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Scientists Use Satellites to Show How Oil and Gas Activity Causes Texas Quakes

Mose Buchele/KUT

Over the last several years, scientists, including those at the U.S. Geological Survey and the Environmental Protection Agency, have linked an increase in earthquakes in Texas to oil and gas activity. But, industry and Texas state regulators remain reluctant to publicly acknowledge it.  Now, a study that looks at the quakes from space might put more pressure on them to do so.

After a series of quakes shook the East Texas town of Timpson in 2012, research linked the quakes to the injection of oil and gas wastewater underground. But the new research looks at the region using radar images from space, and again it points to the wells – or, one well, in particular.

Using the radar, the the team partnered with NASA to investigate how wastewater injection caused the earth to rise. They used that information to estimate how it increased pressure on fault lines causing quakes.

It’s the illustration of how injection physically changes the earth that is unique to the research, and may make it more difficult for skeptics to dismiss, says Arizona State University’s Manoochehr Shirzaei. Shirzaei is part of the team that studied the quakes.

“[T]his observation helped us make a significant contribution to answering a few big questions,” he says.

Shirzaei hopes the research could help guide industry to find better locations for wastewater disposal wells to avoid causing more earthquakes in the future. He says, as the number of quakes increases in Texas, the risk of larger quakes grows.

“So, its totally expected. The hazard and the danger is real,” Shirzaei said. “We are not really exaggerating the risk associated with the big earthquake.”

Texas has lagged behind states like Oklahoma in acknowledging the risk of manmade quakes. An inquiry published last year by the state’s oil and gas regulator, the Railroad Commission of Texas, suggested there was no relation between oil and gas industry activity and a spate of earthquakes in North Texas, contrary to the findings of a peer-reviewed study out of SMU of earthquakes near Azle in 2013.

You can check out the full study below.

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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