Preparedness & Recovery

Railroad Commission's Regulatory Failings on Earthquake Research are Stunning

Lawmakers should demand that the commission — the state's chief oil and gas regulator, with a long history of cozy ties with the industry — be restructured to put public safety ahead of industry profits.

by The Dallas Morning News / November 21, 2016
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(TNS) - Not only has the Texas Railroad Commission consistently denied man-made earthquakes in the face of compelling science, it also worked overtime to protect the oil and gas industry from accountability for its role in an earthquake swarm that rattled Azle and Reno in late 2013 and early 2014.

This revelation, disclosed this week in a Dallas Morning News investigation, should light a fire under the state Legislature in the upcoming session. Lawmakers  should demand that the commission — the state's chief oil and gas regulator, with a long history of cozy ties with the industry — be restructured to put public safety ahead of industry profits.

Dallas Morning News reporters Steve Thompson and Anna Kuchment have chronicled the coziness with a behind-the-scenes reconstruction of the Railroad Commission's probe of the Azle earthquakes. They found that commission members leaned over backward to discount compelling evidence tying injection well activity to property-damaging earthquakes in North Texas, apparently to insulate oil and gas interests from litigation and accountability.

Protecting the industry at all costs is wrongheaded and irresponsible. The Environmental Protection Agency  has criticized the Railroad Commission for failing to acknowledge the seismic threats from high-pressure wastewater disposal wells. Researchers at Southern Methodist University and the University of Texas also have pointed out this connection in pioneering research. Even the state of Oklahoma this year moved quickly to shut down 37 of the state's 3,200 active disposal wells as a precaution. 

Yet, in Texas, the Railroad Commission's response has been to shutter a few wells, reduce water pressure at others and call for more research while insisting that links between wastewater disposal wells and earthquakes are inconclusive. 

Seismic tremors sharply increased in frequency and number as injection wells in operation increased in North Texas. Our region now ranks with some parts of California and Oklahoma for most damaging earthquakes, and researchers estimate that about 87 percent of these seismic tremors are likely man-made, due to injection well activity.  Wastewater pumped into wells doubled between 2007 and 2014, and the state's average number of earthquakes rose from two per year to 12 during that time. 

The News report also points a damning finger at commission member Ryan Sitton, who has collected more than $700,000 in campaign contributions since taking office in 2015, mostly from executives of oil and gas companies. In one instance, Sitton accepted $20,000 from a CEO of a company while commissioners considered whether to hold that company responsible for the North Texas quakes. Commission member Christi Craddick also accepted campaign contributions from the industry during this review period.

The Legislature  should step in this session and erect a firewall to prevent commissioners from taking campaign contributions from companies under review.  Plus, lawmakers should restructure the commission to be solely  a cop on the beat and not an industry promoter. Otherwise, these conflicts of interest will continue to the detriment of  public safety and well-being.    

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©2016 The Dallas Morning News

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