formed until 1970, but here’s the cover shot:
If you have an explanation, drop us a note in the comment thread. Meanwhile we’re going with printer’s error, as it seems that the document posted online was re-printed as recently as 1990:
Within the United States, injection of fluid into deep wells has triggered documented earthquakes in Colorado, Texas, New York, New Mexico, Nebraska, and Ohio and possibly in Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
The 1951 report also indicates that scientists have had a pretty clear understanding about that linkage for decades:
Investigations of these cases have led to some understanding of the probable physical mechanism of the triggering and of the criteria for predicting whether future earthquakes will be triggered, based on the local state of stress in the Earth’s crust, the injection pressure, and the physical and the hydrological properties of the rocks into which the fluid is being injected.
Meh, scientists — what do they know, anyways.
Texas And Fracking Earthquakes
To clarify, the 1951 report does not specifically nail fracking, the drilling method that involves getting at oil and gas deposits in shale formations by shooting vast quantities of brine underground. Although fracking has been directly linked to seismic activity in unusual cases, for the most part researchers are finding a more striking connection with the practice of disposing wastewater from oil and gas drilling operations of any type into deep wells.
Deep well disposal is what the 1951 report deals with, which makes sense historically because fracking was a relatively uncommon drilling method until the Bush Administration created a gaping loophole in federal water safety regulations. The EPA has been trying to play catch-up ever since, but without an Act of Congress the agency has had to tread carefully around the risk of lawsuits.
Meanwhile, regulatory authority has been tossed over to the states, with a predictable patchwork of results ranging from an outright fracking ban in New York State, to a wild ride in Oklahoma where hundreds of earthquakes have been giving local residents the jitters.
Last year, Oklahoma finally began acting to curb oil and gas wastewater disposal, and that may be what emboldened the EPA to light a fire under Texas regulators.
The EPA may have also decided to take the unusual step of embarrassing Texas regulators based on the findings of a US Geological Survey map of seismic activity released last spring. For the first time ever the map included human-induced hazards for the central and eastern US states as well as natural quakes nationwide. When those human-induced hazards are included, USGS concluded that “the chance of damage from all types of earthquakes is similar to that of natural earthquakes in high-hazard areas of California.”
“This research also shows that much more of the nation faces a significant chance of having damaging earthquakes over the next year, whether natural or human-induced.”
That includes Texas. While not nearly as seismically active as Oklahoma, Texas does place high in the human-induced rankings.
However, the Texas Railroad Commission (the state agency with jurisdiction over oil and gas wells) has been silent on the topic. That’s despite hiring its own staff seismologist in 2014 and requiring the industry to submit more data.
As reported by the Tribune, earlier this month the EPA evaluated the TRC’s response to seismic activity in the state and came to this conclusion:
“In light of findings from several researchers, its own analysis of some cases and the fact that earthquakes diminished in some areas following shut-in or reduced injection volume of targeted wells,” the Aug. 15 report states, “EPA believes there is a significant possibility that North Texas earthquake activity is associated with disposal wells.”
Aside from earthquake hazards, EPA also expressed concern over the potential for drinking water impacts in high-population areas:
“EPA is concerned with the level of seismic activity during 2015 in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area because of the potential to impact public health and the environment, including underground sources of drinking water,” the agency wrote.
Based on its findings, the EPA has asked the TRC to go back and do their homework, that is, to direct its staff to actually go look and see if there is any evidence linking the use of disposal wells to increased seismic activity in the state.
Image (screenshot): via US Geological Survey.