View From Above: Study Suggests Connection Between Oil & Gas Activity, Texas Quakes

Texas has lagged behind states like Oklahoma in acknowledging and regulating the risk of manmade quakes.

By Mose Buchele & Laura RiceSeptember 23, 2016 10:31 am, ,

Audio will be available shortly.

Over the last several years, scientists, including those at the U.S. Geological Survey and the Environmental Protection Agency, have linked an increase in earthquakes in Texas to oil and gas activity. But, industry and Texas state regulators remain reluctant to publicly acknowledge it. As KUT’s Mose Buchele reports, a study that looks at the quakes from space might put more pressure on them to do so.

After a series of quakes shook the East Texas town of Timpson in 2012, research linked the quakes to the injection of oil and gas wastewater underground. But Timpson’s Paula Mullins says she wasn’t completely sure.

“I don’t know if it’s oil wells or if it’s just the good Lord telling us to get ready,” she said.

The new research looks at the region using radar images from space, and again it points to the wells – or, one well, in particular.

Arizona State University’s Manoochehr Shirzaei is part of the team that studied the quakes. Using the radar they partnered with NASA to investigate how wastewater injection caused the earth to rise and estimate how it increased pressure on fault lines causing quakes. It’s that illustration of how injection physically changes the earth, that appears unique to the research, and may make it more difficult for skeptics to dismiss, he says.

“[T]his observation helped us make a significant contribution to answering a few big questions,” Shirzaei said.

Questions as to why some disposal wells cause quakes, while the vast majority do not remain, but Shirzaei hopes the research could help guide industry to find better locations for wastewater disposal wells to avoid causing more earthquakes in the future. He says, as the number of quakes increases in Texas, the risk of larger quakes grows.

“So, its totally expected. The hazard and the danger is real,” Shirzaei said. “We are not really exaggerating the risk associated with the big earthquake.”

Texas has lagged behind states like Oklahoma in acknowledging and regulating the risk of manmade quakes. An inquiry published last year by the state’s oil and gas regulator, the Railroad Commission of Texas, suggested there was no relation between oil and gas industry activity and a spate of earthquakes in North Texas, contrary to the findings of a peer-reviewed study out of SMU of earthquakes near Azle in 2013.

Mose Buchele tells the Texas Standard this satellite information has brought a lot of new information about the injection wells.

“It really seems to show how the earth is changed with injections so you can actually kind of look at this uplift – the ground rising up after wastewater is injected into the ground,” Buchele says.

But will the Railroad Commission – which has been reluctant to make a public connection – do so now?

“We’ve had the EPA and a team scientists at SMU linking again earthquakes Azle to injection, and we have also had the EPA publicly ding the Railroad Commission for its continued reluctance,” Buchele says. “So if there was a time, it might be now.”