Fracking Fact-Finding Mission

North Texas residents rattled by earthquakes demand answers in Austin

North Texas residents rattled by earthquakes demand answers in Austin

One North Texas mayor is on a mission to find out what is literally tearing his town apart. Beginning in November 2013, the town of Azle saw its earthquake counter jump from zero to 27 in the span of six months.

"If I could sum up our experience in one word it would be frustration," Azle mayor Alan Brundrett said at a May 12 meeting in Austin before the Energy Resources Subcommittee on Seismic Activity.

The committee, which was formed in light of the recent rash of quakes, has been tasked with determining if fracking wells impact seismic activity.

 "It is time to step up and confirm once and for all if disposal wells are causing these quakes and determine why," Azle mayor Alan Brundrett said.

"We are concerned for the safety and well-being of our community," Brundrett said, adding that the Azle school district has started conducting earthquake drills for the first time in its history.

Although the first reported earthquake in Texas occurred in 1882, seismic activity in the Lone Star State was once a rarity. Up until 2010, Texas averaged about one or two earthquakes every decade. But since 2010, there have been over 300 recorded earthquakes in the Lone Star State.

No one has definitively said if Texas' increase in hydraulic fracturing of oil wells, commonly called fracking, is to blame, but the parallel timeline has raised a number of concerns. Hydraulic fracking involves injecting the ground with a high pressure stream of water and chemicals in order to release natural gas that's deep inside the earth.

Azle is home to about 11,000 people, and the town actually has an ordinance prohibiting fracking disposal wells. But nearby towns have no such regulations, and wells just outside the Azle's city limits are free to operate.

"Texas has always been a leader in the energy field. It is now time to lead again. It is time to step up and confirm once and for all if disposal wells are causing these quakes and determine why," Brundrett said.

Linda Stokes, the mayor of nearby Reno, Texas, also demanded answers at the hearing. "The industry's right to profit doesn't suppress our right as citizens to the quality of life that we know. They do not get to move in, tear us up and shake us apart without consequences," Stokes said.

To aid in the search for definitive answers, Stokes asked that data on disposal wells be recorded daily and subject to open records requests. Currently, data on chemicals and pressure levels in the wells are compiled monthly and released annually to the Texas Railroad Commission in November. That means the data on the sudden spike in earthquakes from November 2013 won't be available until November 2014.

Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford) assured a packed crowd that their voices would be heard. "There certainly is seismic activity in the area, and it certainly is a new phenomenon."

He said the state of Texas was committed to doing "whatever is necessary" to get to the bottom of the increase in earthquakes.

"Even though it seems like a long time ago since all this started six months ago, in state bureaucracy timelines, this is really fast to get here," King said. "This is not just being brushed under the table. It is not something that we are just ignoring."

Fracking concerns have swept the state of Texas in recent years. In 2013, Dallas passed a controversial ordinance effectively banning the practice within city limits. In response, Trinity East Energy filed suit against the city in 2014 for breach of contract and fraud.

Although studies have examined fracking's impact on North Texas ozone levels and childhood cancer rates, researchers have yet to tackle the relationship between fracking and seismic activity until now.

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Two North Texas mayors spoke at a May 12 meeting in Austin about fracking concerns. Photo by Marc Katz