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In Focus: Measuring the Seismic Activity of Oil Field–Linked Quakes

The Law Office of C. William Smalling, P.C. Nov. 27, 2017

According to a number of scientific studies, there is a direct link between the recent wave of earthquakes throughout the state of Texas and new oil and gas-related drilling techniques such as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.”

Today, a state-funded earthquake monitoring system at the University of Texas at Austin (UT) known as TexNet is measuring and tracking seismic activity in the state, particularly in West Texas which has seen a fracking boom. TexNet relies on 22 permanent and 40 portable monitoring stations to track seismic activity. The system was set up in 2015 after lawmakers authorized state-funding.

In a recent press release, Scott W. Tinker Director of the Bureau of Economic Geology at UT said that “small earthquake events have become more common in Texas recently, and we are now positioned to learn more about them and, hopefully, to understand how to mitigate their impacts in the future.”

Where Are Earthquakes Occurring in Texas?

The UT recently made an online map available giving Texans earthquake information across the state in real time, which pinpoints the location of every earthquake with at least a 1.5-magnitude since January. Moreover, quakes that fall below that threshold are still listed in a full catalog, which can be downloaded from the site. The data shows that the towns of Pecos and Scurry have experienced numerous quakes and that there has been an overall increase in earthquakes in the Permian Basin, the Eagle Ford Shale, and Dallas-Fort Worth regions.

What Is Causing Earthquakes in Texas?

Research indicates that there is a link between oil and gas activities and the recent earthquakes in the state, and a number of studies show that there is an apparent causal relationship with fracking. While the oil and gas industry and the Texas Railroad Commission dispute these claims, the Environmental Protection Agency attributed earthquakes in North Texas to oilfield wastewater deposit wells.

Additionally, scientists from several universities believe that they have found a “definitive link” between earthquakes and the injection of wastewater from fracking, so much so that the ground in East Texas bulged due to water being pumped into the ground, triggering earthquakes.

The strongest earthquake ever recorded in Texas was a 4.0 magnitude quake near the town of Venus, south of Dallas-Fort Worth. A recent study by scientists at Southern Methodist University found that the fault triggered by the quake could produce a much larger earthquake, and that there was substantial evidence that the quake was triggered by wastewater disposal wells from oil and gas operations.

The Takeaway

Although the scientific community believes there is ample evidence of a link between oil and gas operations and earthquakes in Texas, these findings have been disputed by many in the energy industry. The question remains as to whether any legal action will arise from these studies. In any event resolving these issues requires will inevitably require the advice and counsel of experienced health, safety and environmental attorneys.