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Railroad Commission Refutes Peer-Reviewed Study Linking Quakes to Oil and Gas Industry

Eddie Seal/Texas Tribune
The Texas Railroad Commission sided with XTO Energy in an inquiry examining whether a disposal well used in fracking near the towns of Azle and Reno caused seismic activity.

An inquiry by the agency that regulates the oil and gas industry in Texas has found that oil and gas activity did not likely cause a swarm of earthquakes around the north Texas towns of Azle and Reno starting in 2013. The finding, however, flies in the face of a peer-reviewed scientific study of the quakes.

The Texas Railroad Commission is the strangely named agency that regulates the state’s oil and gas activity. The agency held a hearing in June looking at whether ExxonMobil subsidiary XTO Energy contributed to the earthquakes by pumping millions of gallons of drilling and fracking wastewater into the ground.

A peer-reviewed study out of Southern Methodist University had already found that that was “most likely” the cause, adding that industry data would be vital in widening the scope of future studies. But at the hearing, agency examiners weighed that study against the evidence put on the record. XTO was the only party that offered direct evidence, and examiners found in favor of an XTO well located near Azle and Reno.

“I feel appalled. It’s a slap in the face to every citizen of Texas, every citizen in the United States,” says Reno Mayor Lynda Stokes.

Reno was rattled by the string of earthquakes, and Stokes says the Railroad Commission is not doing its job.

“It’s on the side of industry,” she says. “It’s not there to regulate the industry, it’s there to promote the industry. It’s actually there for both, and that’s kind of like the fox watching the henhouse.”

The Railroad Commission has a staff seismologist, but he did not participate in the hearing.

In an email, a Southern Methodist University spokesperson wrote that the SMU seismology team stands by their peer-reviewed study.

Parties in the hearing have a couple weeks to object to the agency’s findings, but the only parties were XTO and the Railroad Commission itself.

The commission still needs to take final action on the case in a public meeting. Below, you can read the agency’s full order.

UPDATE: The original version of this story included Mayor Stokes' assertion that she had not been invited to the hearing. Upon reviewing her records she says she was notified, but believed the date of the meeting had been changed. 

Mose Buchele focuses on energy and environmental reporting at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele.
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