New Sensors Tracking Earthquakes Across Texas

Note: This article initially appeared in The Texas Tribune.

Three years in the past, a sequence of quakes rattled North Texas — and a few residents’ nerves.

Larry Walden, a Parker County commissioner, remembers a public assembly on the time by which residents complained about cracked homes, broken foundations and even a hen that had stopped laying eggs.

“They were minor earthquakes unless you’re in an area affected by it,” Walden mentioned. “Then it’s not minor.”

So when a state-funded analysis staff approached the county a 12 months and a half in the past about putting in a sensor to trace seismic exercise on a chunk of farmland, “we were more than happy,” Walden mentioned. Local officers have been looking forward to “some outside agency to … hopefully give us some feedback as to what was going on.”

That sensor, put in final 12 months, is only one node in a statewide community referred to as TexNet that screens quakes and tremors throughout Texas. Run out of the University of Texas at Austin’s Bureau of Economic Geology, this system was created by the Legislature and Gov. Greg Abbott in 2015 after a sequence of temblors shook the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Texas noticed an uptick in quakes beginning in 2008, and a rising physique of analysis has linked fossil gasoline actions – particularly the injection of oilfield wastewater into the bottom – to the shaking. Industry representatives and state regulators have been cautious of acknowledging a connection, arguing extra detailed info is required.

That’s the place the TexNet Seismic Monitoring program is available in. The objective is for the community of sensors, now gathering information throughout the state, to suss out the supply of the tremors.

“You have a very complex issue, and a lot of people have tried to oversimplify it,” mentioned Steve Everley, a spokesman for the industry-funded group Texans for Natural Gas. “We need to get good data; we need to have good research. This is a program that obviously leads us toward that goal.”

Peter Hennings, a analysis scientist with UT-Austin’s Bureau of Economic Geology, mentioned preliminary TexNet information exhibits “earthquakes happening in key areas in Texas that have really been known about for a few years” – primarily hubs of oil and fuel manufacturing. As this system amasses extra information, “we’ll be able to start to look at the earthquake rate and ask the question, ‘Is it increasing or decreasing in a given area?’” he mentioned. “We’re moving pretty swiftly in the direction of being able to provide answers.”

A ‘Vexed Relationship’

Scientists have lengthy established that injecting fluid deep underground – a method used to eliminate oilfield wastewater – can set off earthquakes. And in recent times, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and researchers at Texas universities have pointed to the wastewater disposal course of as a probable perpetrator behind shaking within the state.

Cliff Frohlich, a senior analysis scientist on the University of Texas at Austin who has studied seismicity for many years, mentioned “some companies in [the] industry have been very forward-looking about getting some of their best people working on this,” whereas “others have stuck their heads in the sand or been very secretive.”

The Texas Railroad Commission, the state’s oil and fuel regulator, additionally has appeared to have a “vexed relationship” with the problem, Frohlich mentioned. The fee has panned a lot of the analysis linking quakes to grease and fuel actions. But in 2014, the company authorized laws requiring disposal properly operators to submit extra geographical info and employed a workers seismologist.

“There’s been, I’d say, a difference between their sort of public face on that and their activities,” Frohlich mentioned.

The laws enable for permits to be amended or wells shut down resulting from seismicity. Since they took impact, the fee has acquired 114 disposal properly purposes in “areas of historic seismicity,” mentioned Ramona Nye, a spokeswoman for the fee, in an emailed assertion. Of these, 60 have been issued with particular circumstances, together with some associated to injection volumes and strain. Another 15 of the purposes have been returned or withdrawn.

“The commission has long recognized the possibility of induced seismicity related to fluid injection; that’s why the [commission] has in place some of the most stringent rules in the nation to address the issue,” she mentioned.

Everley, the Texans for Natural Gas spokesman, credited the Railroad Commission’s regulatory overhaul with a subsequent decline in earthquakes within the state. In a danger evaluation for 2017, the U.S. Geological Survey mentioned the chances artifical earthquake would hit Texas this 12 months had plummeted. The 12 months earlier than, the state was pegged because the third-most at-risk for them, behind solely Oklahoma and Kansas.

But Luke Metzger, the director of the advocacy group Environment Texas, mentioned that the oil and fuel – backed by authorities regulators – continues to downplay the hyperlink between quakes and disposal wells. There’s already a “body of science,” he mentioned; officers ought to now be taking steps to scale back the danger, resembling recycling fracking water as an alternative of injecting it into the bottom.

‘Better Data, Better Information’

While the Railroad Commission oversees greater than eight,000 deep disposal wells in Texas, Hennings mentioned “just a tiny number of that 8,000” have been related to earthquakes. TexNet’s function isn’t “to try to pin individual wells as problems,” he mentioned. “We’re looking at the process.”

The TexNet program’s creation in 2015 got here with a $four.5 million infusion from the state. With it, program leaders have been capable of purchase dozens of seismometers – units that monitor earthquakes – and convey on a staff of researchers to wrangle the collected information into useable perception.

Two years later, this system has positioned a grid of these sensors throughout the state. An interactive web site that went dwell in October streams information from these monitoring stations to indicate each quake with a magnitude of 1.5 or better.

Alexandros Savvaidis, a analysis scientist on the Bureau of Economic Geology, spent months assembly with landowners and scouting out attainable websites for the sensors, which observe when and the way a lot the bottom shakes.

“We had 18 stations before TexNet,” Savvaidis mentioned, referencing seismometers operated by Southern Methodist University researchers and the U.S. Geological Survey, a federal company that typically tracks earthquakes with a magnitude of two.5 and better.

“Now, in 2017, we have almost another 60” monitoring stations within the state, Savvaidis mentioned. Permanent stations are unfold evenly throughout the state like a spine, Savvaidis mentioned, whereas short-term stations have been deployed to locations that reported seismic exercise in recent times, together with the oil-rich Permian Basin.

“The new network will give us the possibility to work more on the seismicity – to have better data, better information, that will help us understand this phenomenon,” he mentioned.

Todd Staples, president of the Texas Oil & Gas Association, an commerce group, mentioned the Legislature was sensible to fund the TexNet program. Petroleum teams have additionally contributed greater than $1 million to associated analysis efforts”The information being produced is an efficient useful resource for academia and ,” Staples mentioned in an announcement. “All Texans benefit from good, science-based research.”

Frohlich mentioned seismicity analysis in Texas may be divided into two eras: pre- and post-TexNet. If this system continues to be funded, he mentioned, it’s “going to be a huge change in the way earthquake activity can be met, managed and analyzed.”

“I can’t say we’ve solved the induced earthquake problem,” he mentioned, “but we know a lot of things that we didn’t know before.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin, Southern Methodist University and the Texas Oil & Gas Association have been monetary supporters of The Texas Tribune.

This article initially appeared in The Texas Tribune at

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media group that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public coverage, politics, authorities and statewide points.

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