Earthquakes lead Texas agency to hire seismologist

AUSTIN — A key state agency announced Tuesday it is hiring a seismologist, part of an effort to tackle a sudden increase in earthquakes in areas with significant oil and gas drilling activities.

The Railroad Commission, which regulates drilling statewide, said the move came after a public meeting last week in Azle, a town frequently rattled of late by earthquakes, about 50 miles northwest of Dallas.

“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,” Commissioner David J. Porter said in a statement. “Commission rules and regulations must be based on sound science and proven facts. In order to do so, I propose the commission hire an in-house seismologist.”

The statement said an on-staff seismologist will help the commission follow new research and better coordinate scientific information with the research community. The job has been posted, and the commission says it will conduct a nationwide search before filling it.

Earthquakes are not unheard of in North Texas, though they have been reported with greater frequency as the state experiences a boom in oil and natural gas exploration. Experts aren’t sure what’s causing the spike in seismic activity, but one theory is that the shaking could be related to wastewater from oil and gas drilling that is often discarded by injecting it deep into underground wells.

Research at various drilling sites around the country has shown that wastewater injections can weaken nearby fault lines and produce quakes big enough to be felt. Drilling systems that rely on hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” can also trigger quakes, but they are typically smaller than magnitude 2.

Fracking forces millions of gallons of water, sand and other materials underground to free pockets of fossil fuels. The energy industry has repeatedly insisted that the practice is safe.