State regulator unveils proposed rules on disposal wells

HOUSTON — Facing mounting concerns about ties between earthquakes and oil and gas activity, Texas regulators are proposing  new rules requiring drillers to provide more information before sinking underground wastewater storage wells.

The Texas Railroad Commission unveiled the recommendations  Tuesday after the agency, which regulates the oil and gas industry, drew criticism for its response to a rash of earthquakes in North Texas, particularly near the city of Azle, where a series of tremors have rattled the town since late 2013. Researchers at Southern Methodist University in Dallas have recorded 300 seismic events in the area,  most too small to feel.

Read more: North Texas town targeting oil industry for rash of earthquakes

After listening to Azle residents’ concerns in packed town hall meetings, the commission in January announced plans to hire an in-house seismologist to  study the quakes. Craig Pearson started April 1 and since has been working to coordinate an exchange of information among scientists, academics and oil and gas operators. Pearson developed the proposed rules.

Commission spokeswoman Ramona Nye said the proposed regulations aim to lay groundwork for some basic industry best practices. She said that while it’s not possible to predict whether a disposal well will trigger quakes, the regulations advance awareness about the potential risks  in areas where tremors have occurred.

Under proposed amendments to existing rules, drillers seeking permits for new disposal wells would have to supply historic information from the U.S. Geological Survey about nearby earthquake activity, as well as other geologic data.

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The proposal also would give the commission the authority to change, suspend or terminate a permit for a well that’s believed or known to have caused earthquakes, and it would require operators to  disclose volume and pressure details more frequently if the commission determined a need.

The commission will accept public comments on the proposal until Sept. 29, and the commission could vote on them by the end of the year, Nye said.

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“I’m curious to hear the response from the environmental groups and from the industry groups,” said State Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, a member of the House subcommittee on seismic activity. “It appears to me to make fairly common sense.”

The Texas Alliance of Energy Producers said Wednesday it supports the commission’s attempts to address public concerns while recognizing the murkiness of the science on quakes near disposal wells.

The trade group plans to weigh in on the proposals, likely asking the commission to consider adding flexibility for shallow and low-pressure wells, said John Tintera, regulatory adviser for the alliance and a former executive director of the Railroad Commission.

But an environmental group said the regulations don’t go far enough and should be strengthened.

Cyprus Reed, conservation director for the Lone Star Sierra Club, said he would like to see additional mandates requiring drillers to notify local groundwater districts about new permits and to pre-test sites to ensure stability before sinking wells.  Still, while Texas has trailed other states in adopting similar rules, Reed said he’s glad to see the commission moving on the issue.

“It’s like a 12-step program,” Reed said. “The first step is to recognize a problem. They’ve at least done that part.”

State Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton, who chairs the seismic activity subcommittee, commended the Railroad Commission for tackling the matter but withheld opinion on the proposals until an Aug. 25 public hearing when commission leaders are expected to testify about the agency’s response to earthquakes and drilling activity.

While the commission has not established a link between the disposal wells and earthquakes, the U.S. Geological Survey has noted upticks in seismic activity with increased waste water injection in Colorado, Texas, Arkansas and Ohio. It is working with other federal agencies to further study the practice.

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The North Texas quakes have been relatively small, registering less than magnitude 4, according to Southern Methodist University researchers. Scientists agree that the largest earthquakes linked to fluid injection were magnitude 5 and occurred near a Denver well in 1966, according to the  U.S. Geological Survey.

Injection wells are thought to trigger earthquakes because waste water pumped deep into the ground can pry apart subterranean faults, counteracting the naturally occurring resistance that prevents faults from slipping.