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Texas mayor appeals for fracking data after earthquakes jolt town

Mayor, regulators ask energy companies to report on wastewater disposal daily instead of yearly

The state agency responsible for regulating the oil and gas industry in Texas has requested that fracking companies report data related to wastewater disposal wells daily — instead of yearly — after hundreds of earthquakes hit an area with no history of seismic activity, said the mayor of a small Texas town on Tuesday.

At least 300 small earthquakes have hit North Texas — home to the heavily drilled Barnett Shale region — since January, according to United States Geological Survey (USGS) data. Critics say the state has acted too slowly in investigating the unusual seismic activity and its possible links to fracking activities.

“The Texas Railroad Commission has sent a letter requesting that companies voluntarily give that information,” said Alan Brundrett, mayor of Azle, a town of about 11,000 in North Texas that has experienced unusual earthquakes.

“That’s the biggest issue, that the data is not available," Brundrett told Al Jazeera. "The one thing we’d like to see is daily reporting — then if there is seismic activity it can be linked to the disposal wells themselves.”

Brundrett said daily reports of activities including the volume of wastewater disposal as well as the pressure at which it is shot underground are necessary for scientists to be able to explain the earthquakes.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a drilling method in which large volumes of water, sand and chemicals are shot at high pressures into rock formations underground in order to free oil and gas deposits. Afterward, large volumes of wastewater are shot underground at high pressure for disposal. Texas has more than 7,500 active disposal wells.

Numerous scientific studies have linked wastewater disposal to increased seismic activity in other heavily drilled states, including Ohio and Oklahoma. Though many of these unusual earthquakes range from 1.0 to 3.0 in terms of magnitude, more recent seismic activity in heavily fracked areas has been larger.

Oklahoma experienced a 5.7 magnitude earthquake in March, which the USGS said was caused by wastewater disposal, and residents of North Texas said they are afraid they can see similarly large earthquakes in their communities in the future.

"The biggest thing is there are so many unknowns; we don't know how large of a magnitude one of these quakes can be — what happened in Oklahoma is causing a lot of fear in the community," said Sharon Wilson, an organizer for the Earthworks Oil and Gas Accountability Project and a longtime North Texas resident. “The first earthquake was back in November 2013 — and now we’ve had over 300."

In response to the recent increase in unexplained earthquakes, on Monday, Brundrett, the Azle mayor, and other officials attended the first meeting of the Texas House Subcommittee on Seismic Activity. Brundrett said the Texas Railroad Commission would not draw a link between fracking activities and earthquakes in the meeting, but promised to investigate the matter further.

Ramona Nye, who handles media relations for the Railroad Commission, told Al Jazeera in an emailed statement that the agency "does not have the jurisdictional authority to shut down an injection well based only on the presence of a nearby earthquake.

"There has been no scientific proof that a specific well or wells have caused the Azle-area earthquakes," she said, adding that the commission had hired a seismologist in April who is working to determine any links between fracking and earthquakes.

Wilson, who tuned in to the meeting from home, said she was disappointed by the Railroad Commission’s response to the community’s concerns.

“What I got out of the meeting was that they don’t know anything for sure, that they want definitive proof, and that it will be at least another year before they come to a conclusion,” said Wilson. In the meantime, residents in North Texas are preparing for more earthquakes, with some area schools beginning to carry out earthquake drills.

“Children came to the meeting also and spoke about being scared because of the earthquakes,” Wilson said.

Some cracks have developed in the floor and wall of the municipal courtroom in Reno, Texas, near Azle, and some people believe it is related to the rash of earthquakes reported in the area during the last few months.
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Wilson said the commission largely dismissed the smaller earthquakes during the meeting, saying they are not “felt” quakes. Wilson, however, said that residents of Azle contacted her after recent earthquakes, saying that pictures had been knocked off their walls and that cracks were forming in their homes’ walls, foundations and driveways.

Currently, fracking companies are required to report on the volumes and pressures of wastewater shot underground for disposal only once a year, averaging the numbers on a monthly basis. For scientists, that level of information does not enable them to link fracking wastewater disposal to the increasing earthquakes.

But in North Texas, new monitors have recently been set up to help scientists study the unusual seismic activity.

“The increase in earthquakes is not a problem unique to our area — this is something that can happen and has happened elsewhere,” Brundrett said. “But what’s unique about our circumstance is that we have more monitoring equipment on the ground than anywhere else.”

The monitoring equipment was set up in December by researchers with Southern Methodist University and the USGS, the Texas Tribune reported. That data, along with daily fracking reports by the oil and gas industry working in the area, could allow scientists to determine what is actually causing the earthquakes, and with that data the commission could be able to prevent them from happening in the future, Brundrett said.

But Wilson said she has little hope that the agency will be effective in protecting the safety of North Texas residents.

“The regulators protect the industry’s interest over the public every time.”

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