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Quakes and the Commission

The Dallas Morning News has published an excellent, in-depth investigative report — “Seismic Denial? Why Texas Won’t Admit Fracking Wastewater is Causing Earthquakes,” by Steve Thompson and Anna Kuchment — about the Texas Railroad Commission’s failure to recognize or address the relationship between salt water disposal wells and earthquakes in North Texas, and the industry’s influence on the process. Anyone who wants to know how the Railroad Commission really works should read this article.  In an accompanying editorial, the News said:

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 North Texas] in late 2013 and early 2014.

The editorial remarks on the substantial campaign contributions received by commissioners, all of whom are elected, from exploration companies. The Commission is under sunset review (again) this session and must be re-authorized by the Legislature next year. The editorial continues:

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.

The Sunset Commission’s recommendations on legislation re-authorizing the Railroad Commission say nothing about such reforms. In fact, the Sunset Commission even failed (again) to adopt its staff’s recommendation that the Railroad Commission’s name be changed to reflect what it actually does, over the opposition of the industry (which evidently does not want the public to know what the agency does).

A similar scenario unfolded in Oklahoma, where oil executives, including Harold Hamm, CEO of Continental Resources and on Trump’s list of candidates for Secretary of Energy, pressured Oklahoma’s regulatory authority to deny any connection between quakes and salt water disposal wells. But the shaking got to be too much in Oklahoma for even politicians to ignore, and regulators have been severely limiting injection in areas where quakes have occurred. The Texas Railroad Commission has yet to publicly admit any connection between waste water injection and earthquakes. Craig Pearson, the seismologist hired by the RRC to study the issue, told the Dallas Morning News that “There’s not been enough evidence at this point for me to make any supposition about whether earthquakes have been caused by oil and gas operations here in Texas. I do believe it’s a possibility.”

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