EARTHQUAKES:

Texas regulators have few answers on spate of tremors

AZLE, Texas -- State officials left few people satisfied after a sometimes-raucous meeting to discuss a string of earthquakes that have hit near this small town in the past three months.

About 850 people turned out last night for a town hall-style meeting with regulators from the Texas Railroad Commission, flanked by a state legislator and staffers.

Dozens of people quizzed the state officials about links between the earthquakes and natural gas drilling. Milton Rister, the commission's executive director, and David Porter, one of three elected commissioners, answered few questions and didn't provide any details on their plans for dealing with the quakes. The Railroad Commission, despite its name, regulates oil and gas drilling in Texas.

"The Railroad Commission is concerned and is involved, but we have to base our action on sound science and fact, not speculation that appears in some newspapers and blogs," Porter said.

Azle Mayor Alan Brundrett said the state's response reassured few people.

"You need to have some answers when you come," he said after the meeting.

Mark Riley, who as county judge is the highest elected official in Parker County, which includes part of Azle, drew applause when he urged the Railroad Commission to set a timeline for wrapping up its investigation and taking action.

Several speakers suggested shutting down the waste disposal wells that have been linked to the earthquakes, though Brundrett said that might not be feasible, since it could take months for the seismic activity to subside.

More than 20 earthquakes have struck the area around Azle since early November, starting with a magnitude-2.6 quake Nov. 6, 2013, and growing in strength to magnitude 3.6 on Nov. 20. They've been smaller since, except for another magnitude-3.6 quake Dec. 8, 2013.

No injuries were reported, and local officials say there's been no major damage, but several residents said yesterday that they had seen cracks appear or get worse in their walls and floors after earthquakes.

Researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey and Southern Methodist University began setting up equipment in early December to determine the location and cause of the activity (EnergyWire, Dec. 6, 2013).

Azle sits over the Barnett Shale natural gas field, which is home to thousands of wells. Studies in other areas have shown a correlation between earthquakes and the injection wells used to dispose of wastewater from oil and gas operations. Hydraulic fracturing -- which uses millions of gallons of water under high pressure to break up rock formations -- isn't believed to contribute to the problem, although it does create large amounts of wastewater.

There are three active injection wells in the vicinity of Azle; their owners didn't speak at the meeting yesterday.

Ramona Nye, a spokeswoman for the commission in Austin, reiterated in an email yesterday that the agency hasn't found a definitive link between injection wells and the string of earthquakes.

EnergyWire reported in December that the Railroad Commission's stance on earthquakes is at odds with the scientific community's consensus on the role of injection wells. Researchers linked waste disposal to a series of earthquakes at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal near Denver as far back as the 1960s. More recently, Ohio imposed a set of stricter new rules after a rash of quakes near Youngstown was linked to a disposal well in 2012 (EnergyWire, Dec. 18, 2013).

In Texas, three injection wells in the Dallas area have been voluntarily shut down by the operator after earthquakes nearby. Researchers have linked injection to earthquakes in the Barnett Shale in North Texas and the Haynesville Shale in East Texas.

At the meeting in Azle, residents said they were concerned about the impact of the earthquakes on their property values and by their inability to find affordable earthquake insurance.

"Who'd want to buy a house out here when you've got earthquakes happening?" Patrick Vaught, a homeowner who has lived in Azle for six years, said before the meeting started.

Other speakers talked about the impact of drilling in general, including their concerns about water use and pollution. Jim Lasater, who lives in nearby Reno, Texas, drew an ovation when he asked if the Railroad Commission can be unbiased, "since there's so much oil and gas money that goes into the campaigns of elected officials."

Lynda Stokes, the mayor of Reno, said she was impressed the state officials held the meeting.

"What they do with this information -- we'll see what happens," she said.

Reporter Mike Soraghan contributed.