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According to the commission’s website: “Seismic waves are continuously traversing the earth’s crust due to both natural causes and human activity. Texas has a long history of safe injection, and staff has not identified a significant correlation between faulting and injection practices.”

The Railroad Commission may not have data, but plenty of scientists do.

In fact, earthquake researchers have known since the 1940s and the construction of the Hoover Dam that human activities can cause earthquakes. More recently, the University of Texas at Austin and Southern Methodist University have studied seismic activity in North Texas, including the identification of a well near Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport that was believed to be a “plausible cause” of a rash of quakes in 2008 and 2009. According to news reports, the quakes ended after the injection well stopped operating in August 2009. (Despite common misperception, the correlation is with the disposal wells, not the actual drilling or fracking, according to UT’s Cliff Frohlich, associate director of the Institute for Geophysics.)

The Jan. 2 meeting was originally met with some optimism by residents that the wall of silence on the subject by the Railroad Commission was finally about to break. But a last-minute format change turned the forum into a “listening” session, with very limited exchange between the community and the commission.

The subsequent hiring of a seismologist suggests that Porter and others gave serious weight to the community’s concerns. For an agency that has declined to even discuss publicly the possibility of a connection between gas activities and earthquakes, the hiring of an in-house scientist to look at the evidence is a huge step forward.

Scientific discovery at its best is an objective pursuit. Even Porter’s statement on the hiring of the seismologist states: “It is imperative that the Commission remain engaged and involved in gathering more evidence and data into any possible causation between oil and gas activities and seismic events. Commission rules and regulations must be based on sound science and proven facts.”

However, the reality in Texas is that there are occasions when politics creep into the scientific process and place undue influence on well-meaning scientists or color the interpretation of findings that would normally be clear cut.

One example was at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in 2011. A Rice University professor drew headlines by accusing the commission of systematically deleting all references to climate change and sea-level rise in a report he wrote for the agency.

The Railroad Commission should take care that no such accusations can be leveled against its in-house seismologist, and it should craft the position so that he or she will be shielded from both politics and corporate influence.

That’s the sort of transparency the residents of Azle and other drilling communities will need to know that state regulators are truly looking out for their welfare. And it is the obligation of the commission to protect the public’s interests.


Longview News-Journal. Jan. 9, 2014.

Texas’ system of electric reliability a success story

It was disconcerting during this week’s bitter cold to receive news the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, was warning that conservation measures were required to prevent rolling blackouts.

Certainly it was cold, but our first thought was to wonder how one deep freeze could lead to such a warning. The next day we learned Texas had set a record for winter power usage, so perhaps the measures were understandable.

Story Continues →