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Science On Oil And Gas Link To Texas Quakes 'Uncertain,' New State Seismologist Says

An oil & gas drilling rig is drilling a well for Pioneer Natural Resources in the Eagle Ford Shale formation in DeWitt County. The epicenter of today's earthquake was in Karnes County.
Eddie Seal
Texas Tribune
An oil and gas drilling rig in the Eagle Ford Shale formation in DeWitt County.

The science on whether there's a link between oil and gas activity and a surge in earthquakes in Texas isn't clear-cut, says the new seismologist for the agency that regulates the industry here.

In an interview with KUT, Aaron Velasco, a professor at the University of Texas El Paso, said he’s excited to influence policy in his new role at the Railroad Commission of Texas – and advise on an earthquake-monitoring system called TexNet.

“That’s one of the things that attracted me about doing this, is to use my expertise and to be able to contribute what I can to the state of Texas,” he said.

The Railroad Commission is responsible for tackling the increase of earthquakes linked to fossil fuel production here. But, there’s a wrinkle: The agency also acts as cheerleader for the industry, so it doesn't like to publicly acknowledge the linkbetween industry and Texas quakes.

In recent years, the Railroad Commission has created new policy to reduce earthquakes, which, for some, makes its public position of uncertainty all the more perplexing. It's a position that's at odds with most scientists, the U.S. Geological Surveythe Environmental Protection Agency and other oil-producing states like Oklahoma.

The policy has also frustrated many in quake-prone stretches of the state.

Velasco said it's well-known that injection of fluids into the earth can cause earthquakes. But when asked about Texas earthquakes and the agency's continued doubt over their cause he said the science is "uncertain."

"We’re going to ask lots of different questions and, as we move forward – especially with the advent of TexNet – I think we’ll be able to address some of these things," he said. “But right now, it is very uncertain."

Cliff Frohlich, a seismologist at UT-Austin who has published numerous studies linking Texas quakes to oil- and gas-disposal wells, has criticized the agency for its continued doubt over the link.

He said working for industry or government is different from working in an academic environment.

“Someone who works for the Railroad Commission or an oil company is representing policy for an organization rather than themselves,” he said. “And that’s going to be a different kind of job for Velasco.”

But, Frohlich said, the commission will benefit from Velasco’s expertise.

“Someone like Velasco, who reads the literature, has been familiar with it for years, is going to be hugely valuable in separating the wheat from the chaff in the research realm,” he said.

The number of quakes in Texas appears to have subsided lately. Frohlich said that's likely due to industry being more careful about injecting wastewater into the earth and the drop-off in the oil and gas industry after a downturn in 2014. 

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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