SMU researchers fail to appear at earthquake hearing

SMU scientists published research linking wastewater injection wells to earthquakes. But those scientists failed to appear at a state hearing to present their findings.

DALLAS – Earthquakes in North Texas: Who — or what — is at fault?

A new wrinkle in the debate has developed.

Earlier this year, SMU geologists established a connection between earthquakes in Azle and drilling waste injection wells.

But now, a hearing examiner at the Texas Railroad Commission — which regulates oil and gas activity in the state — says that link is not conclusive, which may be adding a new layer of uncertainty to the debate.

XTO Energy was charged with violating a new state rule governing waste water injection wells and their possible link to earthquakes in northwest Tarrant County. The examiner at a hearing in Austin two months ago had to decide if XTO's "injection well activities were likely to be or determined to be contributing to seismic activity."

SMU scientists had earlier published extensive research that concluded "wastewater injection combined with saltwater extraction from natural gas wells is the most likely cause of earthquakes" which were plaguing the Azle area from late 2013 through the spring of 2014.

XTO Energy's injection well was cited specifically in the study.

At the Railroad Commission hearing, XTO's lawyers and experts spent hours poking holes in the SMU research. SMU scientists elected not to participate in the hearing; no one showed up to defend their work.

 

On Monday, the hearing examiner ruled in XTO's favor, saying "XTO's witnesses testified to a number of shortcomings with the [SMU] study. These shortcomings ... undermined the study's conclusion."

"I think the Railroad Commission does not represent the public's interest," said oil and gas industry critic Sharon Wilson. She said she's not surprised a TRC hearing examiner would dismiss the SMU research.

"It's just the same old thing that we keep dealing with, with fracking," Wilson said. "There's this giant elephant in the room passing the gas, and they are blaming it on the dog."

XTO Energy officials declined to respond on camera, but spokeswoman Suann Guthrie issued this statement to WFAA:

"Every seismic event has its own set of circumstances, the causes vary, and we are committed to improving the understanding of seismicity." 

SMU officials also declined to comment, saying their science and published research speaks for itself.

This ruling is just a recommended final order. The three-member Railroad Commission will make the final decision.

SMU and other interested parties have 15 days to register any objections.


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